US Book Market: NPD Sees Unit Sales Up 2.8 Percent in Q2

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

While much of adult nonfiction declined in the second quarter, politically related biography and memoir gained, and children’s print gained 12 percent over the second quarter of 2019.

At Radio City Music Hall in New York City, July 19. Image – iStockphoto: Xackery Irving

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Print Market Has Since Recovered’
The top-line information from the NPD BookScan report today (July 20) includes information for the second quarter of 2020 and finds that year-to-date American book unit sales tracked by the program grew 2.8 percent through Q2, with 322 million units sold in 2020 compared to 313 million units in 2019.

The print book market was in negative year-to-date territory from March 15 to May 30, as a result of store closures in coronavirus COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

In NPD’s assessment, however, the print market has since recovered and has posted five weeks of consecutive positive year-to-date growth.

Some sector discussion from Kristen McLean, executive director for business development with NPD Book, follows.

Adult Nonfiction: Sharpest Declines

NPD sees adult nonfiction as having encountered the sharpest downturn during the mitigation shutdowns period of mid-March through May, but the adult nonfiction category that posted the highest unit gains in Q2 included biography and memoir, up 35 percent compared to the first quarter of this year.

Here we see politically charged content in play, with gains credited to new releases including The Room Where It Happened (John Bolton) as well as Untamed (Glennon Doyle). There also was an increase in biographies tied to the race-relations dynamics in the States, including Between The World And Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates); Born A Crime (Trevor Noah); and Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson). The category saw double-digit gains over performance in the first quarter.

Travel books took the biggest hit, dropping 44 percent in the second quarter compared to the first. As news reports carried the word that Europe was closing entry to travelers from the United States, European travel books dropped the farthest, followed by domestic travel titles.

Today’s report notes that there’s been something of a rebound in US travel books since the end of June, with weekly sales pulling up close to levels seen before the pandemic.

Business and economics books fared poorly—as did business and the economy, themselves—sliding 21 percent between Q1 and Q2. The key topics leading the way downhill were business leadership, management, and personal success.

Adult Gains: Fiction

Adult fiction rose 3 percent year-to-date through the second quarter.

General fiction saw the most gains over the first quarter, up a healthy 25 percent on the strength of unit sales in titles including Where The Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) and books behind recently released book-to-screen adaptations such as Normal People (Sally Rooney) and Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng). 

Children’s Print: Led by Juvenile Nonfiction

In San Diego on June 24. Image – iStockphoto: Roaming Panda

Children’s books sold 111 million units year-to-date through Q2, growing 12 percent compared to YTD 2019.

Growth was led by juvenile nonfiction, up 25 percent year to date, and up 21 percent in the second quarter over the first.

The report refers to “an explosion” in sales in mid-March as many schools closed in coronavirus-mitigation shutdowns. Top growth categories in that rush of unit sales included education, reference, and language content, up 55 percent in the second quarter over the first.

Early learner books—which includes pre-kindergarten and kindergarten—as well as middle school math and science, and language arts (young reader books for ages 4 to 8) drove this category’s growth.

Games and activities also grew 13 percent in the second quarter as parents at home looked for ways to entertain their children. 

Children’s fiction grew 4 percent in the second quarter over the first, and was up 7 percent year to date.

The largest children’s growth category in Q2 was general fiction, jumping 11 percent. NPD reports that the perennial bestseller Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (Dr. Seuss) and the new release The Last Kids on Earth: June’s Wild Flight (Max Brallier) were behind this growth.

YA Print: Up 9 Percent

July 15, a bus in Manhattan. Image – iStockphoto: WD Photo

Young adult titles sold 11 million units year to date, through Q2, up 9 percent over the same period in 2019.

The largest gains in the category came from young adult fiction, up 34 percent in Q2 over Q1, and this was largely driven by the science-fiction category following the release of The Hunger Games prequel, A Ballad Of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins). The novel sold nearly 900,000 units in its first seven weeks of sales. 

A Word on Ebooks

Year-to-date through April 2020, ebook unit sales down were  down 6 percent over 2019.

Trade-published ebooks volume tracked through NPD PubTrack Digital was down 6 percent for the year through April 2020, with 54.6 million units sold compared to 57.8 million in 2019. But looking at April—the first full month of COVID-19 stay-at-home advisories—the NPD report says that ebooks were up 31 percent over March, selling 4.2 million more units.

In April, all super-categories of ebooks experienced growth over March. The largest unit gains were seen in adult fiction, up 22 percent in April.

Adult nonfiction grew 37 percent in April over March.

At this writing, the 10:35 a.m. ET update (1435 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows the United States with the largest caseload in the world, of course, at 3,774,769 infections. The American death toll is 140,563 in a population of 328 million.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the United States market is here, more from us on Kristen McLean and NPD is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.