By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘This Gentle Landing’A positive but cautionary message is going to reporters today (August 9) from Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst with NPD Books and Entertainment.
July finished down 5.6 percent compared to June, McLean’s data shows, “which is typical for this time of year in the book market.”
“While print sales ran slightly under 2020 this month,” she says, “weekly volume remained well above 2019. The market finished the month up 15 percent year-to-date on a total unit volume of 442 million units.” That’s 58.4 million units ahead of 2020, and 77.9 million units ahead of 2019, at the same point.
“However,” McLean writes, “pulling back to the 10,000-foot view, momentum is slowing—even beyond the normal summer lull. In the monthly rolling 52-week view, sales dropped below the zero mark for the first time, as the pendulum swung back from the extreme highs of the last 12 months.”
She makes it clear, too, that the rest of 2021 could have several influences on the American market’s performance this year.
“If we just keep chugging along on this track, staying close to 2020 volume,” McLean says, “sales will continue this gentle landing and likely finish the year between 5 and 8 percent over last year.
“However, there are some big x-factors in front of us, including the impact of returning to classrooms and offices, which is expected to play out in September, and which could drag sales down a bit.
“In addition, the constantly evolving situation with the ‘delta’ variant is introducing significant uncertainty into the outlook for a return to school, work, and college—which could have effects, not only the book market, but also on the larger economy.”
In her interpretation of the US market’s progress this year, McLean talks about a “gentle descent” from the elevated levels of performance seen after the COVID-fueled energy of 2020.
“While the weekly figures have fallen slightly below 2020 for the last month,” she says, “they’ve stayed well above 2019 volume, giving the market a gentle descent, as we head into fall. The entire market continues to shed about a point of year-to-date performance each week.”
The month of September, McLean says, will be “pivotal for understanding the trajectory of the remainder of the year,” as the return to work and school will affect the time people have for buying and reading.”
Eyeing the Variant: Hachette Postpones Reopening
But, per her earlier note about what Donald Rumsfeld would have called “known unknowns,” even the expectation that office reopenings will happen in September is shifting.
“In a message to the Hachette Book Group staff last Wednesday (August 4), CEO Michael Pietsch announced that the company has decided to postpone its September office reopening” in light of the increasingly serious surge activity of COVID-19’s delta variant.
And Pietsch stopped short of setting new dates, saying that the company will provide employees with a minimum of four weeks’ notice before the move forward with an opening.
What’s more, starting today (August 9), Hachett’s offices—which have some limited availability “within our current capacity limits”—will require that “any employee who wishes to visit an HBF office will be required to provide proof of vaccination in advance,” Pietsch writes.
“Face coverings will also be required in our offices at all times, unless you are alone in a conference room or at your desk without anyone in an adjoining cubicle.”
The company is next providing more information on current in-office regulations and on business travel issues soon, Pietsch says.
Notes From NPD on Content
In her new report, McClean cites several points of content patterns that will sound immediately familiar
“Volume for all super-categories dropped in July—the four weeks ending July 31,” she says, as “compared to the prior four-week period. This is a seasonal trend. Book
buying slows in July. It doesn’t point to any major shifts in the market.”
- Adult non-fiction saw the largest declines, selling 1.2 million fewer units. The biggest drops were in cooking, religion, and biography.
- Juvenile fiction unit sales fell by 800,000 month-over-month, led by softer sales from Dr. Seuss, Jeff Kinney, and Father’s Day-related books.
- Adult fiction sold 600,000 fewer units, driven by drops in thrillers and contemporary women’s content—subjects with blockbuster releases in June like The President’s Daughter by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, and Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand.
- Juvenile nonfiction sales dropped by 500,000 units. Main drops there, McLean reports, were in study aids and games and activities.
- YA sales fell 100,000 units, driven by fewer sales for Leigh Bardugo titles, which grew in popularity following the April release of Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone Netflix adaptation.
And more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.