Adult student checking out books in local college library

The report card on last year’s US trade book sales is now available, and it makes very happy reading for booksellers and publishers.  A++. That’s the grade given the industry for 2021by Kristen McLean of the NPD Books Group.

For everyone who cares about books and reading, record sales are cause for celebration, of course. According to McLean, 2021 was the highest sales year on record for print.

“The ‘plus-plus’ grade is really because we had a growth year in 2020 and then another growth year in 2021,” explains McLean, who is the executive director of business development and primary industry analyst at the NPD Books Group, the team behind NPD BookScan.

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Book Sales Report Card A++

“So we have had two growth years during the pandemic. We are about 19% above where we were in 2019 in terms of the number of books that are going out the door.  That’s exceptional in an industry that typically might have 2% or 3% growth each year.

“It’s unprecedented for what we’ve seen in the time that we’ve been tracking the sales, which is starting in 2004,” McLean tells CCC.

The NPD BookScan figures are based on direct reporting from all major retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Target, and independent bookstores.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two years ago, print, audio, and ebook sales have all climbed to new heights.

Yet a sobering data point stands out amidst all the black ink.  In an industry built around finding new authors and publishing and promoting new books, readers are increasingly devoted to the past. It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover was published in 2016, yet sold more than 770,000 copies in 2021, largely because of so-called booktokers.

“Since roughly World War II, we have seen the publishing industry pivot towards more of a bestseller/frontlist strategy.  By that, I mean that the publishing market generally puts a lot of resources into finding new authors, editing their books, making those books, and putting them out, and then paying quite a lot of money to market them so they become bestsellers,” McLean notes.

“So the pressure that’s now on the frontlist is significant, and I think that publishers – it’s an existential question for them, right?  They’re still publishing a lot of frontlist, but we’re seeing backlist gain share and frontlist lose share.  That means that every frontlist book that goes out is getting a smaller and smaller return, or fewer books are getting big returns and a lot of books are getting very small returns.

“I think that publishers are going to have to think carefully about how they’re going to deploy their process for finding new books,” McLean says.

Author: Christopher Kenneally

Christopher Kenneally hosts CCC's Velocity of Content podcast series, which debuted in 2006 and is the longest continuously running podcast covering the publishing industry. As CCC's Senior Director, Marketing, he is responsible for organizing and hosting programs that address the business needs of all stakeholders in publishing and research. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), WBUR-FM, NPR, and WGBH-TV.
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