US First-Quarter 2021 Print Book Sales Grew 29 Percent

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In ebooks, NPD sees an overall 2020 gain of 17 percent, and in April 2020, 5.2 million more ebooks were sold than in April 2019.

On Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, January 7. Image – iStockphoto: Massimo Giachetti

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

Adult Nonfiction and Juvenile Fiction Lead
Today’s (April 19) executive summary from NPD BookScan on the first quarter of 2021 sees the volume of sales in print books in the United States growing 29 percent over the same quarter in 2020. That’s representative of 205 million units, over sales of 158 units sold in Q1 2020.

This marks the highest volume of Q1 print sales since NPD BookScan began tracking sales in 2004,” according to this morning’s media messaging from NPD Books’ Kristen McLean.

Adult nonfiction and juvenile fiction, NPD’s data shows, were in the lead in the first quarter of this year, each of those two categories up 16 million units over their first-quarter performance in 2020.

Many points about buying patterns in print are nested in the market results described here.

Adult Nonfiction Print

McLean’s report shows adult nonfiction print books selling at a rate of 24 percent higher than in the previous year’s first quarter, with 82 million units sold—16 million more than were sold in 2020’s first quarter.

  • General nonfiction grew 4 million units in Q1, driven by the body, mind and spirit sector—specifically inspiration and personal growth and divination subjects.
  • Educational titles posted the next largest gains in general nonfiction, up 600,000 units and led by teaching methods and materials
  • Religion was up 2 million units in Q1, driven by Christian life and biblical studies subjects
  • Reference grew by 2 million units, led by the subject of poetry and driven The Hill We Climb, the work read by Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of Joe Biden

An interesting decline was tracked in travel books, which were down 300,000 units over Q1 2020. European travel books showed the biggest decline, perhaps reflecting consumers’ early-year uncertainty about travel prospects in the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. The irony there, of course, is that now in the second quarter, domestic air carriers are reporting a new surge in travelers’ interest and spending.

Adult Fiction Print

US adult fiction was up 35 percent, NPD citing 39 million units sold in the first quarter, a jump of 10 million units over last year’s first quarter. In the lead were:

  • The graphic novel, up 4 million units—manga contributed to more than 80 percent of unit gains
  • General fiction grew by 2 million units, led by the contemporary women category, driven by Kristen Hannah’s titles The Four Winds and Firefly Lane. The latter was adapted for Netflix and released in February 2021. Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library was another leading title
  • Romance print sales were up more than 1 million units; Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series led the charge, another property given a Netflix adaptation

Children’s Print

Children’s books sold 72 million units, NPD reports, growing 32 percent in Q1 compared to Q1 2020. Growth was led by juvenile fiction, up 40 percent, or 16 million units in the first quarter of this year. Juvenile nonfiction was up 12 percent, growing by 2 million units in Q1.

Top growth juvenile categories included:

  • General fiction, up 5 million units, led by activity books and humorous stories
  • Coloring books were behind activity-book growth, and new releases from Jeff Kinney (author of the Wimpy Kid empire) led growth in humorous stories
  • Social situations in juvenile fiction grew by 2 million units, led by The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel  series by Ann M. Martin and Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris
  • Science fiction and fantasy gained 2 million units, driven by Dog Man: Mothering Heights by Dav Pilkey

Aside from these categories, Dr. Seuss books also sparked growth in juvenile fiction, following the quickly politicized news that the Seuss estate had pulled six titles from the catalogue. “Sales of Dr. Seuss books nearly doubled in Q1 2021 compared to Q1 2020,” NPD reports, ‘selling 3.8 million units in Q1 this year compared to 2.0 million units in 2020.”  

Young Adult Print

YA, the smallest super-category with 8 million units sold, was up 60 percent in Q1 2021 compared to Q1  2020, selling 3 million more units. Ninety percent of gains were from young adult fiction, which grew 1.5 times faster than young adult nonfiction. The largest growth driver in young adult was the #BookTok hashtag on TikTok, a platform that’s influencing book sales in an unprecedented way. 

In top growth categories, the science fiction and fantasy category was up 1 million units, led by Chain of Iron 2 by Cassandra Clare and The Twisted Ones 2 by Scott Cawthon.

Social situations in YA fiction grew by 700,000 units, driven by E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End. “These are backlist titles that saw a sales boost following #BookTok posts,” McLean’s discussion tells us.

2020 Ebook Unit Sales: Up 17 Percent for the Year

A shot at Broadway and East 12th Street in Manhattan, the Strand Bookstore, June 1, 2020. Image – iStockphoto: Massimo Giachetti

In her report today, McLean also includes information on 2020 ebooks for the year 2020, volume tracked through NPD’s PubTrack Digital system.

The data shows a rise of 17 percent for the year, and “April 2020 posted the highest year-over-year unit gains,” NPD writes, “when 5.2 million more ebooks were sold compared to 2019. 

“May saw the next highest year-over-year gains, up 4.8 million units.”

This, of course, is the coronavirus digital acceleration effect in action. “The  pandemic made the digital format more desirable,” McLean reports, “as it’s a germ-free experience and ebooks can be acquired  instantly at home” when downloaded.

Combining print and ebook sales, NPD sees ebooks representing “about 18 percent of total sales in 2020, a one-point increase above 17 percent in 2019.

In categories and ebook-sales activity:

  • Adult fiction, the largest ebook category, represented nearly 60 percent of the ebook market and sold 103 million units in the pandemic year 2020, growing 6 million units compared to 2019. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was the top selling adult fiction ebook of the year for a second year, followed by American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  • Adult nonfiction grew by 20 percent, selling 48 million units in 2020 compared to 39 million in 2019. Too Much and  Never Enough by Mary L. Trump was the bestselling adult nonfiction title of the year, followed by How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Children’s ebooks (fiction and non-fiction combined) sold 17 million units in 2020, 8 million more units in 2020 compared to 2019. Nearly 90 percent of these gains were from juvenile fiction. The bestselling ebook of the year was a juvenile fiction title, The Bad Seed by Jory John
  • YA ebooks grew 56 percent overall with 64 million units sold. Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer was the  bestselling young adult ebook of the year

More on the United States market is here, more on the NPD Group’s reports is here and more from Publishing Perspectives on political books is here. More from us on industry statistics 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 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.