According to Publishers Weekly, unit sales of books have risen every year since 2013, and while the increases are small on their own — at 2% or 3% per year — it’s something of a surprise that numbers continue to climb even as digitization increases. Last year, print book sales rose more than 8.9%.
So, for now: Take that, technology!
Overcoming the challenges of book publishing
Aside from general supply chain chaos, the pandemic brought some novel physical challenges to publishing, including shortages of paper, distribution labor, and warehouse inventory capacity. It posed a particular challenge to holiday deliveries — a snarl a struggling industry could ill afford.
At the same time, NPR reported, “Publishing is having a great year,” and if you stick with the surface numbers, NPR nailed it. In 2021, U.S. publishers sold 8.9% more print books than the year before. Despite pandemic-related obstacles, 825.7 million units were purchased last year.
But a more sinister challenge lurks below that glowing surface: How can publishers refresh and expand static readership?
Because while the number of books sold increased last year, data shows the typical U.S. adult read five books in 2021 — consistent with the annual standard since 2011. So, publishers must either increase their reach to bring the joys of print to a wider audience, or focus more energy on an increasing eBook audience.
One quarter of U.S. adults say they have not read a single book in the last year, and three in 10 Americans read eBooks. So, while print is not dead, we should continue to refresh — and expand — our readership, so our reserves of constant, reliable, five-book-a-year readers do not eventually run dry.
How the pandemic helped book publishing
Pandemic lockdowns slowed the pace of life, and for a while, gave readers more time to read. Bored people turned to books for entertainment and education to get through a tough time. U.S. print book sales increased by nearly 70 million units last year. Adult fiction sales rose 25.5%, and adult nonfiction increased by 4.4%.
Within the adult fiction category, graphic novel sales jumped by 109.3%, followed by fantasy, up 45.3%. Sales of adult nonfiction books on travel increased by 23% and business titles jumped 19%. It’s safe to assume people were reading more because they were stuck at home.
All this while publishers wrestled with supply chains, and this was especially true for publishers dependent on overseas vendors. Even Amazon struggled to find enough workers for its distribution warehouses. So, while the pandemic created something of a captive audience, publishers were forced into a sort of juggling act as they fought to get their frontlist titles out quickly while slowing the release of other titles. To cope, publishers moved printing back to the U.S. and leveraged print-on-demand services more frequently than before.
For publishers, the pandemic brought some unexpected positives along with the well-publicized negatives of global uncertainty. But through it all, we learned one essential thing: Books will never go out of style.
Books Will Endure
In a digital age, print books offer nostalgia and a tangible product that is educational, entertaining, and collectible. Classic books are arguably best experienced in print. The smell, heft, and tactile impressions of printed pages are both retro and timeless. Like a painting, a printed book is a physical manifestation of art — worthy of appreciation and public display.
And the print industry, far from hovering on the brink of death, is poised to make use of digital channels to enhance its product marketing.
Today’s best book publishers leverage the plethora of digital technologies to peddle their printed products. TikTok made a surprise leap to the top of publishing’s marketing priority list last year with the BookTok phenomenon. Traditional book readers took to the digital platform in droves to share their love of reading. Digital social media buzz may be exactly the right tool at the right time to broaden print publishing’s reach. But books are perfect just the way they are.