U.S. book sales dropped again in 2022
The unstable post-pandemic global economy, marked by rising interest rates, costs, and high inflation, also proved to be a drag on sales.
While 2021 was a surprisingly strong year for sales, 2022 was a predictably down year. No one expected book sales in 2022 to reach 2021 levels. In addition to a tough comparison to the strong 2021 numbers, consumers began to return to a post-pandemic-like life, and publishers continued to deal with the aftermath of COVID-19 closures, including supply chain issues and low printer capacity. The unstable post-pandemic global economy, marked by rising interest rates, costs, and high inflation, also proved to be a drag on sales.
And as for the pandemic, COVID-19, it is still hanging around. Although all the Big Five publishers have opened their offices, it is still unclear who will return to work. In addition, the pandemic served to activate workers, especially young workers, who are pushing for key changes in the publishing workplace, both in terms of low pay and high workloads and the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion that were brought to the fore in the wake of a long-overdue social and racial justice awakening.
There is much more to follow in this eventful 2023. Trade shows are facing a big year, for example. And more broadly, this will likely be a year of struggle with several post-pandemic impacts, some known and some yet to be known.
To corroborate this, let’s lay out the NPD BookScan figures:
Unit sales of print books fell 6.5% in 2022 compared to 2021 at outlets reporting to NPD BookScan. Last year, 788.7 million units were sold, down from 843.1 million in 2021. Which is good news.
When is a 6.5% drop in annual sales good news? When it comes on the heels of two record years. Adult books saw an 11.4% increase in 2021, which followed a 12% increase in 2020.
The decline in 2022 was not a surprise, of course. As a mature business, year-over-year earnings before the pandemic used to be fairly flat, rising between 1% and 3%. As it was, publishers basically managed to cram nearly a decade of growth into 2020 and 2021. The question for industry leaders heading into 2022 was: how much of that excess pandemic-era growth would publishers give back? Amid the challenges of 2022, returning 6.5% is a good result. And while 2022 sales were down, they were 12% above 2019.
The big question going forward is how many new customers/readers/listeners did publishers create (or at least re-engage) during the pandemic boom years? Did publishers simply sell more books to their more powerful readers, who had more time and money? Or did they instead break through to new, hopefully, younger, customers? The next few years will give us some clues.