Combined print book and e-book sales hit 942 million units in 2020 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, a 9% increase over 2019 and the most unit sales recorded in a single year by BookScan since the service was created in 2004. In a webinar held last week, Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD Books, said the gain was due to a combination of strong sales of both print and digital books.

Print sales rose 8.2% over 2019, the largest annual increase since 2005, and the print total of 751 million units sold was the highest since 2009, the year before e-books started to become a meaningful part of the book business. E-book unit sales, as measured by NPD’s PubTrack Digital service, rose 12.6% over 2019 and were at their highest level since 2015, when 208 million units were sold (e-book sales figures for November and December are projections).

McLean attributed the improvement in e-book sales to several factors, including their immediate availability when stores were locked down and people were doing lots of shopping online. Adult fiction had the largest sales increase among e-book categories, followed by adult nonfiction, and McLean said she expects digital sales to continue to do well in 2021.

An important driver of print book sales last year was the continuing increase in backlist sales, McLean said. Backlist titles accounted for 67% of all print units purchased in 2020, up from 63% the year before. In 2010, backlist accounted for only 54% of all unit sales. McLean noted that the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.

Reviewing 2020, McLean said book sales started strong before falling off immediately after the onset of the pandemic. The low point was the week of April 12 (the week after Easter), when 2020 sales were down 3.5% compared to the similar period in 2019. After that, sales rose steadily for the remainder of the year, including during the nine-week holiday period, when they were up 12% over 2019. The holiday shopping pattern was very different in 2020 compared to most years, McLean said, as more customers shopped early. Sales were also exceptionally strong after Christmas.

During the course of the year, book sales came in waves, McLean said, pointing to the big jump in juvenile nonfiction purchases soon after schools locked down in the spring, followed by increasing sales early in the summer tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as gains in adult fiction driven by summer reads. Political books did well in early fall, and the year closed with a good selection of holiday titles, plus Barack Obama’s blockbuster, A Promised Land.

Looking at 2021, McLean said some of the trends that were accelerated by the pandemic last year will continue. According to NPD’s Checkout service (which measures receipts across a wide range of retailers), online sales rose 43% in 2020. McLean believes a large portion of consumers who shopped online for the first time in 2020 will continue to shop online this year, because of its convenience and the fact that physical retailers are unlikely to fully reopen until the summer and fall. The slow vaccination rollout is also likely to cause more “upheaval” in the physical retail market, as stores that hung on through the holidays may find it difficult to bounce back. McLean sees mass market retailers, who did well with books last year, continuing to champion books—especially children’s titles.

Among the categories that BookScan predicts will do well this year are cooking and travel, the latter of which was battered in 2020 but is expected to rebound. As for sales overall, McLean said it will be a “challenge” for unit sales in 2021 to top last year’s levels. She said a better indicator of the industry’s momentum will be comparisons to the more normal year of 2019.