When the Association of American Publishers released its final industrywide sales report for 2020 last month, it showed another basically flat year, with sales of $25.71 billion, down 0.2% compared to 2019. The small decline was in keeping with the overall pattern over the past five years. Between 2016 and 2020, overall publishing sales rose only in 2019, up 1.7% over 2018, and 2020 sales were down 3.9% compared to 2016.
The trade segment, the industry’s largest, has been the steadiest performer over the past five years, with sales up 3.1% in 2020 compared to 2016. The adult category was the main driver, with sales rising 4.9%, while sales in the children’s/YA category fell 0.8%. The decline in children’s/YA is slightly deceiving, since 2016 was an exceptionally strong year for children’s/YA fiction, where sales were $3.96 billion—a total that has not been reached since. The religious presses category had the largest increase over the period, overcoming an 8.4% decline in 2020 that was largely due to the lockdown of bookstores and religious institutions.
The higher education and professional books categories had the biggest sales declines between 2016 and 2020; the professional category had a particularly difficult 2020, with sales falling 14.5% compared to 2019. Sales in the higher ed category have declined steadily since 2016, and publishers have been trying to adjust to increased student purchases of digital materials, which tend to be less expensive than print. Pre-K–12 instructional sales had hit $4.38 billion in 2019 before falling 12.3% in 2020 due to the pandemic, which shrank textbook purchases and accelerated the shift to digital materials. The growing importance of digital content has led a number of former textbook publishers to refashion themselves as learning technology companies.
In addition to greater sales of digital materials, the pandemic led to a 19.2% increase in online sales in 2020 over 2019, to $9.5 billion overall. The AAP also noted that 2020 was the first time that the online channel, dominated by Amazon, accounted for more than 50% of trade sales. In 2016, online sales accounted for 39.5% of trade sales. Within the trade segment (among which the AAP includes the religious category), the lockdowns last year resulted in a 9.9% decline in sales through physical retail compared to 2019. Physical retail accounted for 16.7% of trade sales in 2020, down from 23.4% in 2016.
The final 2020 results tracked closely to preliminary results issued earlier this year, which also found sales to be even with 2019. The preliminary results were based on revenue reports supplied by 1,354 publishers to AAP’s StatShot program. The final numbers include the StatShot revenue plus estimates for publishers that don’t report to the AAP. In addition, the AAP incorporated information from Bowker’s Books in Print database to ensure that it captured all active publishers in its report, including small publishers.