US print sales dip while audio booms by 25%

US print sales dip while audio booms by 25%

Print sales in America have reportedly dropped by 1.9% in the first half of 2019 with children's non-fiction the only major category to show uplift and audio. Meanwhile publishers’ sales of audiobooks soared by a quarter in 2018, according figures from the Audio Publishers Association.

Unit sales of print books fell 1.9% in the first half of 2019, compared to the same period the previous year at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, Publishers Weekly said. Units dropped to 310.7 million, down from 316.7 million over the previous year.

Non fiction for children (termed ‘juvenile non-fiction’ in America) was the only major category to show a boost over 2018, by 2%. Conversely sales in adult non-fiction were almost flat (down by 0.05%) and sales in adult fiction fell by 5.1%. Juvenile fiction sales fell 3.6% in the period.

The adult non-fiction category held up well considering that the first half of 2018 featured a spate of popular political books such as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (UK, Little, Brown) by Michael Wolff and A Higher Loyalty by James Comey (UK, Pan Macmillan) which sold approximately 1.6 million print copies in the US combined in the first six months of 2018. Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Viking, UK) offset this by selling more than 888,000 print copies at BookScan outlets, and two books by Rachel Hollis—Girl, Stop Apologising and Girl, Wash Your Face (HarperCollins, UK)—which sold nearly 1 million print copies combined in the first half of 2019.

Overall, units fell about 10% in the history/law/political science category, with larger declines in computers and cooking/entertaining. The largest gains were in home/gardening and biography/autobiography/memoir.

The 2% gain in juvenile non-fiction was led by 8% increases in both the education/reference/language and holidays/festivals/religion categories. Declines came in the social situations/family/health, biographies/autobiographies, and animals divisions.

PW reported that as has been the case for the last few years, sales of top-selling fiction titles have been relatively high, but sales below the top tier have declined. In the first half of the year, double-digit unit declines came in five segments, with the biggest drop in science fiction, followed by religion fiction, suspense/thriller, romance, and classics. The largest gains were in action/adventure (up about 41%) and horror/occult/psychological (up about 27%) – the latter was cited as a trend by The Bookseller last summer.

The figures also suggested that the decline in mass market paperback might be drawing to a halt with unit sales down only 3% versus the first six months of 2017—but the decline has since accelerated with mass market units down 16% in the first half of 2019. Sales of physical audio also dipped further as consumers continue to move to digital audio.

Meanwhile publishers’ sales of audiobooks boomed by a quarter (24.5%) in 2018 for the whole year compared to the previous year reaching $940 million, according to the recent sales survey sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA). Unlike past surveys, the 2018 report features publishers’ sales receipts, rather than estimated consumer sales.

The report also confirmed the role sales of digital audio have played in the growth in the format. Over 91% of audiobook sales came from the digital format, the APA said.

The survey found that the most popular audiobook genres in the US last year were general fiction, mysteries/thrillers/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. However the figures showed that nonfiction audio sales have grown and represented 32.7% of unit sales in 2018, led by general nonfiction, history/biography/memoir, and self-help.

The APA statistics revealed that adults continued to be by far the biggest customers for audiobooks, accounting for just over 91% of revenue last year. While sales of adult and young adult titles each increased by double digits, sales of audiobooks aimed at children grew moderately.

According to the report, 44,685 individual audiobook titles were produced last year, up 5.8% from 2017. The association noted, however, that the 2017 title count was revised downward from previous reports.

The sales report is based on figures supplied by 20 audiobook publishers, including all the Big Five houses in the US (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster). NPD BookScan covers around 85% of trade print books sold in the US, through direct reporting from all major retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Target, independent bookstore and others.