Earlier this month, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster all reported sales gains in the first quarter of 2022 over the same period last year, but predictions for the remainder of the year were muted. Publishing executives, or executives at their parent companies, said higher costs are likely to squeeze profits, and sales are expected to be flat or post small gains. Executives at Harper-

Collins parent company News Corp said that while sales in 2022 will show little or no growth, they will still be above those of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year—a line that’s increasingly being used in publishing circles. News CEO Robert Thomson said that though growth will slow, he expects sales to be “significantly higher” than before the pandemic, and CFO Susan Panuccio said that though earnings fell at HC in the first quarter, “consumption levels” remain higher than they were in 2019.

That is a theme NPD BookScan has been pointing to since the beginning of 2022. Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst for NPD/BookScan Books Group, predicted in January that unit sales of print books will likely fall this year compared to 2021, when they were about 827 million at outlets that report to BookScan. McLean said she expects unit sales to be above those of 2019 (700 million units), and possibly even with 2020 (757 million units). For the year to date through May 7, print unit sales reported to BookScan were down 6.4% (35 million units) from the comparable period last year but were 16% higher than in 2019.

Discussion with a number of independent publishers also revealed that owners and managers tend to be budgeting for flat or declining sales compared to what was for many a record 2021. As has been true since the pandemic started, market conditions are in flux. Inflation, for one, could cut into consumers’ discretionary spending while causing publishers to raise prices on some books, which will likely cut into unit sales if not dollar sales. In prepared remarks accompanying the release of Educational Development Corp.’s fiscal 2022 results, CEO Craig White made just that point, observing that higher gas and food prices have historically had a short-term negative impact on company sales, and, as such, EDC has a conservative outlook for the current fiscal year.

Consumer cutbacks were not reflected in AAP’s monthly StatShot sales report for the first two months of 2022, which showed total trade sales up 7.6% at reporting companies. Adult sales rose 3.6% over 2021, while children’s/YA sales increased 17.9%. The increase was led by print gains, as e-book and downloadable audio sales were down in the children’s/YA category, while on the adult side e-book sales fell 7.4% and downloadable audio had only a 2.8% sales increase.

Bookstore sales are also being analyzed on a 2022 vs. 2021 basis, as well as a 2022 vs. 2019 basis. While sales in the first quarter were above those of 2021, they were down compared to 2019. In preliminary estimates released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, first-quarter bookstore sales saw an increase of 16% over the first quarter of 2021, rising to $1.99 billion from $1.71 billion. Compared to the first quarter of 2019, however, sales declined 8.5%, and it is not clear if bookstore sales will return to 2019 levels.

One thing that has kept book sales down is the lackluster performance of frontlist titles. According to BookScan, backlist accounted for 68% of unit sales in 2021, a record high. Through early May, frontlist sales were down almost 11% from the comparable period in 2021, while backlist sales were off about 4%. Earlier this year, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt said what the market could really use is a big new book to get customers back into stores, but so far no surprise hit has emerged. The top print book published in 2022 to date is Run, Rose, Run by James Patterson and Dolly Parton, which has sold just under 350,000 copies since its March 7 release. Reminders of Him by Colleen Hoover is the #2 new book this year, with about 312,000 copies sold. Hoover has, of course, racked up huge BookTok-driven backlist sales for It Ends with Us (the overall top-selling book of the year to date, with about 512,000 copies sold), Verity (429,000 copies sold), and Ugly Love (280,000 copies sold).