A Year for the (Record) Books in Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

Combined print book and e-book sales hit 942 million units in 2020 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, a 9% increase over 2019 and the most unit sales recorded in a single year by BookScan since the service was created in 2004. In a webinar held last week, Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD Books, said the gain was due to a combination of strong sales of both print and digital books.

Print sales rose 8.2% over 2019, the largest annual increase since 2005, and the print total of 751 million units sold was the highest since 2009, the year before e-books started to become a meaningful part of the book business. E-book unit sales, as measured by NPD’s PubTrack Digital service, rose 12.6% over 2019 and were at their highest level since 2015, when 208 million units were sold (e-book sales figures for November and December are projections).

McLean attributed the improvement in e-book sales to several factors, including their immediate availability when stores were locked down and people were doing lots of shopping online. Adult fiction had the largest sales increase among e-book categories, followed by adult nonfiction, and McLean said she expects digital sales to continue to do well in 2021.

An important driver of print book sales last year was the continuing increase in backlist sales, McLean said. Backlist titles accounted for 67% of all print units purchased in 2020, up from 63% the year before. In 2010, backlist accounted for only 54% of all unit sales. McLean noted that the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.

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According to NPD’s Checkout service (which measures receipts across a wide range of retailers), online sales rose 43% in 2020. McLean believes a large portion of consumers who shopped online for the first time in 2020 will continue to shop online this year, because of its convenience and the fact that physical retailers are unlikely to fully reopen until the summer and fall. The slow vaccination rollout is also likely to cause more “upheaval” in the physical retail market, as stores that hung on through the holidays may find it difficult to bounce back. McLean sees mass market retailers, who did well with books last year, continuing to champion books—especially children’s titles.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

1 thought on “A Year for the (Record) Books in Publishing”

  1. McLean noted that the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.

    I call BS on this. When I go online “new titles” keep getting thrown in front of me. Backlist I have to look for explicitly.

    The real issue is that as time goes by there is more and more backlist to be had, and since it doesn’t just disappear from virtual shelves, it’s more easily available. Couple that to the continuing digitization of backlist, and frontlist has to be exceptionally good to be worthwhile. I sometimes drill into those “new titles” I keep seeing and find that they are panned by reviewers as poorly constructed and generally unsatisfying. Why not buy from the more proven backlist then?

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