In what is perhaps the biggest surprise in publishing since the Covid-19 pandemic began roiling the U.S. economy this spring, unit sales of print books in the first half of 2020 were up 2.8% over the same period in 2019 at outlets the report to NPD BookScan. The number of copies sold was 322.1 million in the first six months, up from 313.5 million in the first half of last year.

The increase was led by a combination of children’s nonfiction books that are helping parents educate and entertain their children while schools are shut down and books on race relations and social justice, whose sales have surged following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in late May. The juvenile nonfiction segment had the biggest gain, with units jumping 25.5% over 2019. The leader in the category was My First Learn-to-Write Workbook by Crystal Radke, which sold more than 379,000 copies, placing the $8.99 title in ninth place on the overall bestseller list for the first half of the year. The strongest subcategories within the category were education/reference/language, which had a 64.6% jump, and games/activities/hobbies, where unit sales increased 41.2%

The juvenile fiction category had a 7.1% rise in unit sales, led by better than 11% increases in the classics and social situations/family/health subcategories. Fetch-22(Dog Man # 8) by Dav Pilkey was the #1 title in the category, with copies sold topping 402,000.

The YA fiction category had a solid performance in the first six months thanks in part to Suzanne Collins’s prequel to her Hunger Games trilogy, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which sold more than 887,000 copies, making it the top book in the first half of 2020. (More six-month bestsellers will be featured in next week’s issue.)

After posting soft sales for the past several years, the adult fiction category had a 2.9% increase in the first six months of 2020, as booksellers reported more people looking for titles that provide an escape from the drumbeat of coronavirus news. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, released in August 2018, was the most popular novel in the first half of this year, selling more than 714,000 copies. The top new release was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, which sold more than 362,000 copies. The best-performing subcategories were graphic novels and general fiction, where unit sales rose 10.3% and 8.2%, respectively.

Sales of adult nonfiction fell 3.4% in the first half of 2020, as a 42% plunge in travel titles paired with double-digit declines in the business/economics, health/fitness/medicine/sports, computers, and religion subcategories offset a 30.8% increase in crafts/hobbies/antiques/games and solid performances in cooking/entertainment (up 11.9%) and general nonfiction (up 9.9%). The category as a whole benefitted from strong sales of two new titles: Magnolia Table, Vol. 2 by Joanna Gaines and The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton, which sold about 530,000 and 516,000 copies, respectively. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, published in 2018, sold more than 487,000 copies.

It is not clear how the six-month unit gain will be reflected in industrywide dollar sales. (The AAP said that sales from the companies that report results to its StatShot program were down 0.7% through April; see p.10.) BookScan largely reflects sales of trade and professional books; it does not include textbooks, whose sales have suffered from schools closing. The mix of titles could also impact dollar totals, as many of the bestselling activity books have relatively low prices. And though e-book sales are believed to have increased in the second quarter over 2019, it is not clear by how much. What is known, though, is that sales in the first half of 2020 could have been much worse.