Market Update on Business Book Publishing – May 20, 2020

Quick note: If you’d like more updates with trends and case studies from business book publishing, you can subscribe by clicking through to the newsletter sign-up form.

And if you missed it, please check out my post from March 22nd and follow-up post on April 6th on the shift in the business book market.

1. Six Weeks Later…

I wrote my last report on April 6th and at that point, we were starting to settle into a new normal of depressed sales in business and self-help. There had been four weeks with sales down almost 50% and the trend continued into the following week.

But then a funny thing happened—sales increased.
And the same thing happened the following week.
And again the following week.

You can see in the chart below that those increases have been significant and we are starting to return to pre-COVID-19 sales levels in business and self-help.

This is good news for this corner of the world. The return of business books reflects the same resilience that has been seen in the book publishing market throughout the COVID-19 period.

2. The Tale of Two Categories

In my market reports, I have been discussing business and self-help as a singular category. I have a long standing theory that the two categories are starting to look more and more like each other and that the decision a publisher makes to classify a book in one group or the other may not reflect in what part of their life the reader is helped. This last part is very important. What business books look like today, or maybe more accurately what books people read to help in them in business, differs greatly from ten or twenty years ago.

But in digging into the winners and losers in the larger group, I started to notice that books classified as self-help were recovering more strongly than business titles. So, I went back to the full dataset and broke out the books by business and self-help.

Business books lost sales, have started to return, but have not yet fully recovered, down over 20% from early March.

Self-help also lost sales, has recovered, AND selling better now than before COVID-19, up 19%.

Well, that’s interesting 🙂

3. Where is the recovery?

  • Journals – I mentioned that in a prior report that journals for self-reflection were selling well. In looking at these last three weeks of recovery, eleven titles within the twenty books with the biggest gains (in business or self-help) were journaling products like Burn After Writing, 52 Lists for Happiness and 52 Lists for Calm, Create This Book and Create This Book 2, Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice (and Michelle Obama in the public right now with the new Netflix special and the just announced 2020 prom with MTV), Do One Thing Every Day That Centers You, and Zen As F*ck. If you extend further down the list, nineteen of the top fifty books are journals or workbooks. As a point of reference, I looked back at the self-help bestseller list for the week of February 23rd and there were nine journal titles in the top 50.
  • Best-Selling Self-Help – Books like Girl, Stop Apologizing, The Art of Not Giving A F*ck, and You Are A Badass saw their sales decrease, but they are leading the return with additional growth alongside the overall trend of increased sales in self-help.
  • Brené Brown’s books – All her titles have seen sales growth, but now Dare To Lead, her business leadership title, has seen big increases in these last three weeks.
  • Personal Finance and Investing – Not surprisingly, money is on the reader’s minds. When you look at subcategories for business and self-help, the subjects of investing, money management and personal finance occupy three of the ten top growing subcategories. This is driven by well-known titles like The Intelligent Investor, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and Total Money Makeover.
  • A few in business titles – There are not many business titles that are selling better now than before COVID-19. Besides Dare to Lead, Never Split the Difference, a great book on negotiating, is seeing new growth. Atomic Habits has gained share among the titles in the habits subcategory.

4. Evolving Theories

It’s impossible to aggregate the felt need of thousands of readers and try to explain with one grand unifying theory to explain everything going on in the market, but I am going to offer a few ideas to consider.

After the initial COVID-19 shock, many people are returning to more normal routines. We are leaving immediate forms of media like websites and cable news and returning longer formats like books. Like the trend in journals, books help us reflect on our experiences.

Business books have recovered from lows in April but not fully because there are important channels that are not operating. Retail outlets like Barnes & Noble and airports stores like Hudsons are either closed or suffering from drastically decreased foot traffic. Almost all B&N stores are still closed to in-store purchases. Airlines passengers are down 90% from a year ago this time. And the events channels connected to speaking, coaching and training are way down. The authors I know are pushing hard to create virtual alternatives to in-person events and interactions. Some are connecting books to those events.

5. Shift to Digital?

There is an interesting question around how COVID-19 will affect product mix. Sales data for digital products is hard to come by, but anecdotes from several sources point towards an increased demand for ebooks.

  • Simon & Schuster was specific and said their ebook sales were up 13% in the first quarter.
  • HarperCollins reported that ebooks “returned to growth”.
  • Rakuten, the owner of the Kobo ebook platform, shared that they added 2.2 million new customers worldwide in the first three months of 2020. They attributed that to changes in reader behavior from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Storytel, a ebook and digital audiobook subscription service based in Europe, announced growth of 33.5% in the first quarter.
  • According to K-lytics, the Amazon KDP author fund of $29 million in March is the largest ever with year over year growth of 6.6%.
  • Ebook marketer Bookbub has reported double digit increases in sales of ebooks promoted through their service and consistent across all of their retail partners and region they operate in.
  • In our hometown of Portland, Oregon, we are finding ebook lending at the library much more in-demand and in the last three months, often needing to wait for popular ebooks to become available.

I plan to keep posting updates. You can sign up for my newsletter on trends and case studies from the world of book publishing by clicking on this link.

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