After increasing 8% in 2020 and 9% in 2021, it is unlikely that unit sales of print books will grow again in 2022, said Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst for NPD/BookScan Books Group in a January 26 webinar.
McLean explained that the back-to-back large sales gains in 2020 and 2021 were unprecedented in BookScan’s 18-year history and were fueled by unique circumstances related to the pandemic and the growth in interest in social justice titles after the murder of George Floyd. She doesn’t think print sales “will fall off a cliff” in 2022, but she noted that the industry should be prepared for negative sales figures in the first and second quarters of 2022 compared to the same periods in 2021. In early 2021, the industry benefitted from ongoing lockdowns, which kept people indoors and reading, as well as the arrival of child tax credit checks that spurred spending.
McLean thinks print unit sales in 2022 will fall below 2021 levels but above those of 2019, and possibly even above those of 2020. Among the challenges she sees ahead this year is the likelihood of price increases for books due to higher manufacturing and shipping costs. She noted that the industry will need to monitor consumers’ reaction to any increases carefully. Publishers and other industry members will also continue to contend with supply chain problems, as shortages of paper, packaging materials, and printing capacity are likely to persist throughout the year.
Those factors, as well as the possible easing of pandemic restrictions, may lead to more changes in consumer behavior in 2022, McLean said. For one thing, she believes customer traffic will increase in bricks-and-mortar stores, and that retailers, through changes in store layouts and marketing, are well positioned to take advantage of the higher traffic. In addition, growing concern about climate change and sustainability could lead consumers to limit their online buying, since direct sales involve lots of packaging. And while online book sales have jumped since the pandemic began, McLean believes the online channel’s market share of book sales could decline in 2022 as people return to stores.
McLean also thinks that if some books become hard to find this year due to supply chain problems, the industry could see increased e-book and used book sales, as well as increased library borrowing.
There were a number of positive trends in 2021 that should continue into 2022, according to McLean, including the impact of BookTok in driving sales. She noted that a group of 80 authors that BookScan identified as having large BookTok followings saw sales more than double last year, from a total of nine million copies sold in 2020 to 20 million in 2021. She said BookTok has been embraced by the industry and that its recommendations are being amplified by retailers such as Barnes & Noble, and she expects to see the platform continue to drive sales.
All of the books tagged by the BookTok community last year were backlist titles, and their popularity helped backlist’s market share of unit sales rise from 67% in 2020 to 68% in 2021. McLean noted that backlist’s share of unit sales has steadily risen since 2004, when it accounted for only 51% of print units sold. She added that while there is nothing wrong with strong backlist sales, their growth is putting pressure on publishing’s frontlist business model and that it’s worth watching whether frontlist can regain some market share or whether backlist dominance is the “new normal.”
In addition to BookTok, another trend that should continue into 2022 is the popularity of manga. Sales of manga soared 126% last year, and McLean said the format has moved from niche to mainstream. Sales of manga benefitted from the popularity of shows appearing on streaming services, with seven of the top eight bestselling series having a corresponding anime series streaming on a major platform. According to McLean, manga attracts younger and new readers and reflects the growth of interest in entertainment from Asia, which is likely to continue.
Note: This chart includes overall print unit sales for a group of 80 authors that BookScan has identified as having large followings on BookTok.