Few people in the industry have been willing to venture a prediction on how the book business will finish 2021, but in a July 21 presentation on industry print unit sales through the first half of the year, NPD BookScan analyst Kristen McLean laid out three possible scenarios. All outcomes assume that the rapid gains in print unit sales the industry has posted so far this year will slow in the last six months of 2021.
Indeed, McLean noted that, since the end of what she called an historic first quarter, the year-to-date growth rate has lost about one point per week; in other words, growth was up 29% at the close of the first quarter and ahead 18% at the end of the second quarter. At present, she said, sales appear to be steadily gliding back to a more normal performance.
If that is the case and sales run even with 2020 for the balance of the year, print unit sales will finish 2021 with an 8% gain over last year. If sales return closer to 2019 levels—which means a decline in sales in the last months of the year compared to 2020—sales would still finish the year ahead up 2% over 2020. The fastest growth rate, at 10% for the year, will be possible only if higher infection rates result in more lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, she said. Publishing “performed well with people at home,” McLean said in explaining why lockdowns may be good for the industry. She noted that she believes the 10% increase to be the least likely scenario, predicting that unit sales will finish the year with gains between 2% and 8%.
The biggest wild card factor, she said, is the future course of the virus, as there is still much uncertainty about how Covid-19 will impact the country. The ongoing pandemic has led to higher-than-normal differences in book sales among various geographic areas, she noted, which complicates how sales will continue to perform.
Prior to making her prediction, McLean reviewed trends through July 3, in which sales were up 18.4% above last year. Two of the biggest drivers of sales in the period came from graphic novels and young adult fiction. Half of the increase in graphic novel sales came from manga, McLean said, attributing the growth in part to streaming services, which have featured a number of shows based on manga stories.
The gains in young adult, McLean said, were given a huge boost by #BookTok. BookScan began to see videos about people’s favorite books posted on the platform at the end of the year, and that trend has continued into 2021. The increase in manga sales and YA is good for the industry in the long and short runs, McLean noted, since it means publishing is attracting younger readers.
And while backlist continues to sell exceptionally well in 2021, frontlist sales picked up in the second quarter, gaining 3 points of market share from backlist. Still, at the end of the first half of 2021, backlist still accounted for 69% of print units sold.