Since physical retailers started seeing a rebound in business after the plunge in sales in the early days of the pandemic, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt has often said that stores in urban areas are having the toughest time recovering. It turns out B&N is not alone in that regard. Kristen McLean, executive director of business development and industry analyst for NPD Books & Entertainment, noted that sales in most retail segments in big cities are having a difficult time making up the ground lost since 2019. Looking at books in particular, eight of the country’s 10 biggest book markets have seen their sales performances this year through May 14 trail the 15% increase in the overall market compared to the similar period in 2019, while many midsize markets have seen substantial gains, according to BookScan data.
BookScan analyzed print unit sales from two vantage points: actual changes in sales in 2022 vs. 2019, and how sales in different DMAs (designated market areas) in 2022 vs. 2019 compare to the 15% increase posted by the overall market. Thus, sales in the New York metropolitan region, the country’s largest book market, rose about 1% this year over 2019, a growth rate that trailed the overall 15% increase by about 14 percentage points. On the other hand, Portland, Maine, saw sales increase 37% this year compared to 2019, 22 percentage points above the market average.
The weak performance by New York meant its market share of book sales fell from almost 7% in the 2019 period to about 6.1% in 2022. Portland’s share, meanwhile, inched up to 0.5% in 2022 from 0.4% in 2019. Overall, the 10 largest book markets accounted for about 31% of total book sales through early May, down from just over 34% in the comparable period in 2019.
McLean said that while at first NPD thought the slow recovery in the major markets was tied to stricter retail lockdowns implemented there, it has since become clear that the biggest factor is the migration of people away from big cities. She noted that each area has a specific cause for the soft recovery in book sales. For example, she explained that in the Boston area—where sales were up only 5% (10 points below the industry increase)—the slower growth was due to the switch to remote learning at the city’s many universities, as well as office closures that allowed employees to move to less expensive areas—such as nearby Portland. A similar trend can be seen in Northern California, where the San Francisco Bay Area was the only DMA to have a decline in sales in 2022 vs. 2019, while nearby (about 200 miles away) and less expensive Fresno/Visalia saw book sales increase by more than 16 percentage points over the industry average.
It is also worth noting that the two major book markets that had the best sales performances in 2022 vs. 2019—Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta—have been popular destinations for people leaving older metropolitan areas. And people, and book buyers, are moving to cities that up until now have ranked outside the top 100 BookScan DMAs. That growth is seen in the “other” line, where 2022 print sales were up 26% over 2019.
McLean noted that the migration away from big cities had started before Covid but was accelerated by the pandemic. Research shows book buyers are more likely to come from middle- and upper-class households, she added, and these are also the workers most likely to have the opportunity and means to migrate. The migration trend raises a number of questions for McLean about the book market, such as how indie bookstores in some of the outlying areas may benefit from the shift and how publishers should adapt their marketing and sales efforts.