After increasing 8% in 2020 and 9% in 2021, it is unlikely that unit sales of print books will grow again in 2022, Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst for NPD/BookScan Books Group said in a January 26 webinar.
McLean said the back-to-back large sales gains in 2020 and 2021 was unprecedented in BookScan’s 18-year history and was fueled in part by unique circumstances caused by the pandemic as well as other developments, such as the growth in interest in social justice titles after the murder of George Floyd, that will not reappear in 2022. McLean said she doesn’t think print sales “will fall off a cliff” in 2022, but noted that the industry should be prepared for negative comparable sales figures in the first and second quarter of 2022 compared to 2021, when the industry benefitted from ongoing lockdowns, which kept people indoors and reading, as well as the arrival of child tax credit checks that spurred spending. McLean thinks unit print sales will finish 2022 below 2021 levels but above those of 2019, and could settle somewhere between 2020 and 2021 levels.
Among the challenges McLean sees ahead in 2022 is the likelihood of price increases on books due to higher manufacturing and shipping costs, noting that the industry will need to monitor consumers’ reaction to price increases. Publishers and other industry members will also still need to contend with supply chain problems in 2022, as shortages of paper, packaging materials, and printing capacity are likely to persist throughout the year. Those factors, as well as what could be the easing of pandemic restrictions, may lead to more changes in consumer behavior this year, McLean said. For one thing, she believes customer traffic will increase in bricks-and-mortar stores, and that retailers, through changes in store layouts and marketing, are well positioned to take advantage of the higher traffic to drive sales increases. In addition, growing consumer concern about climate change and sustainability could lead customers to limit their online buying, since direct sales involve lots of packaging. And while online book sales have jumped since the pandemic began, McLean believes the online channel’s market share of book sales could decline in 2022 as consumers return to stores.
Another change in buying patterns that McLean believes could happen this year is an increase in e-book and used book sales if some books become hard to find, which could also lead to an increase in library borrowing.
There are a number of positive trends that took place in 2021 that should continue into 2022, McLean said, including the impact of BookTok in driving sales. She noted that a group of 80 authors with a large BookTok following and tracked by BookScan saw sales more than double last year, from a total of about nine million copies sold in 2020 to 20 million in 2021. She said BookTok has been embraced by the industry, noting that its recommendations are being amplified by retailers such as Barnes & Noble, and she expects to see the platform continue to drive sales.
All of the books tagged by the BookTok community last year were backlist titles, and their popularity helped backlist’s market share of unit sales rise from 67% in 2020 to 68% in 2021. McLean noted that backlist’s share of unit sales has steadily risen since 2004, when it accounted for only 51% of print unit purchases. She said while there is nothing wrong with strong backlist sales, its growth is putting pressure on publishing’s frontlist publishing business model. McLean said it is worth watching to see whether frontlist sales can regain some market share or if we are now in “a new normal.”
In addition to BookTok, another trend that should continue into 2022 is the popularity of manga. Sales of manga soared 126% last year, and McLean said the format has moved from a niche area to a mainstream category. Sales of manga benefitted from the popularity of shows appearing on streaming services, with seven of the top eight bestselling series having a corresponding anime series streaming on a major platform. McLean said manga attracts younger and new readers, and reflects growing interest in entertainment from Asia, something that is likely to continue.