Books are one of the first entertainment technologies — and one whose fundamentals are essentially the same since Gutenberg rolled out moving fonts in 1440 to revolutionize printing. Given the stability of the format, it’s amazing how much there is still to talk about, and how important book publishing remains, even though many newer technologies have come along.
Last year is an excellent example, as unit sales of printed books were the highest ever recorded by NPD BookScan since our current method of collecting data began in 2004. Led by growth in adult fiction, the annual print volume in the US reached 826.6 million units, up 9% from the previous year. This is the first time that the annual sales volume exceeds 800 million units.
As it happens, the period since 2004 has been a particularly interesting time to locate books. At NPD, we have seen the rise of online retail, the introduction of e-books, and the persistence of traditional book sales in an increasingly digital world. Now we’re watching the publishing industry move with new innovations as streaming video platforms, next generation celebrity book clubs and new social media phenomena like #BookTok continue to pave new paths for reading and learning about books.
Initial concerns that technology shifts would harm the book market were unfounded; all of this change has helped the industry grow. Back in 2004, BookScan included data from just 638 retailers. Today, we track sales of 1,300 retailers in more than 16,000 retail locations, including many online retail stores. Last year, more than 5,000 users submitted nearly one million reports in NPD BookScan, averaging 2,740 reports per day. The industry is working faster and smarter than ever before.
The market develops
This is not to say that these changes did not affect publishing in important ways. Take for example back list. In 2004, book sales were evenly distributed between back cover and front cover titles. That ratio remained relatively constant until 2009, when backlinks really began to take part in frontlists, to the point where frontlists now make up one in three books sold.
The increase in online purchases is one factor behind this trend. As online shopping increased, so did book sales. The algorithms used by online platforms tend to favor those that are already selling, making it much more difficult to discover new titles organically. The online shopping experience also exposes buyers to fewer titles than they would see in a physical bookstore, further limiting choices.
For now, we’re watching closely to see if this trend will hold. After all, there are millions of amazing books on the background list in print, and it’s profitable for publishers. From the consumer’s point of view, this shift is not necessarily a problem. However, publishers will need to adjust their strategies for this latest market evolution.
Looking to the future
Here’s what we’re watching closely:
• Over the next 12 to 24 months, sales will remain strong. There is a direct link between the amount of time spent at home and the amount of buying and reading in the US As long as Covid-19 keeps us closer to home, book engagement will remain strong.
• Physical stores will be essential. As the U.S. transitions from a pandemic to an endemic one, people will look for safe, affordable opportunities. Shopping for books in a physical store delivers a pleasurable experience that readers have missed. At the same time, many booksellers have used the pandemic to develop and develop new approaches to their businesses.
• Content will cross boundaries like never before. Books will both drive and benefit from an extensive content multiverse with fewer geographical and format limitations.
• Interruptions in the supply chain will continue. Continued shortages, rising logistics costs and competition for limited printing capacity are likely to lead to higher cover prices. However, these problems can also cause unexpected windfalls, such as a higher level of digital acceptance, an increase in library circulation, an increase in the market for used books and growth in North American printing capacity.
Exciting times ahead
The US book market is stable and resilient. Over the past two years, we have shown that books are more essential than ever. They are one of very few products that are inspiring, educational and challenging at the same time. I have no doubt that books and the US publishing market will remain a major entertainment platform for centuries to come, and the industry will continue to evolve to meet the exciting consumer future. Good storytelling will never go out of style.
Front / Back List Market Share, 2004–2021
Pressure Vs. e-book sales, 2004–2021
Kristen McLean is executive director and analyst of the book industry at the NPD Book Group.
Below more about a quarter century of book sales.
25 years of best-selling authors and books
James Patterson and the Harry Potter series were two of the most dominant forces in books over the past 25 years, as our analysis of the 2004–2021 bestseller list shows.
Best-Selling Authors, 2004–2021
Based on total copies sold, the prolific James Patterson has taken the best-selling author crown of the past 17 years,
A version of this article appeared in the 04/19/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the heading: Book sales in the US are stronger than ever