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Book Sales Up, Readership Down

Readership down among American women.
Photo by Karen Arnold under a public domain license

Both publishers and booksellers celebrated the news that print book sales were up 9.1 percent last year. According to Publishers Weekly, booksellers sold 825.7 million books in 2021, up from 757.9 million in 2020. A huge increase in fiction units sold led the way, with young adult fiction sales jumping 30.7 percent, adult fiction up 25.5 percent, and children’s fiction up 9.6 percent, respectively. All told, print book sales have risen more than 18 percent since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

U.S. Readership Lowest in Two Decades
The statistics on female readership are specifically troubling. For decades, women read nearly twice as many books as men, but the gap has narrowed significantly. The average American woman read 15.7 books last year compared to 19.3 books five years ago. While male readership declined only slightly over the same time period, going from 10.4 books in 2016 to 9.5 in 2021, this decrease in the number of books women read will particularly impact fiction sales, given that women account for 80 percent of all fiction sales in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

The overall decline in readership is likely due to increased interest in other at-home leisure activities, particularly digital streaming services. Just six percent claimed reading to be their favorite way to spend an evening, far below spending time with family (33%) or watching television or movies (23%). Gallup notes that this is only the second time since 1960 that less than 10 percent of Americans didn’t select reading as their top favorite evening activity. 

On the upside, the number of Americans who read books of any kind has remained stable. Surveys conducted between 2002 and 2016 concluded that between 16 and 18 percent of Americans claimed not to have read any books, and 17 percent claimed the same in 2021. However, PEW research conducted earlier in 2021 placed that statistic much higher at 25 percent, though it also affirmed that the percentage of non-readers has remained unchanged over 10 years. 

Paper Shortages Continue to Delay Book Publication
“Paper mills are not only cutting back, but they’re switching from book grade papers to, in their view, more profitable types of paper products,” said Integrated Books International’s Bill Clockel in a recent interview. “So even though some mills might have closed, more likely than not they’re not making book papers anymore. That’s the biggest problem that we see. There are other challenges with obtaining consumables, but paper clearly is the biggest one.”

Labor also remains an issue due to worker shortages attributable to both COVID-19 and increased employee turnover, as the quit rate among warehousing workers, which includes book distribution centers, ranked the third highest in the nation in November 2021 according to  the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cautious Optimism
Though the majority of U.S. authors have experienced significant income declines since the start of the pandemic, many in the book industry remain positive. The percentage of Americans reading e-books rose five percent in the past two years, and the share of lower-income adults who listen to audiobooks increased eight percent since 2019. According to the Book Manufacturers Institute, more than 81 percent of commercial printers expect the book market to hold steady or continue to grow over the next one to two years.