Book sales should finish 2021 on a good note, but a number of factors could mean softer sales in early 2022, said Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst for books at NPD BookScan, during a webinar on third-quarter sales. Though sales of print books dipped in the quarter ended October 2 compared to a year ago, sales were still up 11% in the first nine months of the year and are up 90 million units over 2019.
McLean believes there is enough momentum heading into the holidays to allow the industry to finish 2021 with a sales increase of 5%–9% above 2020, with the most likely scenario being a 6%–9% increase. In a presentation in July, McLean said she thought sales would be up 2%–10% for the year, with a 2%–8% gain the most likely, and three months later she remains generally bullish.
In the fourth quarter of 2020, McLean noted, consumers started their holiday shopping early, and given the continued reports of supply chain problems, she is confident they will do so again this year, which should boost sales since consumers usually spend more when they start early. And while the supply chain is a cause for concern for publishers and authors, McLean doesn’t believe it will affect consumers very much. If a particular book isn’t available, they will pick an alternative, she predicted (and many booksellers agree).
Supply chain issues have contributed to the continuing higher sales of backlist books, as some new titles have been delayed in getting to market. Through the first nine months of the year, backlist accounted for 69% of unit sales, up from 67% a year ago, and McLean doesn’t see frontlist bouncing back in the immediate future. She is concerned that if too many titles are delayed and supply chain problems continue into the new year (which nearly everyone believes will happen), publishers will be faced with excess inventory that stores will have a difficult time finding room for.
The ongoing supply chain challenges, changes in consumer buying habits as the pandemic eases, weak consumer confidence, and difficult comparisons to a strong first quarter of 2021 all mean that publishers could face a difficult first quarter next year, McLean warned. “2022 will be softer,” she said. “We should all gird our loins and be prepared for some negative numbers.”