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Despite Pandemic, 2020 U.S. Book Sales on Par with Past Five Years

view of inside bookstore
view of inside bookstore

The American Association of Publishers (AAP) recently released its StatShot annual report, which tracks book sales generated in the United States, what types of books fared best, and which experienced declining sales. The AAP estimated that overall book sales in 2020 topped $25.71 billion, just 0.2 percent lower than in 2019, and in line with StatShot reports for the past five years showing annual American book publishing revenues holding steady at $25–26 billion. 

Given the huge impact of the pandemic on the publishing industry, including publication delays; canceled in-person book tours, signings, and readings; and the closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores during the enforced lockdowns in 45 states, many had expected last year’s overall book sales to drop significantly.

“The 2020 results are remarkable and inspirational for a year that people will long associate with an unprecedented public health crisis, worldwide suffering, and colossal business disruptions,” said AAP CEO and President Maria A. Pallante in a statement about the StatShot report. “That publishing is resilient is nothing new, but we should nevertheless take a moment to recognize the incredible dedication and innovation of the industry in serving readers and the public interest during such an isolating and confusing time.”

Performance of the different sectors departed significantly from past years though, with trade book sales, including fiction and nonfiction, up a full six percent, reflecting an increased consumer interest in recreational reading during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the physical closures of universities, public schools, and businesses for a large portion of the year as well as the switch to digital learning drove a decline in sales of both higher ed and pre-K–12 books by 5.7 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively, and of professional books by 14.5 percent.

People Read More During Lockdown

Interestingly, sales of books published by university presses also rose nearly three percent to $391.7 million. Like the increase in trade sales, this reflects the larger trend that saved the U.S. publishing industry last year: the rise in the amount of time Americans spent reading during the pandemic. Whether reading books served as a form of escape from the stress COVID-19 has caused or as entertainment in light of the limited opportunities people had to socialize or engage in other activities outside the home, adult trade sales rose 9.6 percent, while children’s/YA trade sales increased by 3.5 percent. All told, directly reported revenue for trade books grew 8.6 percent, accounting for $16.67 billion of 2020 revenue.

Ebook Sales Rose and Online Trade Book Sales Outstripped Brick-and-Mortar Sales

While print book sales continue to outpace digital, ebook revenue rose 11.7 percent, the first time it has increased since 2014. Audiobooks sales continued to grow, up 13.2 percent over 2019, generating $1.42 billion in revenue. 

The AAP also noted that 2020 was the first time that online sales accounted for more than 50 percent of trade books sold. While Amazon came out a huge winner given its dominance of the online bookseller market, sales through physical bookstores declined 11.3 percent.

“The Authors Guild is delighted by the news that the book industry continues to thrive and the renewed interest in reading as entertainment,” said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild. “This bodes well for the future of the writing profession. The Authors Guild is here to ensure that authors, and not just publishers and retail platforms, also benefit from the health of the industry, and to reverse the downward trends of author incomes.”