Print-Book Sales Tell a Good Story

Tom Gilbert

As booksellers are navigating the all-important holiday season, they have cause for optimism: While sales were off somewhat in the third quarter, the full-year outlook remains strong.

Although a Dec. 15 report from the Commerce Department showed that U.S. retail sales increased less than expected in November, those sales were offset by a buying surge in October as Americans began holiday shopping early in order to avoid product shortages later, according to The New York Times.

After posting an 18.5% increase in the first half of 2021, sales of print books declined 2% in the third quarter, compared with the same period last year, Publishers Weekly reported, citing NPD BookScan research. Despite the quarterly drop, print book sales were still up 11% in the nine months ended Oct. 2.

The third-quarter drop was expected, the report said, because the same quarter of 2020 saw a surge of adult nonfiction bestsellers, including a number of President Donald Trump-related titles — among them Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump and In the Room Where it Happened by John Bolton — and a spate of books on social justice.

For the third quarter of 2021, adult nonfiction book sales fell 7.9%, NPD BookScan data showed, but were nonetheless up 7% for the year to date. The bestselling adult nonfiction title through the first nine months of 2021 was lawyer and Fox News personality Mark Levin’s American Marxism, which sold nearly 860,000 copies.

Fiction Sales Strong

In addition, Publishers Weekly said that while nonfiction sales have declined as 2021 has progressed, fiction sales have stayed strong, even though they slowed during the third quarter. Adult fiction sales rose 26.6% through Oct. 2, compared with the nine months ended Oct. 3, 2020.

Young adult fiction sales were up 32.7% in the first nine months of the year, despite having to line up against two blockbuster bestsellers in 2020. According to NPD BookScan data, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins sold close to 1.1 million copies through the first nine months of 2020, and Midnight Sun by Twilight series writer Stephenie Meyer sold almost 985,000 copies in the same period.

This year’s young adult fiction sales were strengthened to a degree by several books touted via the TikTok subcommunity BookTok, among them They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, for which NPD BookScan reported sales of approximately 517,000 copies, as well as books linked to streaming series or films, including Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, which sold some 222,000 copies. Also, Midnight Sun continued to be popular in 2021, selling another 268,000 units thus far.

Juvenile fiction sales were up as well in the first nine months of the year, rising 11.5%, NPD reported.

Fending Off E-Books

What’s more, traditional “dead-tree” volumes are managing to hold their own despite the encroachment of e-book sales into the market over the past decade or so.

According to data from Statista’s Advertising & Media Outlook, e-book penetration still trails that of print books by a wide margin worldwide. In the United States, where e-books are more popular compared to other countries, it is estimated that 45% of the population purchased a print book last year, compared with 23% who bought an e-book.

Statista says that those findings “suggest that e-books will not be the final nail in the coffin of print books, but rather a complementary product that should ultimately benefit the publishing industry. People may grab an e-reader when they head to the beach or commute to work, but as far as actual books go, there’s nothing like the real thing.”

According to Visual Capitalist, there are many theories as to why the appeal of print books persists. It cited one European study suggesting that readers retain information better from a print book versus an e-book, and another that concluded that electronic versions haven’t managed to fully simulate the tactile experience readers find while engaging with a print book.

Positive Outlook

After the coronavirus pandemic-plagued sales results of 2020, few in the publishing industry have been willing to predict how the book business will finish 2021, which is still feeling the effects of COVID outbreaks. Statista, however, forecasts that overall U.S. book sales will generate revenue of $32.17 billion in 2021, up from $25.71 billion in 2020.

According to Publishing Perspectives, in an Aug. 30 report on industry print book sales through the first half of the year, NPD BookScan analyst Kristen McLean said that during the week ending Aug. 21, U.S. print sales were up 470,000 units over the same week in 2020.

“The market finished the week up 13% for the year-to-date on a weekly volume of 14.8 million units, which is about 1.5 million units higher than the historic average for week 33,” Publishing Perspectives quoted McLean as saying.

Like other segments of the economy, the U.S. book market is highly dependent on the holiday season, with 25% of annual print sales usually coming in the fourth quarter, according to NPD’s McLean. Unlike shoppers who wait for Black Friday or Cyber Monday, book buyers historically start showing up  in the first week of November.

McLean explained that the book market’s ability to stay above 2019 weekly volume in the current quarter will be the determining factor in how the year will finish out. Almost 173 million books were sold in November and December that year, NPD Bookscan data show.

If it stays above, we will have a strong finish,” McLean said in her Aug. 30 report. “If it drops down closer to 2019, we expect a more typical (but still good) finish — rising 2% to 3% over last year.”