When sales of e-books doubled in 2011 over 2010, it seemed as if the mass market paperback format might quickly sink into oblivion. Mass market sales in 2013 were down 52% from 2010 levels, according to BookStats. While sales are down again in 2014, the decline has slowed and there are signs that sales of the format are stabilizing. In the last few weeks alone, for example, unit sales of mass market have been flat compared to the same period last year, according to Nielsen BookScan—even as e-books continue to gain ground in such mass market staples as romance.
One reason for the recent improvement has been the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has sold about 254,000 copies since its release in mass market paperback earlier this fall, despite selling in huge numbers in other formats as well. Gone Girl was cited by several houses (in addition to its publisher, Broadway Books), as well as by wholesaler ReaderLink, as proof that mass market paperbacks still fill a niche in the market. With its low price point and availability at a wide variety of outlets, mass market titles appeal to a range of readers—especially those who don’t read e-books. “There clearly is still a readership for mass market paperbacks,” said Sasha Quinton, v-p of marketing at ReaderLink, a company whose accounts include all the major mass merchandisers, as well as Walmart.
ReaderLink has banked heavily on the viability of all print formats sold through the mass merchandiser channel, having acquired parts of several other book wholesalers earlier this year. But even before the impact of those acquisitions was felt, Quinton said that net sales of the company’s top 20 bestsellers were up in the first six months of 2014 over net sales of the top 20 bestsellers in the first half of 2013. One reason for that, Quinton said, was that stores have stopped cutting back on the shelf space they allocate to books (although some space has shifted from adult to young adult and children’s). Quinton also believes that when e-book sales exploded, chain store executives overreacted to how severely the new format would cut into print sales and, by reducing shelf space for books, created something of a self-fulling prophecy. As e-book sales growth has cooled, stores have seen that print books, especially mass market paperbacks, continue to do well as impulse purchases.
Louise Burke, president and publisher of Pocket Books, agreed that sales of mass market paperbacks are stabilizing and attributed the change, in part, to publishers and accounts “feeling more confident about what is working” in the format. For Burke, certain genres and bestselling authors—like Brad Thor—“still need to be in mass market.” Liate Stehlik, senior v-p and publisher at HarperCollins’s William Morrow division, said that even though it may be the “third format” (after hardcover and digital), there is plenty of evidence that popular authors can sell in mass market paperback. Penguin Random House, the country’s largest mass market publisher, noted that many of its “marquee” authors—ranging from Nora Roberts to Lee Child—“tend to sell strongly and briskly, particularly in the mass merchandise channel,” according to a company spokesperson.
In addition to offering another platform for star authors, mass market paperbacks can serve as a way to introduce, and grow, new authors.