Materially Different: A New Kind of Materials Survey

As LJ’s materials survey grew too complex, we turned to vendor data for a granular look at what’s selling to libraries.

As LJ’s materials survey grew too complex, we turned to vendor data for a granular look at what’s selling to libraries.

When it launched in 1998, LJ’s annual materials survey of U.S. public libraries focused almost exclusively on the purchase and circulation of books. Over time, in response to readers’ needs, it expanded to include audiobooks, videos, downloadable and streaming media, music, electronic products, and ebooks. With that level of complexity, the survey was eventually streamlined to address circulation only. Even with the new focus, the proliferation of formats seems to have made participation too time-consuming for busy librarians, and this year saw an unusually small number of survey returns, rendering the results unrepresentative. As a result, we’re changing pace again and consulting with major vendors in the library market to provide a portrait of materials in U.S. public libraries.

To discover what subjects are sparking interest in the public library today, we turned to Baker & Taylor (B&T) for sales in the print arena. (The statistics cited here reflect unit rather than dollar sales.) While LJ has relied on a select group of public libraries nationwide to complete its survey, B&T’s statistics represent more than 9,000 institutions and are hence broader. They are also more specific, as they are divided by BISAC code into more than 200 fiction and nearly 3,000 nonfiction genres, subgenres, and subsubgenres.

According to B&T, mystery, thriller, romance, literary fiction, and women’s fiction were the top five print fiction subjects purchased by U.S. public libraries last year, in that order. That’s a somewhat different story from the one revealed over the last many iterations of LJ’s survey, where mystery, thriller, and romance have dominated but general fiction ranked among the top two or three hot subjects. It’s ninth on B&T’s list, likely because the richly variegated BISAC codes allow many books to sift out into more specific subgenres.

Literary fiction has typically ranked toward the bottom of LJ’s print fiction list. But as suggested by B&T’s statistics, it has been rising in recent years, likely reflecting a fruitful crossover between the literary and pop genres that has produced many language-rich yet plot-driven titles, including those now termed upmarket.



According to B&T’s statistics, by far the biggest mystery subgenre is women sleuths. Police procedurals and historicals also show considerable spunk. But despite the blood and guts, many mystery readers in public libraries like to keep things light; cozies prevail over hard-boiled mysteries at a rate of five to one.

Suspense has fired up the entire thriller field in the last few years, and public libraries purchased suspense at four times the rate of second-ranked crime. Add in psychological thrillers, going at about the same rate as crime novels, and we see less action-driven thrillers outselling all other categories combined by three to one. Reports that the espionage subgenre is flourishing are borne out by solid library sales, but legal, military, medical, and tech thrillers, long staples of the genre, register modest sales far down the list.

Genre-blending romantic suspense is counted by B&T among its 33 romance subgenres and subsubgenres, where it’s reasonably high on the list but not the most beloved. That would be contemporary romance, which beats out romantic suspense by three to one and historicals by two to one. Among historicals, Regencies reign, while Scottish titles outranked medieval titles by a factor of ten but fall big to the Victorians. Other high-riding subgenres include Westerns, paranormal romance, holiday titles, and romantic comedy.

Given current controversies, it’s heartening when comparing the 20 romance subgenres to see multicultural/interracial romance ranking in the top half in terms of sales. Dishearteningly, and a little surprisingly, LGBT sales ran at the bottom of the pack, both in romance and low-profile erotica. Lesbian romance outsold gay romance, and both lesbian and gay titles did better as their own fiction genres.



Neither fourth-place literary fiction nor fifth-place women’s fiction is broken into subgenres, but both do well enough to approach suspense titles in number of units sold. Comics/graphic novels/manga makes its appearance for the first time in a materials survey report, ranking seventh in B&T sales. Not surprisingly, superheroes comprise the largest subgenre, with the breadth of the genre reflected by its two-dozen-plus subgenres, ranging from horror to literary.

Interestingly, sf/fantasy, typically ranked at the bottom of LJ’s top ten print fiction list, ranks sixth by B&T’s estimate, with epic the biggest fantasy subgenre and action and adventure the biggest sf subgenre, followed closely by space opera. As its own genre, action and adventure doesn’t rank high, but it does well enough to compete with the crime fiction subgenre in terms of sales. Similarly, saga counts as its own, reasonably active genre rather than as a subgenre of historical fiction. LJ surveys show historical fiction rising relentlessly if sometimes jaggedly to top-five status in circulation over the last eight years, but the B&T sales figures don’t correlate; it’s ranked eighth.

From reader saturation to the lag time between a book’s purchase and its recorded circ, there are plenty of reasons why sales figures don’t mirror exactly what moves off the shelves. Here, though, a lack of strict correlation between survey and B&T categories may play a role. In any case, if historical fiction were combined with other BISAC-coded genres, from saga to sea stories, plus historical subgenres in mystery, thrillers, fantasy, and other genres, sales for fiction rooted in the past would rise nearly to the top.

For some subjects, more books would fly out the door if only they could be purchased. When asked anecdotally what in-demand fiction might rank higher in circulation at their libraries if only more books were available, respondents to this year’s survey high-fived urban fiction and #OwnVoices titles, with African American literature in particular highlighted.

Getting a better handle not only on finding but on effectively marketing such titles is part of the goal. Says Kathryn King, Fort Worth Public Library, TX, “Books in English that feature Latinx characters and experiences have been difficult for us to promote and select. When we do purchase them and branches highlight them, they circulate well.”

In a parallel question, respondents asked to highlight their top circulators not found on LJ’s most recent top-circulating lists (mystery, general fiction, thrillers, and romance) most frequently cited Christian fiction. The reasons include not just the search for comfort but basic demographics—the presence in town of conservative congregations and/or conservative religious schools and universities. For B&T’s broad base, though, demographics flatten out Christian fiction sales to tenth place.



In B&T nonfiction sales, biography claims the blue ribbon, with history following in second place. That sounds like a lot of serious reading mostly focused on the past, but in fact personal memoir constitutes 40 percent of the biography category. Among biographies themselves, works on women claim the greatest number of titles, followed closely by those limning entertainers/performers. Composers/musicians are also popular, though dropping down the sales scale by a third; sports and military figures, again dropping by a third, also get a salute.

Not surprisingly, World War II dominates the history genre, with 20th-century U.S. history and 20th-century history generally marching right behind. Civil War buffs may fall on their bayonets when they learn that books on the Revolutionary era outsell those on their beloved topic by 20 percent. That’s noteworthy because the Civil War has been such a fixture of history publishing, though books on the birth of America have certainly been ramping up. (Maybe it’s the Hamilton effect.) Also popular, reflecting current concern with cultural context, are books on social history and women’s history.

Cooking comes in third on B&T’s nonfiction hits list. Among cookbooks focused on American regional specialties, the South prevails by a factor of eight; among world cuisines, Middle Eastern cooking takes the cake. Speaking of cake, the huge number of baking titles (including those on bread, cakes, and cookies) will delight sugar-and-spice fans, but they’re balanced by an equal number of sales for healthy-eating titles. Other subgenre hits include how-to titles on bartending, entertaining, and methods (especially quick and easy), and cooking essays/narratives just miss making the top ten subgenres in a genre that has well over 100.



For the last decade, these top genres—biography, history, and cooking—have been chasing the top spot in LJ surveys, but after that the B&T figures diverge from established patterns, owing largely to categorization differences. For instance, self-help/psychology titles have often claimed fifth place in LJ’s surveys and have sometimes nudged into fourth place, but they slip to seventh place in B&T’s current standing despite these parlous times. (Respondents say it’s the nonfiction subject that would circulate more if they had more titles.) A closer look reveals that B&T’s mind/body/soul genre, which is netted with religion to reach sixth place, includes the subgenres inspiration/personal growth and mindfulness/meditation, clustered high at the top of the mind/body/soul sales heap (along with witchcraft). That’s where some self-help titles could be counted.

In addition, in LJ’s surveys, medical titles have often competed with self-help for fourth place, but they don’t even register in B&T’s top ten. It’s not that folks aren’t scurrying through the stacks looking for medical books (the Internet notwithstanding). While LJ has typically netted medical and health/fitness titles, B&T divides them, deflating sales figures for both genres. Another genre not appearing among B&T’s top ten is arts/craft/collectibles, while business/economics, social science, and family/relationships have never surfaced in LJ ’s list, possibly counted among other genres.



Despite fraught publisher policies and noise in the news about ebooks not living up to expectations, ebook circulation in U.S. public libraries has shifted steadily upward. Drawing on a customer base of 16,000 U.S. public libraries, pioneering digital reading platform Overdrive reports that in 2019 the number of adult ebooks borrowed increased 12 percent over 2018, totaling 165 million units. At the same time, the number of adult downloadable audiobooks borrowed increased by 29 percent, totaling 98 million units. Hoopla, the web and mobile library media streaming platform, confirms a 20 percent-plus growth in that timeframe for both formats.

According to Overdrive, the top five circulating genres in the downloadable audio and ebook arena are romance, thrillers, mystery and detective, contemporary women, and biography and autobiography. These are generally the strongest print circulators in print fiction and nonfiction, but in a different order for fiction, which shows how reading can shift with format.

Ebook circulation doesn’t look to be leveling out, and within aggregate media—now fully a third of total circulation—LJ’s longstanding reporting shows that physical audiobooks (e.g., CDs) and DVD/Blu-Rays are slowly losing out to downloadable audios and streaming media. The latter is a small but growing aspect of total circulation, and while it’s traditionally associated with video, ebooks and audiobooks can also be streamed (users can begin to read or listen before the download is complete). Streaming media is now commonplace in public libraries and poised for bigger things. Meanwhile, libraries will need to be ever more alert not only to what is being delivered but how. To address materials circulation properly, it’s not just a matter of, say, how many downloadable audiobooks circulate but from whence they derive, and such potential could accelerate the shifts we’re seeing in circulation breakdown.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @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.

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