BookExpo Education: “The State of the Publishing Industry Today”

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In an education session at this year’s BookExpo, David Walter, executive director of NPD Book (previously Nielsen Book), delivered a report from the industry data analysis company that describes the outlook for the U.S. book market as well as the latest book trends.

At Walter’s presentation on “The State of the Publishing Industry Today” on Thursday, May 30, attendees received a recap of key industry performance in 2018 and 2019; learned about the significant trends in content and platform, as well as the outlook for digital versus print in the next few years; and went over some of the opportunities and risks for publishers and retailers in 2019 and beyond.

The session drew on data from NPD BookScan, PubTrack Digital, and the wider NPD portfolio of the latest retail data and analysis, providing a snapshot of the industry to help booksellers navigate their future business decisions.

BookScan is a sales measurement system that aggregates data from approximately 85 percent of the U.S. trade market for physical books. Large retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble; Walmart, Target, and grocery chains; and self-selecting ABA member bookstores all report their sales data to BookScan, which uses it to create weekly national and regional market bestseller lists. No data is collected for sales to schools, libraries, book clubs, wholesalers, corporate sales, or exports.

Here are some key insights from Walter’s presentation:

  • For the 12 months ending March 2019, the total U.S. market (all channels) was up 1.8% overall. However, retail sales growth stagnated in the first quarter of the year, and overall U.S. book sales were down 2.9%.
  • 2018 saw modest growth in print book sales, with a 1.3 percent increase in sales volume year over year. However, the first quarter of 2019 posted a 6% decrease in sales volume compared to the first quarter of 2018.
  • The long-term books market (print and e-books) is extremely flat, with a compound annual growth rate of -0.1% from 2013 to 2018.
  • Digital audiobook revenue grew 37% year over year through November 2018. Digital audio growth is currently outpacing the decline in e-book sales, which decreased by 3% in 2018.
  • Adult nonfiction and children’s books have driven market growth for print books from 2015 to 2019. In 2018, 23% of print book sales were those in the top 100 on NPD Book’s bestseller list.
  • Backlist is accounting for a higher percentage of sales than in prior years. In the first quarter of 2019, backlist made up 64% of book sales (up from 58% in 2015), while frontlist made up 36%.
  • Last year, buyers bought more books published before 2000 than books published in 2017 and 2018.

Adult Nonfiction

  • In 2018, compared to 2017, most adult nonfiction categories for print books increased in sales, with the highest growth seen in cooking/entertainment, self-help, and political science and history.
  • However, in the first quarter of 2019, compared to the first quarter of 2018, analysis of the top nonfiction categories for print books shows the largest increase in biography and the largest decrease in political science and history.
  • Religion and bibles, reference general nonfiction, and biography were the bestselling adult nonfiction categories in both 2018 and in 2019’s first quarter.
  • 72% of the top 10 2018 political title book sales occurred in the first month of publication, compared to 41% of sales in adult fiction. Fire and Fury and Fear were two of the biggest political books that helped drive growth that year, but so far in 2019, no political books have gained comparable traction in the market.
  • While the overall e-book format is in decline, political e-books are performing well.
  • 16% more frontlist political books were published in print in the first quarter of 2019 versus in the first quarter of 2018, but there was a 38% decrease in political book sales in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the first quarter of 2018.
  • Lifestyle books continued rising in the first quarter of 2019. House and home books showed 67% growth, which NPD found was driven by the popularity of Marie Kondo. Self-help books were up 12%, helped by Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing. Cooking and entertainment saw 4% growth driven by the keto diet trend and the resurgence of Salt, Aid, Fat, and Heat by Samin Nosrat.

Adult Fiction

  • Adult categories drove backlist books sales in 2018. The top five adult category drivers in 2018 were all nonfiction; in fiction, there was significant growth in the suspense/thriller category.
  • Over half of adult fiction sales are now in print formats.
  • In the first quarter of 2019, compared to the first quarter of 2018, most fiction categories for print books decreased in sales, with print adult fiction declining 6% and the biggest decreases in science fiction and religion. The general fiction, romance, and suspense/thriller categories showed the highest sales.
  • In 2019's first quarter, fantasy books showed 1% growth, with Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James as the top title. Suspense/thriller books were up 1%, with James Patterson dominating the category. Action and adventure saw 45% growth, driven by Fire & Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones.

Children’s Books

  • In 2018, compared to 2017, sales of children’s categories for print books increased by 0.2%, with the highest growth in the holidays/festivals/religion; social situations/family/health; and education/reference/language categories.
  • Children’s book sales are more backlist-driven than the overall market, with backlist making up 73.1% sales volume in 2018. That year, nearly 50% of children’s backlist titles sold were picture books, and close to 1 in 3 was a licensed property (top-selling licensed brands were A Wrinkle in Time, Dr. Seuss, Very Hungry Caterpillar, Disney Princess, and Dungeons and Dragons).
  • The total children’s market declined by 10% in the first quarter of 2019, as compared to the first quarter of 2018.

Young Adult Books

  • In 2018, the top young adult category (SciFi/Fantasy/Magic) rebounded after a significant drop-off in sales in 2017.
  • Three of the top-selling young adult authors were tied to 2018 screen adaptations (Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give; Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; and Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda).
  • In the first quarter of 2019, compared to the first quarter of 2018, analysis of YA categories showed the highest growth in history/sports/people/places and the largest decline in general fiction.

Final Conclusions

  • After six years of growth the print market has started to decline as e-books continue to see attrition.
  • High-profile titles drove growth in 2018 while backlist gained market share, squeezing the midlist. 
  • Political fatigue may be setting in, whereas lifestyle themes remain on trend. 
  • Visual storytelling continues to boom. U.S. print sales of comics and graphic novels in the trade market has increased by 12% from 2006 to 2018, and there was an 8% increase from the first quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019.
  • Cross-media presence becomes increasingly important to break through in a crowded cultural landscape.