Books are one of the first entertainment technologies—and one whose fundamentals are essentially the same since Gutenberg rolled out movable type to revolutionize printing in 1440. Given the stability of the format, it’s amazing just how much there is still to talk about, and how vital book publishing remains even as many newer technologies have come along.
Last year is a prime example, as unit sales of print books were the highest ever recorded by NPD BookScan since our current method of collecting data began in 2004. Led by growth in adult fiction, annual print volume in the U.S. reached 826.6 million units, rising 9% over the prior year. It’s the first time annual sales volume exceeded 800 million units.
As it happens, the period since 2004 has been a particularly interesting time to track books. At NPD we’ve seen the rise of online retailing, the introduction of e-books, and the perseverance of traditional bookselling in an increasingly digital world. Now we’re watching the publishing industry sands shift with new innovations as streaming video platforms, next-gen celebrity book clubs, and new social media phenomena like #BookTok continue to blaze new paths for reading and learning about books.
Initial worries that technology shifts would hurt the book market were unfounded; all of this change has helped the industry grow. Back in 2004, BookScan included data from just 638 retailers. Today we are tracking sales from 1,300 retailers in more than 16,000 retail locations, including many online retail storefronts. Last year, more than 5,000 users ran nearly one million reports in NPD BookScan, which averages out to 2,740 reports a day. The industry is working faster and smarter than ever before.
The market evolves
That is not to say these changes haven’t affected publishing in important ways. Take backlist, for instance. In 2004, book sales were evenly split between backlist and frontlist titles. That ratio stayed relatively constant until 2009, when backlist really started taking share from frontlist, to the point where frontlist now makes up one out of every three books sold.
The rise in online buying is one factor behind this trend. As online shopping has increased, backlist book sales have also increased. The algorithms used by online platforms tend to favor what is already selling, which makes it much harder to discover new titles organically. The online shopping experience also exposes buyers to fewer titles than they would see in a physical bookstore, which further limits choices.
For now, we are watching closely to see if this trend will hold. After all, there are millions of wonderful backlist books in print, and they are profitable for publishers. From the consumer’s point of view, this shift is not necessarily a problem. However, publishers will have to adjust their strategies for this latest market evolution.
Looking to the future
Here’s what we’re keeping a close eye on:
• Over the next 12 to 24 months, sales will remain strong. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent at home and the amount of buying and reading in the U.S. As long as Covid-19 keeps us closer to home, book engagement will remain strong.
• Physical stores will be vital. As the U.S. transitions from a pandemic to an endemic, people will seek out safe, affordable occasions. Shopping for books in a physical store delivers a pleasurable experience that readers have missed. At the same time, many book retailers have used the pandemic to retool and develop fresh approaches to their businesses.
• Content will cross boundaries like never before. Books will both drive and benefit from an expansive content multiverse with fewer geographic and format limitations.
• Supply chain disruptions will continue. Continuing shortages, skyrocketing logistics costs, and competition for limited printing capacity will likely lead to higher cover prices. However, these problems could also spark unexpected windfalls, like a higher level of digital adoption, a rise in library circulation, an uptick in the used-book market, and growth in North American printing capacity.
Exciting times ahead
The U.S. book market is stable and resilient. The past two years have shown us that books are more essential than ever. They are one of very few products that are simultaneously inspirational, educational, and provocative. I have no doubt that books and the U.S. publishing market will remain a vital entertainment platform for centuries to come, and the industry will continue to evolve to meet the exciting consumer future. Great storytelling will never go out of style.
Frontlist/Backlist Market Share, 2004–2021
Print vs. E-book Sales, 2004–2021
Kristen McLean is executive director and books industry analyst at the NPD Book Group.
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