Books Sales Continue To Improve, but Recovery from the Impact of COVID-19 Is Not Yet Assured

Sales grew steadily over recent weeks, contributing to improved year-to-date figures, but whether the publishing industry is entering recovery or still riding out the COVID-19 crisis after its most critical phase remains to be seen.

Though book sales initially tumbled when COVID-19 prompted lockdown, they staged a comeback and continue rising, if jaggedly, as the country nears reopening. According to data provided by BookScan, a division of the NPD Group reporting on the publishing industry, four of the last five weeks have seen growth, with sales down only during the post-holiday week in April, traditionally a slow time for book sales.

Weekly Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Major Categories

 

PERCENTAGE CHANGE IN BOOK SALES

Subject April 5-April 11 April 12-April 18 April 19-April 25 April 26-May 2 May 2-May 9
Overall 13.7 -19.9 10.1 10.9 10.5
Adult fiction 1.8 5.5 8.1 13.5 14.7
Adult nonfiction 6.8 -12.5 24.7 30.7 9.4
Juvenile fiction 26.2 -34 2.5 -6.9 10.2
Juvenile nonfiction 15.9 -29.4 -0.2 -11.6 4.2
YA fiction 15.2 -11.2 -8.4 4.4 20.8
YA nonfiction 17.6 -12.3 -11.6 2.4 15.3
Other  -0.1 -26.5 20.5 42.3 19.3

SOURCE: THE NPD GROUP | NPD BOOKSCAN, PRINT-ONLY UNIT SALES, AS REPORTED BY BOOKSCAN
REPORTING RETAILERS IN THE US.

Furthermore, the week ending May 9 proved to be the third straight week of growth pushing over 10 percent, with upward swings appearing in all major categories, e.g., adult fiction and juvenile nonfiction, and year-to-date sales standing at only -1.5 percent. (See “Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Major Categories.”) That compares favorably with a -2.2 percent year-to-date figure the previous week and -6.8 percent for the year-over-year sales figure that pertained during the critical COVID-19 period, March 1–May 2. (See “Overall Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Major Categories.”)

Overall Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Major Categories

YEAR-OVER-YEAR CHANGE
DURING CRITICAL COVID PERIOD

PERCENTAGE CHANGE,
YEAR-TO-DATE

Subject 9 Weeks March 1-May 2 Subject % Change YTD Jan 5-May 9
Overall -6.8 Overall -1.5
Adult fiction -4.8 Adult fiction -0.4
Adult nonfiction -21.2 Adult nonfiction -8.8
Juvenile fiction 1.1 Juvenile fiction 3.2
Juvenile nonfiction 37.4 Juvenile nonfiction 25.4
YA fiction -9 YA fiction -7.4
YA nonfiction 25 YA nonfiction 19
Other  -49 Other  -21.7

SOURCE: THE NPD GROUP | NPD BOOKSCAN, PRINT-ONLY UNIT SALES, AS REPORTED BY BOOKSCAN
REPORTING RETAILERS IN THE US.

In addition, among the 99 top demographic areas, 36 showed positive year-to-date sales figures for the week ending May 9, up from 27 areas the previous week. Year-to-date sales were still in the red for the five key areas of New York, NY/Connecticut, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles; Chicago/Indiana; San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose; and Boston/New Hampshire/Vermont, with figures ranging from Chicago’s -0.5 percent down to New York’s -7 percent. But these areas all showed considerable growth in the week ending May 9, with Los Angeles leading with a 15.7 percent growth. (See “Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Demographic Area.”)

Impact of COVID-19 on Book Sales by Demographic Area

PERCENTAGE CHANGE
IN BOOK SALES

YEAR-OVER-YEAR CHANGE
DURING CRITICAL COVID PERIOD

PERCENTAGE CHANGE,
YEAR-TO-DATE

Subject

% Change TW
May 2-May 9

Subject

9 Weeks
March 1-May 2

Subject

17 Weeks
Jan 5-May 9

Overall 10.4 Overall -6.9 Overall -1.5
New York, NY/CT/PA -7.2 New York, NY/CT/PA -16.6 New York, NY/CT/PA -7
Los Angeles -15.7 Los Angeles -6.4 Los Angeles -1.9
Chicago, IL/IN 9.7 Chicago, IL/IN -6.1 Chicago, IL/IN -0.5
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA 11.7 San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA 9.5 San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA 4.8
Boston, MA/NH/VT -3 Boston, MA/NH/VT -4.9 Boston, MA/NH/VT -1.1

SOURCE: THE NPD GROUP | NPD BOOKSCAN, PRINT-ONLY UNIT SALES, AS REPORTED BY BOOKSCAN
REPORTING RETAILERS IN THE US.

As sales crawl upward, they are readjusting to patterns more typical of the pre–COVID-19 era in terms of adult vs. juvenile/YA materials. Juvenile materials, particularly nonfiction, experienced a huge surge in sales with lockdown, as parents struggled to attend to children home from school.

BookScan data show adult materials resurging in the last few weeks.  Also, recent increases in the reported value of manufacturers’ recommended retail price—up by 12 percent for the week ending May 9 and 18 percent the previous week—confirm that the higher-priced adult materials are drawing buyers’ attention again. Still, at 25.4 percent and 19 percent, respectively, juvenile nonfiction and YA nonfiction were the only major categories showing significant year-to-date growth, with juvenile fiction eking out a 3.2 percent gain and all other categories in the red. Adult nonfiction, which fell -21.1 percent during the critical COVID-19 period, has the most catching up to do.

With sales generally improving, has the book industry entered recovery? The folks at BookScan are hedging their bets. “I think it is wise to ask if the market is going to see a ‘W’–shaped recovery, with ups and downs before it's truly through [the pandemic] and on the other side,” says Kristen McLean, Industry Analyst, NPD Entertainment | NPD Books. “There are simply too many unknowns.”

Among the imponderables: how fast consumers return to the public marketplace, how retail is changed by the pandemic, how publishers absorb the lessons they’re learning, how the political situation shapes up, and, most critically, how the virus continues to act. Yet in the past books have proved recession-resistant, and the publishing industry is faring better now than  many other industries. There’s some reason to at least hope for the best.

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.

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