In a recent webinar, Circana BookScan books analyst Kristen McLean said she sees reasons for optimism about book sales in 2024, based on an unexpectedly strong fourth quarter and indications that the worst of the postpandemic adjustments may be over. But McLean noted that to make the most of these headwinds, publishers must swiftly recognize and take advantage of trends (romantasy, anyone?) and consumer attitudes, and connect them to their catalogs.

Despite the fact that unit sales of print books were off by 3% in 2023 compared to 2022, the U.S. publishing industry showed “resilience” last year, McLean said—especially in the fiction category, which was up 1% over the prior year, the fifth straight year of gains for adult fiction. And overall, unit sales ended 2023 with momentum, up 1% over 2022 in the fourth quarter, with dollar sales up 4% based on manufacturers’ suggested prices. Book sales, McLean added, outpaced gains of other general merchandise categories in the quarter.

Still, 2024 holds a number of unknowns. Chief among them, McLean said, is the outcome of what will likely be a bruising presidential election, which comes at a time when consumers are already exhausted by the news. As a result, she expects readers to be looking for more escapist fiction and predicted that 2024 will be another “year of romantasy”—the subgenre had a tremendous 2023, led by Rebecca Yarros’s The Iron Flame and Fourth Wing. In addition to Yarros, McLean said authors including Cassandra Clare are demonstrating how powerful the author-fan relationship can be, prompting publishers and content producers to invest in romantasy. She also expects more self-published authors to break through in the category this year.

McLean believes self-care books will sell well in 2024. Books in the mental and emotional health category had solid sales increases between 2019 and 2023, with 2023 sales of exercise books in particular posting a huge increase over 2022, up 75%, followed by a 20% gain in women’s health book sales, an 11% increase in personal growth, and a 9% increase in the mental health category.

McLean also expects the presidential election will impact the adult nonfiction category. Since both candidates have already been the subject of numerous books and copious media coverage, it could be a quiet year for political books. However, history books that can provide context for current events, plus narrative nonfiction books and true crime titles, could do well. Religion books and books that can provide adults with an “uplift” should also sell well, McLean added. Overall, she thinks sales of adult nonfiction, the industry’s largest category, will increase slightly in 2024 over what was a down 2023.

TikTok’s influence wwill continue to be strong, McLean said. Last summer, BookScan reported that for the first time in more than a year, sales of titles by the “BookTok authors” it tracks fell compared to the previous period. However, McLean noted that when the sales of Colleen Hoover’s titles are omitted (Hoover’s unit sales fell by three million in 2023 compared to 2022), unit sales of BookTok titles were up 40%. Meanwhile, a new hotbed for BookTok influencers has been cookbooks, where the top four bestsellers in the category have benefited from exposure on social media.

There was a bit less optimism for the children’s book market. In recapping 2023, McLean noted that children’s posted the steepest decline of all the categories, selling 13.5 million fewer units than in 2022. She said the retreat is really a return to 2019 levels, before the pandemic led to a jump in children’s sales, particularly for nonfiction.

In 2023, fantasy, magic, and humorous stories led the declines in children’s fiction. Pockets of growth included Bluey licensed books, holiday books, and activity books. Sales in the 9–12 age range showed the most significant decline, and it is the only children’s age segment where 2023 sales fell below 2019 levels. While McLean said a “big hit” could change results in the category, she also expressed concern over reports that children in this age range are reading less.

McLean said backlist sales accounted for 70% of total unit sales in 2023—a record high. She added, however, that frontlist sales improved at the end of 2023, and she believes 70% could be the high-water mark for backlist.