Publishing Industry Market Update; Vol. 2, Issue 6

At least we know what a lot of you have been doing – more of you than ever before…

Listening to Audiobooks

The Audio Publishers Association—yes, there is an association for everything—released its annual survey results and found another double-digit increase in audiobook sales in 2020. That’s up 12% from 2019, for a total of $1.3 billion in revenue. Audiobooks have been on a tear in recent years, so double-digit increases have been the norm. What was surprising is that the sector saw those increases in a year of reduced commuting!

In 2019, 43% of listeners surveyed said they listened mostly in their cars. By necessity, that number fell to 30% last year. But you all just switched to listening at home (55% of audiobook listeners, as compared to 43% the year prior).

The selection is probably helping, too. Last year, audiobook publishers produced 71,000 titles, up 39% over 2019. So, I guess the narrators and sound engineers weren’t spending their days figuring out the unemployment office website.

Less is More?

Not really. Not when it comes to bookstores. The American Booksellers Association (“ABA”) released some unsurprising numbers in connection with their annual meeting (virtually, of course). The number of member companies and bookseller locations has expectedly declined over the last two years. Membership is down 10% to 1700 companies and the total number of member locations is down more—17% to 2100.

If you’ve been with us for any appreciable period of time here at the Yates & Yates' Author Coaching blog, you aren’t scratching your head. And even if you weren’t following along at home, you’d have to have been on another planet to be surprised by this report. Bookstores, and especially independents and small chains that make up the lifeblood of the ABA took a pounding in the pandemic.

For a silver lining, though again, not surprising, brick-and-mortar bookstore sales jumped 34.7% in March 2021 over the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” period of March 2020, when sales plummeted 33.4% from the salad days of the same period in 2019. So that you don’t have to do the math yourself, March 2021 bookstore sales are still down just over 9%, compared to March 2019 numbers, which clearly track with the drop in ABA membership and store count.

As we begin to emerge from a pandemic-ed society with a return to normalcy, we will have to wait and see if the centuries-old brick-and-mortar bookstore business will even come close to “normal” in a word where Amazon’s grey vans (or UPS and FedEx trucks) outnumber the stars in the sky.

A Cliffhanger Ending

For about as long as we’ve been doing these market updates, the numbers have all been up. And they still are. The Big 5 all reported increased revenues for Q1 2021 vs. the same period last year, including a 19% gain in revenue for HarperCollins to lead the way (noting that Penguin Random House doesn’t report publicly). Hachette Book Group reported sales up 9.1%, with Simon & Schuster up 8.8% (probably reporting for the last time before the PRH merger), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade division up 12% (also probably for the last time pre merger).

But a concerning trend is visible on the horizon. Over the 4 reported weeks of May 2021, the increased unit sales of print books (where the bulk of those publishers’ revenues come from) were sliding each week compared to the same periods last year:

May 1:  up 12.4%

May 8:  up 10.1%

May 15:  up 8.8%

May 22:  up 2.3%

Notice a pattern? Some Big 5 CFO’s have, cautioning that as economies reopen, and people have more to spend their money on, they may spend less time reading – something that they were free to do throughout the pandemic.

So, tune in next month to find out what happens….

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