Net publishing sales fell 3.5% in April compared to April 2019 for the 1,361 publishers who report revenue to AAP’s StatShot program. The small decline, however, is deceiving. Gross sales fell in the monthly comparison, dropping 16%, but were offset by a nearly 49% drop in returns. (AAP calculates net sales by deducting returns from gross sales.) Returns were down in every category and point to an issue that many publishers are keeping an eye on—the possibility of heavy returns when bookstores reopen after closing because of the pandemic.

Nearly all college stores were closed in April, leading to a 57.9% decline in returns to publishers of higher educational course materials in the month compared to 2019. And even though gross sales fell 30.8% in the month, the plunge in returns led to a 139.8% increase in net sales in the category. The AAP said it expects an increase in returns in the category in future months as stores, distributors, colleges, and universities reopen.

The same, but less extreme, pattern was seen in the two trade categories. Gross sales of adult books fell 16.4% in April, but returns dropped by 46.3%, resulting in a 7% decline in net sales. Many chain and independent bookstores were closed in April and unable to return books, but they are now slowly reopening and may soon start shipping back unsold copies. Returns of adult hardcovers fell 51.6% in April, and were down 48.9% in trade paperback.

Net sales rose 4.2% in April at children/young adult publishers who report to the AAP. Gross sales fell 4.7%, offset by a 43.1% decline in returns. Hardcover returns were down 46.6% compared to April 2019, and fell 43.6% in paperback.

In all, returns for the two trade categories were about $155 million lower this April compared to April 2019. Returns for the entire industry were lower by $300.5 million.