Print sales are off to a slow start in 2019, according to NPD BookScan data. Through February 2, units were down 5.9% compared to the first four weeks in 2018. The decline doesn’t come as a total surprise. The industry knew it was facing a difficult comparison with last January, when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury sold almost 800,000 print copies. The top seller so far in 2019 is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which has sold 310,000 copies.
The popularity of Fire, as well as a number of other Trump-related titles, helped lift unit sales in the adult nonfiction category 4.9% in 2018 over 2017, but there are early signs that the fascination with all things Trump may be weakening. The first new Trump-related titles that have received heavy media coverage this year, Team of Vipers by Cliff Sims and Let Me Finish by Chris Christie, sold 15,000 and 13,000 copies, respectively, in their first week on sale, a far cry from the 197,000 copies Fire and Fury sold in its first week last year (it sold 326,000 copies in its second week). There are still a plethora of books about Trump and his administration to come, so it is possible that interest, and sales, could once again spike this year, but it seems clear that such a spike would require a book from someone who was deep inside Trump’s circle. With unit sales of political books falling 40% in January from a year ago, January sales of adult nonfiction overall were down 5.8%.
Unit sales dropped even more in adult fiction than in nonfiction in January, falling 8.7%. The decline in fiction sales is a little tougher to explain than the fall in nonfiction sales, since the beginning of 2018 had no blockbuster novel comparable to Fire on the nonfiction side. The top seller in adult fiction last January was No Middle Name by Lee Child, which sold about 81,000 copies in the month, while the January 2019 #1 adult fiction seller was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which has sold 79,000 copies. The five biggest sellers last January in adult fiction sold about 302,000 copies—roughly 6% more than the five top titles this January.
One likely cause of the decline in both fiction and nonfiction sales is the lack of printing capacity: publishers are using January to catch up on reprints of midlist and backlist titles that were delayed in order to meet demand for hot frontlist titles over the holidays.. One source in the printing business said most printers are still very busy, due in part to consolidation in the sector. (An analysis by NPD showed that sales of the top 100 books were much higher in the 2018 holiday season than in 2017, but sales were way off for other titles.)
Another factor in the decline in adult fiction sales is almost certainly the softness traditional publishers are seeing in genre fiction, which is primarily released in mass market paperback—a format that saw units fall 14.1% in January. Consumers are moving more of their genre fiction buying to low-priced e-books published via Kindle Direct Publishing, whose sales are not counted by BookScan.
Total Unit Sales of Print Books, January 2018–2019
|Young Adult Fiction||1,388||1,344||-2.8%|
|Young Adult Nonfiction||137||153||11.8%|
|Mass Market Paperback||3,892||3,311||-14.1%|