Kristen McLean, industry analyst for U.S. books at the NPD Group, predicted in a webinar last week that 2023 will be a year of transition for the publishing industry. McLean noted that even with unit sales of print books down 6% in 2022 from 2021, sales last year were the second-highest in BookScan’s more than 20-year history. But she warned that sales are likely to be down for at least the first half of this year, as both publishing and the overall economy continue to adjust to changes caused by the pandemic.
McLean sees 2023 as a year when publishers will look to balance the need for stability with the need for innovation. She expects publishers to have conservative approaches to acquiring new content as they determine where new growth opportunities are and what readers want.
As for retailers, many are rethinking the ways they want to buy in 2023 in terms of ordering processes, what they want to carry, and how they want it priced, McLean said. Both publishers and retailers—including bookstores and mass merchandisers—will lean on “sure bets” as they wait for a clearer picture of what consumers want, she added. She also predicted that publishers will make some layoffs as they work to improve their returns on investment in the face of higher costs. A reduction in page-to-screen projects as the streaming services cut back on production will lower demand for publishers’ content and reduce the opportunities to tie-in titles to new shows, she noted.
One way publishers can adapt to an evolving market is to be aware of the changes in consumer behavior, McLean said. Gen Z (ages 12–26), and to a lesser extent millennials (ages 27–42), are now important book consumers. She believes that BookTok and TikTok are not fads and will continue to drive sales for some time, resulting in significant changes in the market. BookScan follows a group of about 100 authors who use BookTok, and McLean reported that they collectively had a sales gain of 60% last year, following a 40% increase in 2021 over 2020.
In another example of how BookTok is impacting the market, she pointed to changes in sales of romance books between 2018 and 2022. Unit sales rose from 18.5 million in 2018 to 36.1 million last year, and the top sellers are now Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry, and other newcomers, rather than Debbie Macomber, Nora Roberts, and Nicholas Sparks. McLean added that in 2022, Hoover’s sales of 14.3 million copies were more than the total sales of books from a number of well-known bestselling authors combined. And she said sales are not just driven by posts with the BookTok hashtag, pointing to the boost James Clear’s Atomic Habits has received from TikTok.
In a final note on BookTok demographics, McLean said that in a study NPD did for a client, 80% of those using the BookTok hashtag were under age 35. There is a new generation of readers emerging, she declared.
Despite the success BookTok has had in spurring sales, publishing is still grappling with ways to find readers for frontlist titles. Frontlist’s share of sales fell from 32% in 2021 to 30% last year. McLean noted that the decline was a surprise to her since she’d assumed that the reopening of physical stores—where the discovery of new titles often takes place—would lead to an improvement in frontlist sales over 2021. Sluggish frontlist sales is an “existential” question, she added, that publishers will be confronting once again this year.
McLean said one reason sales in the juvenile market fell last year is that the shutdown of bookstores, libraries, and book fairs in the early days of the pandemic led to a deep disruption in the discovery process. “The chain of peer-to-peer discovery has been broken,” she added, noting that core series that typically sell in big numbers aren’t doing as well as in past years, as kids “kind of forgot about them.” Observing that children’s is one of the markets most challenged by frontlist issues, she thinks a full recovery there is a year away. One of the strongest categories in the juvenile segment was LGBTQ titles, where sales rose 35.8%—an increase McLean attributed, in part, to the culture wars.
McLean expects the romance category to do well again this year, and said that some other categories that have momentum heading in to 2023 include manga, young adult fiction on social themes, YA graphic novels, and horror. Drilling down a little more, areas that NPD is bullish on include humor, mental health, pets, and books for next-generation moms.
Though the industry will be going through a period of adjustment in 2023, McLean said she is confident there will be a sales rebound “on the other side.”