Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau released its preliminary bookstore sales estimates for 2023, which showed sales dropping 0.7% in the year, falling to $8.32 billion, from $8.39 billion in 2022. The decline for the year came entirely in the second half of 2023; in the first six months, sales were up 6.9%. Even after a dip in July, year-to-date sales were still ahead 6.4% in the first seven months of 2023.

The sales decline began in full with a 17% drop in August and continued throughout the year, with sales down in each month from the comparable month in 2022. August is the beginning of fall rush on college campuses, and typically trails only December as the biggest month for bookstore sales. The further one got away from August last year, the better the monthly sales numbers were, with December sales down just 1%—suggesting that the major source of bookstore declines in 2023 likely came from college stores, not trade bookstores.

That view was reinforced in 2024 by first quarter data, in which bookstore sales patterns reflected another case of sales through college stores appearing to negatively affect total bookstore sales. According to the Census Bureau numbers, bookstore sales in January fell 12.9%, but were down only a total of 5.8% in the first quarter as sales in February and March—months in which college store sales have a much less dramatic impact on total bookstore sales—were basically flat.

One possible explanation for the poor sales performance by college stores is declining student enrollment, which has fallen steadily since 2010, though the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that enrollment rose slightly last year. Another possible reason for the decline is the changing buying patterns at college stores, as colleges, stores, and students all move more aggressively to an inclusive access or equitable access (IA/EA) model. Under this model, students, rather than paying for buying books and other materials at the time of purchase, are billed for course materials as part of tuition or another fee.

According to the National Association of College Stores’ most recent “Student Watch 2023” report, the IA/EA pricing model has been growing in popularity. The survey found that 44% of students in the 2022–2023 school year acquired their course materials through the model, up from 39% in the 2021–2022 school year. NACS’s new “Faculty Watch” report, issued February 14, found that 51% of respondents participated in IA/EA ordering, with 43% of those using the program saying they used it for the first time last year.

It isn’t clear, exactly, how the shift in buying habits is affecting the census numbers. It could be that students are benefitting from cheaper materials, or that college stores are delaying reporting sales—or not reporting them as purchases made at college stores at all. Officials connected to the census report wouldn’t comment on the decline in sales, only confirming that bookstore results contained data from trade and college stores.

Barnes & Noble Education offers the best example of how college stores have been affected by the increase in use of the equitable access model. For the quarter ended October 31, 2023, B&NE reported that sales in its retail segment were basically flat at $599 million compared to a year ago, even as sales in its equitable access program, called First Day, jumped 39%, to $199 million, offsetting declines of purchases made à la carte—that is, directly at stores. B&NE added at the time that First Day sales are approaching 50% of its annual course material revenue.

The report also notes that with the growth of B&N’s First Day programs, the timing of cash collection from the company’s school partners may shift to periods subsequent to when the revenue is recognized. When a school adopts the company’s First Day offerings, cash collection from the school generally occurs after the institution's add/drop dates, which are later in the year compared to direct-to-student point-of-sale transactions, in which cash is generally collected during the point-of-sale transaction, or within a few days, from the credit card processor. B&NE did not respond to PW about whether it reports sales to the Census Bureau or if the increase use of the equitable model may change how it reports.

The Census Bureau’s bookstore sales figures have never been perfect and are regularly restated in later years, when fuller information becomes available. But up until now, the figures have provided a general indication of how bookstore sales are trending and a glimpse at the health of the bookstore industry. The figures were particularly helpful during the pandemic, when data showed when bookstore sales began to plummet and, later, when sales began to gradually rebound.

What the government has never provided, however, is full transparency about how it gathers the data. And many in industry agree it would be extremely helpful if government officials could address what appears to be new factors regarding the data used in recording bookstore sales. Among other concerns, there are questions about the fairness of portraying the sales performance of trade bookstores in a negative light if reported sales declines are mostly, or entirely, due to a change in college store reporting methods.

PW has not reported the Census Bureau’s monthly bookstore sales report since the August 2023 edition was released. That report showed a steep drop in sales that was not in keeping with trends for the rest of the year. We won't return to reporting the figures on a regular basis until we have a better understanding of what is actually being counted.

Bookstore sales, 2022-2023, in millions

Month 2022 2023 Change
January $811 $921 13.5%
February $517 $561 8.5%
March $538 $596 10.8%
April $589 $582 -1.2%
May $616 $652 5.8%
June $562 $585 4.1%
July $597 $590 -1.2%
August $1,059 $878 -17.1%
September $802 $727 -9.3%
October $589 $559 -5.9%
November $620 $597 -3.7%
December $1,088 $1,073 -1.4%
Total $8,388 $8,321 -0.7%

Bookstore sales, Q1 of 2023-2024, in millions

Month 2023 2024 Change
January $921 $802 -13.5%
February $561 $559 -0.3%
March $596 $596 0%
Total $2,068 $1,957 -5.4%

The three months in bold indicate the months when sales through college stores are typically the highest, during which sales declines, in last August and this January, have been especially significant.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census.