With all major categories posting increases, unit sales of print books rose 8.2% in 2020 over 2019 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. For the year ended Jan. 2, 2021, units hit 750.9 million, up from 693.7 million the year before.
BookScan said the 8.2% gain was the largest annual increase since 2010. The year certainly turned out much better than many in the trade side of publishing expected in the early spring, when pandemic-induced store lockdowns and some supply chain issues caused deep concern. But a prolonged decline never came, as online sales and sales through nonbookstore outlets more than offset declines at physical bookstores.
The industry received an immediate boost in the spring when parents had to cope with remote learning as schools shut, which led to strong demand for juvenile nonfiction titles. The category finished 2020 with a 23.1% increase in print unit sales. The strongest subcategories in the year were education/reference/language, which had a 55.5% increase, and games/activities/hobbies, which rose 31.3%. Two titles had particularly outstanding years: Big Preschool Work sold nearly 790,000 copies, while Crystal Radke’s My First Learn-to-Write Workbook sold more than 703,000 copies. (For the top 25 overall print bestsellers of 2020, see p. 8)
The juvenile fiction category also had a solid year, with sales up 11%. Juvenile general fiction titles had the biggest gain, rising 17%, followed by the animals subcategory, where sales rose 16.6%. New books by popular authors topped the category list. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: Grime and Punishment sold more than 1.2 million copies, and Jeff Kinney’s newest Wimpy Kid title, The Deep End, sold about 921,000 copies.
The two YA categories both had big gains in 2020, with fiction sales rising 21.4% and nonfiction sales increasing 38.3%. Two huge titles led the increase in fiction: Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun sold 1.3 million copies, and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins sold 1.2 million copies.
In YA nonfiction, anti-racism books helped drive gains. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds was #1 on the category list, selling more than 317,000 copies, while This Book Is Anti-racist by Tiffany Jewell sold more than 76,000 copies.
Adult fiction sales rose 6% over 2019. The three top-selling titles—Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (more than 1.1 million copies sold); The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (more than 834,000 copies); and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (nearly 597,000 copies)—were released prior to 2020. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, released in January, was the top new title, selling 524,000 copies. The hottest subcategory was graphic novels, where sales rose 29%. The action/adventure subcategory had the toughest year, with units down 14.9%.
Political books and books tied to social justice topics helped to lift sales in adult nonfiction 4.8% over 2019. The category had the #1 title in the year, Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which sold more than 2.5 million print copies at outlets that report to BookScan. The category had two other million-copy sellers: Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump (1.2 million copies sold) and Glennon Doyle’s Untamed (1.0 million copies). The top title on race relations was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which sold 867,000 copies.
The travel book subcategory had a severe decline last year, with units plunging 40.3% compared to 2019.