In the first half of 2020, unit sales of print books surprised many in the industry by posting a 2.9% increase over the same period in 2019 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, overcoming a slump in sales in early spring following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Print sales finished 2020 up 8.2% over 2019, and that strong performance continued into 2021, with units jumping 18.5% in the first six months over the comparable period in 2020. With the exception of the juvenile nonfiction category, all the major publishing categories had double-digit sales increases in the first half of the year. Backlist had the strongest gains, up 21.4%, but frontlist sales were also solid, rising 12.4%.
The increase in the first half of 2021 was led by the adult fiction category, where units rose 30.7%. The top seller in the category was Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, which sold more than 558,000 copies since its release in early February (see “2021 Bestselling Print Books [So Far],” p. 6). The other top sellers in adult fiction were a mix of new releases and backlist titles. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens took two spots on the category bestseller list: the trade paperback edition sold more than 294,000 copies following its publication at the end of March, while the hardcover edition was #20, selling nearly 151,000 copies.
The big story in adult fiction was the strength of the graphic novel format. Unit sales soared 178.5% in the first half of the year, rising to 16.2 million copies sold, making graphic novels the second-largest adult fiction subcategory. Graphic novels made up nearly 20% of adult fiction unit sales in the first six months of 2021, compared to 9.3% last year.
Viz Media was one of the big beneficiaries of the graphic novel boom. Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia, Vol. 26 was the top adult graphic novel in the first half of the year, selling more than 90,000 copies. Other volumes in the Academia line also sold well, including volume two (about 82,000 copies sold) and volume one (81,000 copies). Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Taiba, Vol. 1 by Koyoharu Gotouge, also published by Viz, sold more than 82,000 copies. A title published by a company other than Viz, Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 by Hajime Isayama, published by Kodansha, sold nearly 88,000 copies.
YA fiction sales had the largest gain among all the major categories in the first half of 2021, with units up 48.8%. The jump came despite tough comparisons to the first half of 2020, when Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, sold more than 887,000 copies, making it the bestselling book in the period. This year’s top-title in the category was They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, which sold nearly 331,000 copies. First published in December 2018, They Both Die was propelled up the charts by exposure on BookTok, a forum that lifted sales of a number of YA titles this year.
Juvenile fiction sales rose 17.8% in the first six months of 2021, and the category had the most popular book in the period. Mothering Heights (Dog Man #10) by Dav Pilkey sold more than 867,000 copies, and Pilkey’s Cat Kid Comic Club sold almost 370,000 copies.
Adult nonfiction unit sales rose 15.6% in the first half of the year, driven by increases across most subcategories. Sales of self-help books had the largest gain, up 32.1%, followed by business and economics books, up 24%, and home and gardening and general nonfiction, which both had increases of just over 22%. Only two areas had sales declines: humor, where sales fell 17.4%, and crafts/hobbies/antiques/games, where sales dipped 1.2%. The #1 title in the category was The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman, the book version of the poem she read at President Biden’s inauguration, which sold more than 455,000 copies.
In the first six months of 2020, the juvenile nonfiction category had the strongest sales gain over the first half of 2019, with print units up 25.5%, as demand for books geared toward helping parents educate and entertain their children at home soared. Sales in the category were expected to decline this year, but the drop has been mild, with sales down 3.2% compared to the first half of 2020 (and sales are up substantially from the 27.5 million copies sold in the first half of 2019). Sales of education/reference/language books, the second-largest subcategory within juvenile nonfiction, fell the most, down 26.5%. Sales of social history/sports/people/places titles, the largest juvenile nonfiction subcategory, rose 2.7%. The biggest gain came in social situations/family/health titles, where sales increased 46.2%.
Unit sales throughout the first half of 2021 have shown continuous weekly increases compared to 2020, but sales gains have become smaller. In the first quarter, sales of print books were up 29% over the first quarter of 2020, a margin that has shrunk in the second quarter to about 8%. Some publishers have expressed concern over how the balance of 2021 will play out, as reading and book buying face more competition from forms of entertainment that were unavailable during Covid lockdowns. Others are betting that the rise in reading will remain for some period of time. There are still six months left to see who is right.