Unit sales of print books rose a remarkable 29.2% in the first quarter of 2021 over the same period in 2020 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Though some of that gain was due to the slump in sales that occurred in mid-March last year, most of the increase was due to the surge in book buying that began last spring and carried over into 2021. All six major categories tracked by BookScan had double-digit increases, and all four print formats posted gains.
Units rose 24.6% in adult nonfiction, the industry’s largest category. Sales in the home and gardening subcategory, which began to take off late last April, remained strong into the first quarter of 2021, up 54.1% in the period. Sales of general nonfiction increased 44.7%, while sales in the self-help and biography/autobiography/memoir areas rose 38.8% and 35.7%, respectively. The long-awaited revival in travel books has not arrived yet, with unit sales down nearly 25%.
Print sales of adult fiction increased 34.7% in the quarter. Graphic novels led the way, with sales soaring almost 146%. Big gains were also seen in fantasy (up 48.4%), science fiction (40.6%), and romance (29.9%).
Sales in the juvenile fiction category jumped 39.6%. The smallest increase was in the SF/fantasy/magic subcategory, where units still rose 20.7%. The largest gain came in animal books, with print units jumping 64.7%.
The juvenile nonfiction category—the first segment to show big sales gains last year as parents flocked to buy educational materials for children who were stuck at home after schools closed—had a relatively modest 11.7% increase in the first quarter. Unit sales fell in two of last year’s most popular nonfiction subject areas: sales of education/reference/language books declined 15.6%, and sales of games/activities/hobbies titles slipped 2.3%. All other subcategories within juvenile nonfiction were still posting better-than-double-digit increases through the end of March, led by biographies/autobiographies, where sales were up 40.1%.
In young adult, fiction sales jumped 62.8% and nonfiction rose 42.9%. Two backlist books led the gains in YA fiction: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart sold more than 155,000 copies and Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End sold over 140,000 copies.
The top sellers
While backlist sales remained strong in the quarter, two new releases took the top spots: Dav Pilkey’s Mothering Heights (Dog Man #10) was #1, selling more than 411,000 copies in just two weeks on sale, and Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, published in early February, sold almost 390,000 print copies. A third new title that cracked the top 10 list was Sanjay Gupta’s Keep Sharp, which sold more than 245,000 copies.
In addition to the strong showing by the new Dog Man book, the juvenile fiction segment benefited from higher than usual sales of Dr. Seuss titles, with four in the top 10. Interest in Seuss books rose this winter when Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees the author’s estate, said it would stop printing six books written between 1937 and 1976 because of concerns that the titles portrayed people in hurtful ways. (None of the six have had meaningful sales in years.)
The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman, published March 30, was the #12 title in the quarter, selling about 214,000 copies in its first week. Gorman read the poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.