Are Book Sales Up or are Book Sales Down?

August 19th, 2019

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau reported that U.S. bookstore sales dropped 5.1% in the first six months of 2019. I filed the report away — as I always do with industry sales reports — with the thought “up a little here, down a little there….” While a 5% shift is, by most measures, more than “a little,” it’s the up-and-down nature of publishing sales statistics that always strikes me. Up a little here, down a little there.

U.S. book industry sales reports come from three main sources, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), NPD BookScan — which captures about 85% of print trade book sales (including Amazon print book sales), and the U.S. Census Bureau, which tallies bookstore sales, including the chains (of all products sold, not just books), but not including online book sales.

The overall AAP data is tough to compare against the other two sources as it includes educational and scholarly publisher sales (although sales by type of publisher are usually isolated within the totals). The AAP provides wholesale, not retail data, though the trends should be relatively consistent across both. But, more broadly, the disparate data sources make detailed comparisons subject to dispute.

Within those limitations let’s look at the publicly-disclosed sales reports covering 2018 and 2019 to date, working backwards from the most recent data:

• Bookstore sales dropped 5.1% in first half of 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, via PW).*

• Print unit sales fell 1.9% in the first half of 2019 (NPD BookScan, via PW).

• U.S. retail book sales were down about 2% in the first three months of 2019 (NPD BookScan, as reported by The Hot Sheet).

• Publisher revenue, all categories, was up by 6.7% in Q1 2019. Trade sales increased 6% (AAP press release).

• (added to this post on 8/28/19) For the first six months of 2019, trade sales up 3.8% (AAP press release).

• Bookstore sales fell 8.4% in Q1 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, via PW).

• Publisher revenue decreased by 1.6% in 2018; trade sales increased by 1.5%. Ebook sales declined by 2% (AAP final figures, via PW and Publishing Perspectives).

• Trade publisher revenue increased by 4.6% in 2018, with overall publisher revenue down by 0.4% (AAP release, based on preliminary data).

• Profits rose in 2018 at four of the five major trade publishers [that report their financial information] (PW).

• (added to this post on 9/03/19) The first six months of 2019 were something of a mixed bag for trade publishers whose financial results are publicly reported. (PW)

• Bookstore sales rose 1.7% in 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau, via PW).

• Print unit sales increased 1.3% in 2018 (NPD BookScan, via PW).

• Student spending on course materials declined by 14% in 2018-2019 academic year (National Association of College Stores (NACS) press release).

•  In 2018 ABA membership grew for the ninth year in a row, with stores operating in more than 2,400 locations (up from 2,227 in 2015) (PW).

For a point of comparison to U.S. figures, the U.K. Publishers Association reported “total book income” in 2018 down 4% to £3.6bn, with physical book sales down 5%.

BookNet Canada reported that print book sales remained flat between 2017 and 2018.

As a counterpoint to book sales figures, overall U.S. retail sales grew by 3.9% in 2018 (the U.S. Census Bureau calculated this number at 4.9%) — while online sales increased 15% (Internet Retailer), dropping to 13.3% in Q2 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau PDF).

Does the decline in bookstore sales recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau thus far in 2019 indicate lower book publishing sales overall or instead signal the continuing move to online as the dominant retail outlet? Hard to tell. Amazon, as always, guards book sale data, but as recorded by Publishing Perspectives, based on AAP data, “for a second year publisher sales to online retail channels exceeded sales to physical retail channels, with sales to online retail at $8.03 billion and sales to physical retail at $6.90 billion.” For trade books the number was $6.74 billion online, versus $3.84 bricks & mortar (also AAP via PW).

So there you have it: up a little here, down a little there. I’ll leave the last word to Porter Anderson, writing in June in Publishing Perspectives about the latest AAP report: “From the five-year view offered by the report, revenue for the American book publishing industry is seen contracting again slightly for a fifth year, in what appears to be a gentle, downward glide-path.”

Note*: Barnes & Noble represents about 35% of overall bookstore retail sales. Its comparable store sales were down 1.9% in its fiscal year ending April 27, 2019, versus the overall U.S. Census Bureau report of 5.1% through June 30, 2019. Non-book sales clock in at 31% of Barnes & Noble’s total.