US Book Publishing Remains Resilient: Print and Ebook Sales Are Growing

From Jane Friedman:

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US print unit sales are up by 3.6% so far versus 2019

As much of the retail world faces crisis, book publishing is positioned to grow in terms of unit sales when compared to 2019. In fact, 2020 may prove to be one of the strongest sales years in recent memory.

A few factors are likely contributing to the resilience of sales:

  • the prevalence of online purchasing in the US market (driven by Amazon, of course)
  • the strength of Ingram’s print-on-demand operations in the US—and the overall robustness of the US supply chain thus far
  • the current events/bestseller effect, with race relations and politics driving high sales of titles such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, and Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough. (Outperforming titles can bring a book category into a growth position or soften—even turn around—a decline for the market.)
  • the high adoption rate of ebooks and audiobooks in the US market prior to the pandemic
  • the migration of print sales to big-box retailers, as written about by the New York Times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s happening.

US ebook sales are up by 4% versus last year—an excellent result

US traditional publishers report 4.3% growth in ebook sales through May 2020, after years of decline. All of that growth is the result of the pandemic; during the first three months of 2020, NPD showed ebook sales down 18% versus 2019. Publishing Perspectives offers more detail on ebook sales trends, with category-specific information.

Bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales are down

The US Census Bureau publishes preliminary estimates of bookstore sales, and even though print unit sales are up according to NPD BookScan, the government report shows bookstore sales declining by 33 percent in March, 65 percent in April, and 59 percent in May. The most obvious explanation for why book publishing continues to perform well as an industry: print sales have drifted to online channels, such as Amazon or Bookshop, and to big-box stores.

Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt says that its sales are down about 20 percent overall from last year.

. . . .

What might happen next?


According to Kristen McLean at NPD Books, it won’t be demand that determines the industry’s future. Rather, she says it will be driven by:

  1. The stability of the channels which are currently selling and delivering books. Will stores stay open? Will the supply chain (printers, print-on-demand facilities, other delivery channels) remain resilient?
  2. The length and depth of the economic crisis which has been unfolding. Will governments help consumers, businesses and others?
  3. The pre-existing (financial) health of the businesses in the traditional book industry. Do they have the capital and the resources to get through this?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Ms. Friedman has always impressed PG as an intelligent, articulate and insightful expert on the book business. However, the questions she includes at the end of her post from Ms. McLean are not those that come to PG’s mind after reading the OP.

Are traditional bookstores important any more?

Book sales seem to have done well during at least the early part of the pandemic, but traditional bookstores have, by and large, been pretty much shut down. How many of these generally thinly-capitalized businesses will be closed permanently is an open question.

But if traditional publishing sales have held up, perhaps Amazon really is the future for readers and publishers will be fine when competing head-to-head with indie authors on Amazon’s pages.

Anything troubling about strong sales of traditionally published books in Big Box stores?

PG only has current knowledge about the Big Box stores he slips into and out of, trying not to inhale too much. His experience is that Big Box stores had been reducing the amount of floor space devoted to books over the several months prior to the arrival of the current plague. He can’t say he’s paid much attention to that element of Big Box retailing recently.

However, Big Box stores routinely sell books at significant discounts from list price. The same book at the local Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore will cost much more.

PG suspects that at least some serious readers may have previously ignored the book displays in the Big Box stores on their way to fill up their carts with large quantities of diapers, soup and chocolate-chip cookies.

If book sales at Big Box stores are strong during this current time period, are serious readers going to stop buying nicely-priced books at the local Big Box and pay more at their local B&N when Covid fades into history? Or will readers default to Big Box to pick up a current best-seller? As mentioned previously, it won’t take much of a permanent decline in business to close a lot of bookstores for good.

How many people will keep buying lots of stuff (including books) from Amazon?

PG believes that more than a few readers who regularly purchased books from their local bookstore prior to Covid have continued to buy books – from Amazon. (Yes, PG knows there are other online bookstores, but he’s looking at the big picture here.)

Just like the Big Box customer, some readers who have done serious book shopping on Amazon for the first time will have become accustomed to the experience and enjoyed it. Instead of asking their good friend at Friendly Books Bookstore for book recommendations, some of these readers have discovered AlsoBoughts and intelligent Amazon customer reviews. Since Amazon always pays attention to what its customers purchase, the Amazon computers will regularly be suggesting other books the reader might enjoy and getting smarter with those suggestions.

Better prices online are also a big plus, particularly if the family income has taken a hit from Covid and its consequences.

Some readers will recognize that nobody ever got Covid (or any other transmissible disease) from buying an ebook online. Plus ebooks are cheaper and you can get them right away, any time and anywhere.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about how many people were coughing, sneezing and caressing the books in the romance section before you arrived at your local Barnes & Noble. Plus+Plus, nobody will see you browsing through the steamy titles on Amazon.

What is the new normal going to look like?

PG believes we don’t really know what the mid-term and long-term economic results of Covid shutdowns will be. A great many people, at least in the United States, are operating on credit cards, savings, the occasional government Covid check and some sort of income generated via reduced hours, one of two working spouses still working, etc.

The big economic question for PG (who is a lawyer, not an economist) is how many businesses will reopen when the shutdowns end, how many will be closed for good and what will those businesses that do reopen look like. Half of their employees temporarily laid off until business picks up? How many will never be asked to return? Some business locations reopened and others permanently closed?

What will the new normal look like and how long will it take to arrive there?

Closer to home, PG is, unfortunately, quite confident that there will be significantly fewer retail locations in the business of primarily selling books. If the local bookstore closes, how many people will decide not to travel farther to the next-closest bookstore?

As New York’s Indie Bookstores Close Their Doors, They Search for Community Online

PG Note: The OP was published on March 17.

From The Vulture:

Last Tuesday, Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene hosted a talk with the author Kate Elizabeth Russell. Few signs of anything amiss could be discerned. The event was so well attended that dozens of audience members had to stand in the aisles, and no one seemed particularly concerned about the possibility that deadly germs were lingering on their plastic cups of wine.

By Thursday, Greenlight had decided to cancel all events, but its doors remained open, and customers continued to file into the store, stocking up on books and puzzles to occupy their minds during the lonely days to come. Stories of pandemics were selling well — Ling Ma’s Severance, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — as were the sorts of thick, ambitious tomes that are more often spoken of than read.

And then came Monday, when the city and state tightened restrictions on bars and restaurants and students stopped going to school. Greenlight sent out an email to its customers noting that “the moment has come to do more.” Along with most of the city’s other indie bookstores, it was shutting its doors to the public.

The sense of doom and gloom that has suddenly descended over the world is, in some ways, not altogether unfamiliar to people in the publishing business. For the last decade, as the internet has encroached on the mental space we once reserved for reading, people who rely on books for a living have wondered how long their jobs will last. But amid the shuttering of chains like Borders, the rise of the indie bookstore has been a bright spot. These stores have thrived and multiplied because they provide what Amazon can’t: conversations with authors, story hours for kids, cozy spaces where readers can gather, staff members eager to recommend something to fill the void once you’ve torn through all of Tana French’s mysteries. In an increasingly atomized, online world, they offer a sense of community that augments the value of the books themselves, and that was never clearer than in the days before they closed.

On Friday, at Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill, the co-owner and author Emma Straub sat on a leather couch wearing a hand-drawn pin reminding customers to wash their hands. Nearby, kids and their parents slouched in beanbag chairs, flipping through picture books about dragons and princesses and snow days. The cozy scene stood in stark contrast to the fear and uncertainty of the world outside the store. “This is the whole point,” said Straub, looking at the families wistfully. By then, she had made the difficult decision to cancel all events. 

. . . .

Many of the shops are looking for creative solutions to stay open for online business, as well as the communities they’ve fostered. Astoria Bookshop, in Queens, is offering books for pickup. “The vast majority of our customers live in Astoria,” Lexi Beach, the owner, told me, “so if they’re well enough to go out for a walk, they can come to the store, knock on the door, we’ll have their book ready for them.” Beach was intrigued by an idea she’d seen on Twitter from a bookstore in D.C. that was offering customers exclusive occupancy of the store for one-hour time slots.

. . . .

“We’re trying to think about the ways we can still be an inspiring space without the physical space,” she said. “There’s a silver lining to all of this — that we can reinvent how we talk about storytelling.”

. . . .

“We’re talking about setting up virtual book tours,” she said. “The internet has always been a thing that we, as a store, have been good at, so I feel like this is the time for us to really use that force for good and try to shine the light on as many writers as we can.”

Meanwhile, at Idlewild, a bookstore specializing in travel books and language classes, the owner, David Del Vecchio, has begun experimenting with offering classes on Zoom. So far, he said, it had gone surprisingly well. “At first Zoom seemed like a compromise,” he wrote in an email, “but it works great for a small class. Even though it sucks not to be able to be in a room together, it’s not that different in some ways.”

Link to the rest at The Vulture

PG suggests having an interesting online presence is always likely to help a bookstore. It’s easier to have online up and running prior to anything that might require the physical store to close, however.