Circ Disrupted | 2021 Materials Survey

COVID shifts drove falling print circ and rising ebooks. But will it last? LJ's 2021 Materials Survey looks at some of the last year's trends.

COVID shifts drove falling print circ and rising ebooks. But will it last?

Pandemic, protests, politics: 2020 was a year like no other, its consequences strongly felt in the library world as in life’s every nook and cranny. With libraries shuttered for at least part of the year, emerging slowly for curbside service and tentative reopening, circulation was particularly hard hit, with LJ’s annual Public Library Materials Circulation Survey reporting a 25.7 percent collapse and only 10 percent of respondents seeing increases. Yet as librarians sought new ways to serve their constituents, especially given increased demand for social justice and political science titles, ebook circulation rose 29.2 percent. The long-term consequences of these shifts cannot yet be measured.

In the short term, print and ebook circulation jointly added up to 64 percent of total circulation in 2020, roughly what it has been since 2012, but with print books plummeting to a 46 percent share. (See “Trending of Circulation Sources, below.) Netted media (that is, physical audiobooks, downloadable audio, DVD/Blu-Ray, streaming media, and music CDs counted jointly) claimed a 31 percent share—again, roughly where it has stood since 2012, but for 2017’s high of 35 percent. At four percent, the circulation of physical audiobooks has sunk somewhat since 2014, when the survey began breaking out media formats, but the share for downloadable audio surged to seven—and one respondent reported increased circulation of downloadable audio approaching 30 percent.

Interestingly, while DVD/Blu-Ray circulation has been trending downward, dropping seven points since 2014, it only dropped two points from 2018 during pandemic closures despite the need to collect these items physically. (Comparisons throughout will be based on 2018 rather than 2019, an anomalous year owing to a small survey response.) Meanwhile, streaming held steady with a two percent share of circulation but remains a growth area. This year, 73 percent of respondents offered streaming media, a nine-point increase over 2018, with 55 percent citing an increase in streaming circulation and only six percent a decrease, for a 28 percent increase overall.

 

Trending of Circulation Sources

 

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019*

2020

Book

67%

63%

63%

58%

60%

57%

55%

57%

55%

46%

Ebook

2%

3%

4%

5%

5%

8%

7%

9%

9%

18%

Media Netted

29%

32%

31%

34%

32%

31%

35%

31%

30%

31%

Physical audiobooks

N/A

7%

7%

6%

6%

5%

6%

5%

3%

4%

Downloadable audio

N/A

N/A

N/A

2%

2%

3%

4%

4%

5%

7%

DVD/Blu-ray

N/A

21%

21%

23%

21%

19%

19%

18%

17%

16%

Streaming media

N/A

N/A

0%

0%

0%

1%

2%

1%

2%

2%

Music CD/music

N/A

4%

3%

3%

3%

3%

4%

2%

3%

2%

Other electronic products

N/A

N/A

1%

2%

1%

2%

2%

2%

5%

4%

Other

2%

2%

2%

1%

3%

2%

1%

2%

2%

1%

SOURCE: LJ Public Librarary Materials Circulation Survey 2020

 

REALLOCATION

To accommodate the shift toward online materials, most librarians swiftly reallocated some collection expenditures from physical materials to electronic resources that included OverDrive, hoopla, Kanopy, Consumer Reports, lynda.com, Flipster, Tumblebooks, and Brainfuse. While the use of these resources did not make up for the general circulation lag, several respondents acknowledged that the situation would have been much worse without them. Meeting demand for online materials, particularly in tandem with the increased interest in antiracism titles fueled by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, led many librarians to push forward with cost-per-circ (CPC) and metered models.

As Kathryn King, Fort Worth Public Library, TX, explains, “Our vendor is OverDrive, and some titles are available as a CPC model in addition to the other models (metered by time/checkout or one copy/one user). We pay a fee for each checkout, and I set a budget limit for the month, which I can change at any time. So if I keep the funds topped up, the titles will be ‘always available.’” While some restrictions apply—only 12 CPC checkouts are allowed per card each month—the constant availability of key titles such as White Fragility and How To Be an Antiracist meant that at the height of the protests 200 residents were reading them, aided by staff promotion and online discussion forums.

The impact of the BLM protests on circulation varied by locale. Some respondents claimed little impact or even pushback from readers insisting on other perspectives, while others cited strong demand and their own efforts to build better collections. “Interest in titles about racism, social injustice and #OwnVoices fiction by BIPOC has definitely increased significantly, with many titles having long hold queues in both the physical and digital collections,” confirms Thais Rousseau, Capital Area District Libraries, Lansing, MI. Adds Wendy Bartlett, Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH, echoing respondents who saw a measurable impact, “BLM really helped circulation, as people flocked in to educate themselves around their own white supremacy, which was one of the most rewarding things I’ve seen in all my years as a librarian.” OverDrive, which saw a 33 percent increase in digital circulation for its clients, confirms that digital social justice and BIPOC/#OwnVoices materials achieved 165 percent circulation growth in school and public libraries.

 

CIRCULATION SHIFTS

Future surveys will determine how social justice, political science, and pandemic-related titles shape up in the next fraught years. For now, the survey shows that political science/current events titles have gained considerable sway in the last decade, with the number of respondents citing them among their top nonfiction print circulators leaping from 20 percent in 2011 to 41 percent in 2020. Among nonfiction ebooks, these titles ranked third in 2020, at 63 percent.

The survey did not break out social justice titles, which it will begin doing next year, but Baker & Taylor (B&T) reports that social science in general made its top 10 categories per print units sold to libraries in 2020. Parsed by BISAC code into over 4,400 subcategories, B&T’s sale statistics offer a granular look at public library circulation. This year, its top 25 adult nonfiction subcategories include discrimination/race relations and three timely political science subcategories—American government/executive branch, commentary and opinion, and political process/campaigns and elections. Also tops in nonfiction: biographies of presidents/heads of state, helped along by Barack Obama’s A Promised Land—the year’s No. 1 best-selling title, according to Bookscan—and biographies of political figures generally.

Not unexpectedly, two self-help subcategories, motivational/inspirational and personal growth, also made B&T’s top 25 adult nonfiction titles, while self-help/psychology ranked fourth in nonfiction print circulation and second in ebook format in LJ’s survey. (See “Print & Ebook Nonfiction Circulation Comparisons,” above.) Interestingly in COVID-19 times, neither self-help nor medicine/health showed growth in this year’s survey and did not get high B&T rankings, but wait until next year. As Rousseau notes, “We’ve also seen a higher-than-normal interest in medicine and health subjects.”

Digital materials are boasting a banner year, but are the inroads they’ve made sustainable? Some respondents have already seen a swing back to print with library reopenings, while others report the kinds of shifts that have characterized the ongoing bumpy road to materials complexity and the degree to which every library is different. Says Rousseau, “We haven’t seen as big of a drop in physical circulation as neighboring libraries, even though it has been significant. It’s interesting that the big drop in demand is in DVDs, while books remain more constant. We also see increased use on the digital side, but perhaps a smaller percentage increase because our digital collection was already well established. Streaming video is an exception.…We are expecting a 55-60 percent increase compared to last year.”

 

TOP FICTION

In terms of fiction circulation, mystery, general fiction, thrillers, and romance remain the mighty quadrumvirate in LJ’s survey. Top-ranked mystery has lost some of its clout, having been claimed as a top print circulator by 97 percent of respondents in 2014 and 91 percent in 2020, plus taking a big stumble in ebook format from 93 percent to 76 percent in the same time frame. (See “Print & Ebook Fiction Circulation Comparisons,” below.) General fiction has held steady in print, and though its support has fallen in ebook format it remains in the No. 2 spot. In 2017, romance slipped to fourth place in print after thrillers, with which it now ties for third place; it’s also third place in
ebook format, though it had a large and inexplicable 19-point tumble downward from 2018. Interestingly, 60 percent of respondents cite romance as a top fiction circulator in both print and ebooks.

The big shift comes with the thriller genre. It has been moving upward for nearly a decade, arriving in 2018 at 72 percent and 77 percent endorsements in print and ebook format, respectively. But in 2020 thrillers fell to 60 percent in print and 54 percent in ebooks—especially surprising because B&T data show the thriller category to be its biggest adult print fiction seller to public libraries last year and the suspense subcategory as its biggest seller among all subcategories, fiction and nonfiction, adult, YA, and juvenile. The genre is still the third-ranked fiction category in the survey and gets more endorsement than in it did earlier in the decade, particularly in print, but why the downward shift?

First, a huge surge can’t always be sustained, and perhaps the fallback was an essential adjustment. The year’s biggest increases in the print fiction arena accrued to historical fiction (15 percent), sf/fantasy (11 percent), Westerns (10 percent), classic literature (10 percent), urban fiction (nine percent), YA (eight percent), horror (eight percent), and women’s fiction (six percent). In ebook format, the biggest fiction winners were YA (23 percent) and erotica (eight percent, based on its initial entry in last year’s survey). These smaller areas had room to grow, which evidently they did at the expense of thrillers in particular. Second, many of this year’s fiction winners take us to other worlds—a welcome respite from sheltering in place—while thrillers are often realistically grounded in current anxieties, from war to child kidnapping to, yes, pandemic, and may not provide the escape that would at first seem to be their draw.

 

BLACK AUTHORS

Though urban fiction has yet to break into the top 10 in print or ebook circulation, this year’s double-digit rise in respondent support is noteworthy. It also ranks 35th among B&T’s multitudinous adult fiction subcategories—and first among subcategories also coded as African American, whether fiction or nonfiction. Of the top 10 subcategories coded African American, half are in fiction and poetry, with African American poetry ranked second behind general/American in that genre. As interest in building diverse and inclusive collections accelerates, librarians are clearly looking beyond key social justice titles to provide broad reading for their communities.

Of B&T’s top 100 adult subcategories, only about a quarter are nonfiction, reflecting the predominance of fiction in public library circulation that LJ’s survey has noted for more than a dozen years. The fiction subcategories reveal women sleuths, police procedurals, and historicals to be the top mystery subcategories, with women sleuths outperforming the runners-up by 21 percent and 33 percent, respectively. In thrillers, suspense alone racked up more sales than its 10 following competitors altogether. In romance, the contemporary subcategory rules, beating out aggregated historicals by 20 percent, and of course many other subcategories, like Western, holiday, and the surprisingly robust billionaires, have contemporary settings.

COVID shifts drove falling print circ and rising ebooks. But will it last?Notwithstanding this year’s digital triumph, all fiction genres except YA and erotica circulate better in print than ebook format, with romance tying. Nonfiction reverses the situation, with the top four ebook contenders—biography/memoir, self-help/psychology, politics/current events, and history—doing substantially better than their print equivalents. Yet given the tilt of public library circulation, OverDrive’s top five circulating genres for ebooks and audiobooks from public libraries worldwide were all fiction, with romance on top, followed by thrillers, mystery and detective, contemporary women’s fiction, and fantasy. It was a year of disruption, with mixed results for which statistics can only provide a snapshot. Let’s see what happens next.

Author Image
Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?