The release late last month by the Association of American Publishers of its final sales estimates for 2017 highlighted a number of trends. Although total sales were down only marginally in 2017 compared to 2016, industry sales have now fallen for three consecutive years, dropping roughly 6% between 2014 and 2017, when sales were estimated at $26.23 billion.
During the 2014–2017 period, of the four major categories tracked by AAP, only the trade segment recorded gains. Indeed, between 2014 and 2017, while overall industry sales fell 6%, trade sales managed to rise 3.4%. Between 2014 and 2017, the professional publishing segment had the steepest decline, with sales falling 24.2%. Sales in the higher education market dropped 18.0% and pre-K–12 segment sales were off 24.2%. All three segments are dealing with changing expectations from their customers. But in something of a bright spot, all three categories had relatively decent 2017 sales performances compared to 2016. Higher education revenue rose 0.5%, while sales of professional books fell by less than 1% and sales in the pre-K–12 category declined a modest 2.9%.
The growth in the trade segment between 2014 and 2017 was driven by strong gains in the adult nonfiction category, where revenue jumped 24.2%, to $6.18 billion, according to estimates by the AAP, making it by far the largest trade segment. The much smaller children’s/young adult nonfiction segment also had gains over the four-year period, up 21.6%. The nonfiction segment gains offset declines in both the adult and children’s/young adult fiction categories. The adult fiction area had the steepest four-year decline, with sales down 10.5%. Both the adult fiction and children’s/YA fiction segments suffered from some price pressures over the period: the average price for an adult fiction book was $6.79 in 2017, compared to $6.88 in 2014, while the average price for a children’s/YA fiction title dropped to $4.20, from $4.42 in 2014.
Another notable trend that continued into 2017 was the decline in e-book sales. The format that at one point was predicted to dominate trade publishing saw sales fall 36.7% between 2013 and 2017, and its market share dropped from 21.4% to 12.8% during that same period, according to AAP figures. Among the reasons for the steady decline in e-book sales is the proliferation of self-published books, many of which are sold as e-books. While the AAP figures do capture sales of self-published books that have ISBNs, they do not include other self-published titles that only carry other identifiers, such as Amazon’s ASIN. (Amazon routinely declines to provide any sales data on its publishing business. Contacted by PW, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company’s U.S. and worldwide Kindle book sales grew in 2017 and continue to grow in 2018, “with particular strength in Kindle Unlimited, independent publishing, and Amazon Publishing, none of which are reflected in AAP sales figures.”)
Other formats that had market share declines between 2013 and 2017 were mass market paperback and physical audiobooks. The decline in the sale of physical audiobooks is due to the shift by consumers to buying downloadable audio, whose market share rose from 2.2% in 2013 to 5.1% last year. Combined physical and downloadable audio sales in 2017 were $970 million, up from $540 million in 2013. With their high price points, hardcovers generated the most revenue for trade publishers last year and accounted for 36.4% of trade sales. Trade paperback sold the most units, however: 995 million, compared to 597 million hardcover units.
Even as the sale of e-books declined last year, consumers still bought more of their books online than they did in 2016. Online retail generated $6.18 billion in trade book sales in 2017, a 6.3% increase over 2016, giving that channel a 38.8% market share. In 2013, sales were $5.46 billion, and e-tailers had a 36.1% share. Physical retailers lost ground in 2017, generating revenue of $3.88 billion, down 6.5% from 2016 and giving them a 24.3% market share. In 2013, bricks-and-mortar stores had sales of $3.68 billion, which also gave them a 24.3% market share that year.
AAP’s final estimates are based on actual reported sales by over 1,100 publishers (which, in 2017, were $15.5 billion), combined with marketing modeling to estimate revenue generated by publishers who do not report sales. The entire AAP 2017 annual report is available for sale from the association.
Trade revenue by Format 2013
Trade revenue by Format 2017
Publisher Revenue 2013–2017
($ in billions)