< back to full list of articles
Explaining Book Sales Markets

or Article Tags


by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent magazine —

Deb Vanasse

Distributors and industry pros discuss the market trends across sales channels in preparation for a new year.


  • By Q4 2020, overall book sales were up, and the pandemic seemed to drive content preferences.
  • Brick-and-mortar businesses took a big hit during pandemic shutdowns, but the full impact on these retailers remains to be seen.
  • Models for efficient fulfillment and delivery became highly important, and more publishers began relying on direct-to-consumer online sales.

To say the least, 2020 was quite a year, and no one wants a repeat. Yet as distributors and other industry professionals consider the markets going forward, they say many of the trends driven primarily by the COVID-19 pandemic will continue into 2021.

While trends can be tough to forecast, this much is certain: Buoyed by an understanding of market trends across sales channels, independent publishers are equipped to meet the challenges of 2021 head-on.

Pandemic Marks the Market

Bailey Davis

“2020 was most certainly a year of unexpected changes and varying trends, not just for publishers but also for consumers,” says Bailey Davis, supervisor of content acquisition sales at Ingram Content Group.

The good news? By the fourth quarter of 2020, BookScan showed overall book sales up 6.9% compared to the same period (Jan. 6 to Oct. 16) in 2019. The young adult sector showed the most growth (19%), while adult fiction was up 3.9% and adult nonfiction was up 1.9%.

The global health crisis drove content preferences, Davis says. “Consumers began the pandemic wanting to get their hands on at-home educational content, cookbooks, and feel-good stories,” she says. “But we also saw those trends change over the summer and into the fall, with [consumers] buying more humorous content, holiday-related content, and fantasy content.”

In the wake of shutdowns, publishers had to be nimble with distribution tactics. “Those who had to quickly adjust to the impacts the market saw earlier in the year were most successful when they integrated a virtual distribution model to help them be more agile and able to meet unexpected demand,” Davis says.

At the same time, book buyers have been looking to simplify their ordering and fulfilment protocols. At Warehousing & Fulfillment Specialists LLC, President Marty Flanagan says his company’s increased 2020 sales (up 14%) came mostly from Amazon and Ingram business.

“It appears that many of the bookstore orders are going through Ingram,” he says. “The stores are telling our sales reps that they are trying to simplify their businesses, and ordering from one source and receiving just one invoice and shipment with everything they need is desirable.”

Brick and Mortar Takes a Hit

Brooke O’Donnell

While brick-and-mortar businesses took a big hit when the pandemic forced closures, the full impact on these retailers remains to be seen. “It’s hard to fully analyze what’s trending with brick-and-mortar stores since so many of them only recently reopened and the supply chain has been so disrupted,” says Brooke O’Donnell, managing director of Trafalgar Square Publishing, a division of Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

Now that consumers have become even more accustomed to purchasing online, booksellers will need to be creative to draw consumers back into stores, says Tom Doherty, president of Cardinal Publishing Group. For instance, New York’s iconic Strand Bookstore used social media in October 2020 to ask customers to do their holiday shopping early and help the store offset a 70% sales slump. The response brought in sufficient revenue to keep the lights on at least through the end of the year.

Doherty says that brick-and-mortar stores seem to be concentrating on familiar authors and bestsellers, a trend that he says could ultimately inhibit growth. “As with any retail segment, you can’t rely too long on your existing customers and must always be finding new customers that new indie-published authors can bring,” he says.

Brian Jud

Brian Jud, executive director of the Association of Publishers for Special Sales (APSS), reminds publishers that brick and mortar means more than just bookstores. “The key is to have books available where buyers shop: bookstores, airport stores, supermarkets, bookstores on association websites, catalogs, schools, military exchanges, etc.,” he says.

Davis notes “a significant decline” in brick-and-mortar markets related to school and travel, such as college bookstores and airport bookshops. Museum store sales are also down significantly, O’Donnell says.

Gift shops are struggling, too. “Any gift shop that peaks in spring, summer, or fall had a very rough time of it in 2020, and so did the independent publishers that serve those retailers,” Doherty says. How much the situation improves in 2021 is anyone’s guess, he says, depending on when and where travel picks up.

Online, Direct, and Specialty Markets

As the pandemic hit, models for efficient fulfillment and delivery became the order of the day, Davis says, including increased reliance on direct-to-consumer online sales.

Launched early in 2020, the Bookshop platform was well-positioned to offer consumers an online ordering option that also supports local independent booksellers. “Bookshop.org is very fortunate to have launched ahead of the pandemic, and it has certainly offered a critical pipeline for the indies,” O’Donnell says. “It [quickly] became an important online book purchasing site in the time of COVID-19.”

With so much business moving online, Jud says a growth trend in user-generated content (UGC) plus a related emphasis on drawing traffic to web properties, including a “concerted effort” toward search engine optimization (SEO) and audience growth, is expected. He expects niche marketing to flourish as publishers collect audience data and create targeted content.

“Much of the UGC will appear on social media, the biggest platform for online marketing,” he says. “With the introduction of Facebook shops, Instagram shops, and Pinterest shopping ads and catalogs, social commerce is set to become one of the biggest marketing and e-commerce trends of the coming year.”

As consumers grapple with uncertainty and economic concerns, direct marketing tactics have shifted as well, O’Donnell says. As publishers become more conscious with their messaging, she says, “Hard sell marketing campaigns seem to have been replaced by more sympathetic ones.”

In direct-to-consumer sales, Doherty notes a substantial increase from clients like the National Parks Conservation Association and the Native Plant Society of Indiana. “These organizations can tap into a broad base of supporters, and this year they have been able to mine that advantage to stay in touch with their members and generate sales,” he says.

The profitability in selling books to such non-retail buyers is a no-brainer, Jud says. “Publishers understand that to sell 10,000 books through a retailer, they have to find 10,000 people to each buy one book,” he says. “To sell 10,000 books through a non-retail buyer, they can sell 10,000 books to one person, all nonreturnable.”

What Lies Ahead

After a year of uncertainty, there is general eagerness for a return to normalcy. But how soon that will happen is anyone’s guess, Doherty says. “In 2021, buying habits might return to normal, they might favor brick-and-mortar stores, or the opposite could be true,” he says.

In any event, Doherty remains optimistic about an improving business climate as either a vaccine lessens the COVID-19 impact or businesses and consumers fully adapt to the new marketplace. He anticipates increased demand in books related to outdoor activities, an interest that may spill into escapist genre fiction as well as children’s books.

Doherty also expects continued demand for children’s books that both educate and entertain as well as an uptick in e-book sales that extends the modest 1.9% gain documented by BookScan in the first three quarters of 2020. Likewise, he expects the audio sector to perform well, and he looks for fiction publishers with strong backlist titles to do well in all formats.

Content aimed at millennials should also do well, says Jud, noting that 18- to 34-year-olds are the most represented generation in the US labor force. He also anticipates a strong market for ecofriendly content. O’Donnell is also looking for solid sales in travel titles. “I can only imagine that consumers are both armchair traveling and also doing research for trips they look forward to taking in 202l,” she says.

While BookScan data shows little change in publisher market share during 2020, Davis points out that the most successful publishers either already had flexible virtual models or adopted them quickly. Going forward, she urges publishers to be ready with options to meet unexpected supply chain demand and to shield themselves as much as possible from unexpected drops in the market.

Surviving 2020 was an achievement unto itself. Whether the sales channel is brick and mortar, online, specialty, or direct-to-consumer, publishers look toward 2021 trusting that the markets will reward flexibility, agility, and resilience.

Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are the novel Cold Spell and a biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. She also works as a freelance editor.

Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association