How Print Book Sales in 2021 Increased Again—And Why It May Not Last

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No matter your role in the publishing industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we publish and read.

So, considering how rough the pandemic has been, it’s great to go into 2022 with some good news. According to NPD BookScan, its reporting found that compared to 2020, unit sales of print books increased by 8.9% in 2021. Put differently, sales grew from 757.9 million print books sold in 2020 to 825.7 in 2021. That’s a jump of nearly 68 million copies!

This growth is doubly impressive compared to the increase between 2019 and 2020. In that timespan, sales rose 8.2% from 692.7 million. That puts 2021 at a whopping 132 million copies over 2019 and its prepandemic levels.

So, what drove the increase in 2021? Young adult fiction led the pack, rising more than 30%, with adult fiction not far behind at more than 25.5%. Almost every age category and print format also saw growth, except for juvenile nonfiction and mass-market paperbacks.

Within these categories, the adult graphic novel genre was the bigger winner, with sales more than doubling (109.3%). But even more impressive is the explosive popularity of manga, Japanese comics, which are often compiled in graphic novels. Young readers have driven the sales surge in manga, which is paired with youth interest in anime (Japanese cartoons) that accompany the manga series.

Other standouts include small travel books, which recovered in sales after 2020 hammered the travel industry. Young adult fiction’s surge can also be partially attributed to “BookTok”: a community of book reviewers and enthusiastic readers on the hip new social media platform TikTok. BookTok primarily focuses on backlist titles, leading to unexpected boosts of titles that have left the front of bookstores.

So what should you as a writer focus on? First, when looking at these numbers, temper the urge to jump onto a category just because it’s trending because when you finish a book and get it ready for publication, the trends will be different.

What matters more is that every increase is an opportunity. The more books you put to market, the more chances you have to strike gold when your niche becomes the latest craze, as currently being seen with graphic novels and BookTok recommendations.

With all of this said, this increase will likely not last forever. In a recent webinar, BookScan executive director Kristen McLean predicted that print book unit sales would probably fall in 2022.

McLean cites one big point: 2020 and 2021 were uniquely unusual years for BookScan and the book publishing industry in general. Not only did lockdowns and quarantines push readers to books, but readers became more invested than ever in social justice issues and the books about them.

Other changes include the supply chain problem, as we’ve covered previously. This problem has already plagued publishers with supply shortages and shipping congestion last year, and it will likely linger into 2022. This may translate to price increases for print books—at least for the ones that can even reach bookstores in the first place.

Add in worries about inflation in the United States, along with increasing concern about paper’s impact on the environment, and readers may be more reserved about their book buying, at least relative to 2020 and 2021.

So which channels may readers pursue instead? McLean speculates that online purchases will decrease as brick-and-mortar shops reopen and customers feel safer about browsing in person. Readers may also turn more toward used books and eBooks, and the rise in library eBook borrowing may mean patrons may continue borrowing books virtually.

What should we take away here? First, it’s essential to diversify your book format. That means making your book available in print format and as an eBook and audiobook form, along with any other medium that emerges as technology evolves.

Then consider the different places where you can sell your book, from online retailers to physical bookstores to even stocking libraries with physical and electronic copies of your work. Every platform you add your book onto is another way that potential readers can buy and read your book.

You should also stay on top of promotional opportunities. BookTok was especially fruitful for the authors it highlighted, and the popularity of social media websites rise and fall by the quarter. You might find success through BookTok this year, but keep an eye on where your audience is going and meet them there.

Like how the pandemic led to unpredictable changes in reading habits, no one can say how readers will change their preferences as COVID cases plummet and people return to vacation trips, outdoor activities, and crowded venues.

But be aware of how the industry changes, stay nimble about what comes next in publishing, and be proactive in covering your bases and growing your writing career. Hopefully, 2022 will be another fruitful year for authors

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