Adult fiction has been publishing’s steadiest-selling category for the past 18 months. Unit sales of print adult fiction books were up 8.5% in 2022 over 2021 at outlets that report to Circana BookScan, making it the only category to post an increase last year. In the first six months of 2023, adult fiction was once again the only category to register an increase, with sales up 4.2%. The biggest driver of those gains, of course, has been books that have the backing of BookTok.
But a new analysis by BookScan shows that BookTok’s effect on sales is diminishing. The most notable sign of that softening came in July, when, for the first time, sales from the roughly 180 BookTok authors BookScan follows fell compared to the prior year. The 4.5% July sales dip means that year-to-date sales, which had been up by as much as 38% through May, were up 23% through July. (Total adult fiction unit sales have fallen every week since late June and are now up only 1.4% through August 12.)
BookScan analyst Kristen McLean estimates that monthly BookTok author sales comps for the rest of 2023 will be at or below 2022 levels, and that final sales will be close to the 2022 totals, when the BookTok authors tracked by BookScan sold about 47 million copies. In 2020, the first year BookScan tracked BookTok authors, sales for the group totaled 13 million copies, which then skyrocketed in 2021 to 27 million copies.
BookScan also took a look at how BookTok author sales were faring by examining trends within a July 2021 to July 2023 window. In that comparison, sales of adult authors, after increasing 9% between July 2021 and July 2022, were flat in July 2023 compared to July 2022, while sales of young adult authors were down 1% in July 2023 after increasing 4% between July 2021 and 2022.
McLean explained that BookTok author sales couldn’t continue to increase at the rate they had when the platform started to become a major discovery engine in 2020. She noted that books by BookTok authors are facing some of the same headwinds that the industry in general is, including consumers reading less in the period since Covid restrictions were lifted.
Even if BookTok sales are softening, McLean said, it remains the industry’s most important platform for discovering new writers. “BookTok is really, really important for book discovery,” she emphasized, noting that in today’s social media–driven world BookTok is especially important as a place to find books for younger readers. There is one caveat, however: McLean said not as many new authors are making the type of splash that new authors did in 2021 and 2022. The top 10 BookTok authors continued to sell in big enough numbers that their sales through July 2023 are equal or slightly above sales in the July 2021–July 2022 period. But sales of other BookTok authors, including newer authors, are not selling at the same pace, which suggests to McLean that the BookTok community “is becoming less efficient or engaged in surfacing new authors overall.”
Nevertheless, new stars are still being made. Among this year’s breakouts are Rebecca Yarros, whose Fourth Wing has sold almost 400,000 copies since its release in May, and Carley Fortune, whose Meet Me at the Lake has sold more than 230,000 copies since it was published in May.