Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’ Breaks NPD BookScan’s Nonfiction Records

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Year’s End: An already exceptionally busy year for nonfiction—propelled in part by political titles—gets even hotter as US adult nonfiction print sales move 257 million units through November.

Image – iStockphoto: Svetlanais

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

‘Bolstered by Excitement Around the Election’
In a year that’s been a standout for political nonfiction in the United States market, the first volume (of two) of Barack Obama’s new memoir  A Promised Land from Penguin Random House sold more than 835,000 print copies in its first week, according to NPD BookScan figures on print sales.

Penguin Random House’s figure in all formats for the first week, in fact, is 1,710.443 copies in the States and Canada–setting a new record for PRH first-week sales.

Update: Penguin Random House has announced on December 17 that the book has sold 3,320,000 in all formats in Canada and the United States in its first month. As of the 17th, the book has 4.7 million copies in print in the U.S. and Canada, following an initial printing of 3.4 million copies.

This makes the book, released on November 17, the top-selling first-week nonfiction title tracked by the system since NPD BookScan began following the publishing industry in 2004. Today (December 10), the book is at No. 1 on the Amazon Charts in “most read” nonfiction, its third week on that list, and it’s at No. 1 in “most sold” nonfiction, in its seventh week on that list.

As Kiera O’Brien is reporting at The Bookseller in London, similar performance is being tracked for the book on the British market.

“Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (Penguin),” O’Brien writes, “has once again charted top of both the Amazon ‘most sold’ and ‘most read’ nonfiction charts, as it claimed a third week as the UK official Top 50 No. 1” per Nielsen BookScan.

Media messaging from NPD says that the runner-up to this new success is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, also from Penguin Random House and released two years ago on November 13, 2020, which sold 711,000 copies in its first week. Becoming stands at No. 5 on the Amazon Charts in “most read” nonfiction, it’s 108th week, and at No, 4 in “most sold,” at 105 weeks on that list.

And No. 3 among these heavy-hitting White House memoirs is Bill Clinton’s My Life, again from Penguin Random House, released on May 21, 2015, and selling 606,000 copies in its first week.

At many points in the latter half of the year, the book by Donald Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump,  Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon & Schuster, July 14) has been a steady presence. That’s borne out today, with Too Much and Never Enough standing at No. 18 on the Amazon Charts’ “most read” nonfiction.

NPD’s BookScan figures on print show Mary Trump’s book helping to move the sector forward, with American sales of biography and autobiography increasing 3.4 million units in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of adult nonfiction book gains.

Image: The NPD Group/NPD BookScan, US print sales only

In a prepared statement, NPD Books’ Kristen McLean says, ” Nonfiction books of all kinds fared very well this year, bolstered by the excitement surrounding the presidential election and with the additional reading time afforded by pandemic mitigation orders.

“From political memoirs and nonfiction books about race to political commentary and opinion, US readers were reading books at a higher rate than usual.”

US Adult Nonfiction Up 3.3 Percent Over 2019

Adult nonfiction, which NPD points out is the largest US print book “super-category,” accounting for 41 percent of the total US market, rose 3.3 percent over 2019 performance on sales of more than 257 million units through November 28.

NPD’s research shows that the top-growing sub-category was general nonfiction, which rose by 5.2 million units, year-over-year, comprising 25 percent of all adult nonfiction sales gains.

Books that specifically explored race in America, McLean’s figures show, played what she terms “a crucial role in the rise of the general no-fiction category in 2020.” These were led by:

History and political science book sales rose more than 3.2 million units, year-over-year, per NPD data, contributing to 16 percent of adult nonfiction gains so far this year.

And NPD is confirming that the fastest-growing subjects in this category were political commentary and opinion, which increased sales by 1 million units this year, and the subcategory of civil rights, which grew 629,000 units.

Top-selling political titles included How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House) with 669,000 units and  Live Free or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink by Sean Hannity (Simon & Schuster) at 543,000 units.


More from Publishing Perspectives on political books is here. More from us on Penguin Random House is here. More on the United States market is here and more on nonfiction is here

And 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 2019 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 also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.