Publishing sales got off to a decent start in 2020, with both NPD BookScan and the Association of American Publishers reporting increases in January sales over the first month of 2019. But as the new coronavirus increased its grip on the country’s economy sales softened, and the business outlook for the second quarter is, at best, uncertain.
Last week, John Wiley revised its revenue forecast downward by about $50 million for the fiscal year ending April 30, and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) is expected to be $25 million lower. Among the reasons Wiley cited for cutting its outlook were declines in print book sales due to indefinite closures of retail stores and “delays in customer payments due to widespread disruption and pervasive cash conservation behaviors in the face of uncertainty.”
Still, book sales did not take a plunge in the first quarter, even as independent and chain stores rapidly closed, Amazon scaled back book orders to concentrate on meeting demand for household staples and medical supplies, and consumer confidence fell as layoffs and furloughs reached into the millions. For the quarter ended April 4, print unit sales were down just 1.3% compared to the first quarter of 2019.
First-quarter print unit sales were helped by Easter occurring nine days earlier in 2020 than in 2019. In fact, unit sales of print books rose 6.9% in the last week of the quarter over the prior week at outlets that report to BookScan. All four of the major publishing categories posted gains in the week, led by the juvenile fiction category, where unit sales rose 12.2%. The holidays/festivals/religion segment drove the increase, with its unit sales jumping 49.2% over the prior week. The holidays/festivals/religion segment also led the 2.8% sales gain in the juvenile nonfiction category, with sales in the segment up 53.3%.
Adult nonfiction print unit sales rose 6.9% over the week ended March 28. Sales of humor books led the way, with units up 24.8%, and sales of religion books increased 23.7%. Print unit sales in the adult fiction category increased 3.6%, driven by a 60.8% spike in sales in the westerns genre, followed by a 10.9% gain in sales of classic literature.
The combination of an early Easter and Passover and the demand from parents for books that can both educate and entertain children stuck at home led to unit gains in the first quarter in both the juvenile nonfiction and fiction categories over the same quarter last year. Juvenile nonfiction unit sales rose 21.5%. Big Preschool and My First Learn-to-Write Workbook, the top books in the category, sold about 129,000 and 109,000 copies, respectively.
Print unit sales of juvenile fiction increased 2.2% in the quarter, with Fetch-22 (Dog Man #8) and Wrecking Ball (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #14) topping the category list, selling about 265,000 and 179,000 copies, respectively.
Print unit sales of adult fiction titles had a small decline in the quarter, falling 2.2%. Where the Crawdads Sing was the bestselling book, with sales of almost 296,000 copies. American Dirt, which was the subject of much controversy when it was released in January, followed in second place, selling approximately 225,000 copies.
Sales of adult nonfiction had a steeper decline, falling 5.9%. A Very Stable Genius was #1 in the category, selling just over 172,000 copies, topping the newly released The Splendid and the Vile, which sold 160,000 print copies in less than two months.