NPD BookScan: US Market sees 6.4 Percent Growth Through Third Quarter

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In adult nonfiction ebooks, biography and memoir sold more than 3 million units in the second quarter, up 59 percent over the first quarter.

Masked cyclists on Venice Beach, California, April 26. Image – iStockphoto: Ana M Amortegui

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

Nonfiction Driver: Politics and Current Affairs
In a specially released quarterly executive summary, the NPD Group’s Kristen McLean and the NPD Book team report seeing the highest print growth through the third quarter of 2020 since Jo Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince pushed Q3 sales up 9.4 percent in 2005.

Through September, NPD’s BookScan tracked 6.4-percent growth, with 505 million units sold, compared to 474 million units sold in 2019.

As we learned during a Publishing Perspectives Talk during Frankfurter Buchmesse on digital format adoption, NPD has just added digital audio to its PubTrack Digital data set (which already features ebooks), so we expect new insights soon into the shape of the audiobook sector of the American market.

Meanwhile, this new report, while not accompanied by charts, provides a look at four main categories:

  • Adult print
  • Children’s print
  • YA print
  • Ebooks
Adult Print
  • Adult nonfiction, the largest of the super-categories, NPD says, sold 77 million units in Q3—up 15 percent compared to the second  quarter.
  • Year-to-date, adult nonfiction is up 1.7 percent through the third quarter 2020 on unit sales of 210 million, driven largely by books about politics and current affairs.
  • The adult nonfiction category that posted the highest unit gains is general nonfiction, selling 13 million units in Q3, up 20 percent compared to Q2.
  • The top growth title was Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Penguin Random House, August 4), an Oprah book club pick. Education subjects also received a boost during the back-to-school  season. 
  • Adult fiction sold 35 million units in Q3, up 5.4 percent compared to Q2. This category rose 3.5 percent year-to-date through Q3  2020 on unit sales of 98 million.
  • The leading category with the highest unit gains was graphic novels, which  sold 4 million print units, up 42 percent in Q3 compared to Q2. This growth was largely due to sales of manga, which  contributed three-quarters of total category gains.
Children’s Print
  • Children’s books sold 60 million units in Q3, up 15 percent compared to 2019 year-to-date.
  • Children’s print books are  contributing to 70 percent of the total market year-to-date gains.
  • Children’s nonfiction books sold 19 million units, growing 1 percent in Q3 compared to Q2—rising 29 percent for the year on 54 million units.
  • The leading nonfiction category for children was biography, selling 1 million units in Q3, up 15 percent compared to Q2 and led by timely female empowerment books including Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin Random House/Puffin, 2016) by Jacqueline Woodson and Who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg?, now titled Who Was Ruth Bader Ginsburg? (Penguin Random House, 2019) by Patricia Brennan Demuth and Who HQ, with illustrations by Jake Murray.
  • Children’s fiction sold 41 million units in Q3, growing 6 percent compared to Q2, and rising 10 percent for the year on  117 million units.
  • The leading fiction category was history/sports/people/places, selling 5 million units in Q3, up  17 percent compared to Q2 and driven largely by school and education books. 
YA Print
  • Young adult fiction and nonfiction together sold 8 million units in Q3, up 21 percent compared to Q2.
  • Year-to-date unit sales through Q3 totaled 19 million, also up 21 percent compared to the same time period last year.
  • Both YA fiction and nonfiction grew, with the largest gains coming from young adult fiction, which was up 23 percent in Q3  compared to Q2.
  • Gains were mainly driven by Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun (Little, Brown for Young Readers, August), which sold nearly 1 million print  units in its first nine weeks. 
Ebook Sales

A lot of attention has gone to ebooks and other digital formats, of course, for signs of format adoption in the consumer base relative to a the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. During Frankfurter Buchmesse sessions last week, it became evident that markets in many parts of the world saw quite similar jumps in digital-format reading (including audiobook listening) and in digital retail.

  • The NPD report tells us that traditionally published ebooks volume tracked through NPD PubTrack Digital grew 8 percent in the United States for the year through  June 2020, with 94 million units sold, compared to 88 million in 2019.
  • The largest sales gains occurred in April and May, when ebook unit sales increased more than 40 percent compared to the same months in 2019. This trend  did not carry over through June, when ebook sales were down 3 percent compared to June 2019.  
  • All super-categories posted growth in Q2 compared to Q1.
  • Adult nonfiction titles posted the largest gains, selling 15 million units in Q2, up 40 percent compared to Q1.
  • The top growth category was biography/memoir, which  sold more than 3 million units in Q2, up 59 percent versus Q1.
  • Growth was centered on top growth titles including How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House/One World, 2019) and Untamed by Glennon Doyle (Penguin Random House/The Dial Press, March).
  • Adult fiction ebooks sold 30 million units in Q2, up 15 percent compared to Q1.
  • The top growth category was general fiction, which posted 9 million in unit sales in Q2, up 24 percent compared to Q1. Growth was driven by literary work and contemporary women subjects. 

A street vendor in Los Angeles sells face masks, April 26. Image – iStockphoto: Ana M Amortegui

More from Publishing Perspectives on industry statistics is here. More from us on Kristen McLean and NPD is here. More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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.