Over the past few weeks, we’ve been aiming to share information on this blog that we hope is helpful to our author and publisher partners as they navigate the evolving COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the publishing industry. One question partners have been asking us is how reader behavior has changed since the crisis began, so today we’re sharing data — from our own members and from sources throughout the industry — on how reading habits have shifted since people started spending more time at home.
Print is facing significant challenges, but online sales are growing
The widespread closures of bookstores, libraries, and schools have led to deflated print sales in recent weeks. NPD reported a 10% week-over-week drop in print sales the week of March 8, and another decrease of 9.2% the week of March 22. While sales increased by 6.9% the last week of March and 13.7% the week ending April 11 due to Easter-related orders, Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch noted that year-over-year print sales are down over 10% from 2019.
These challenges impacting print sales (and the bookstores, authors, and publishers who depend on those sales) are likely to continue while businesses remain closed. But while in-person print sales have dropped, many readers are placing orders online instead. Jessica Flareau, a manager in Barnes & Noble’s ecommerce division, told us that “As people around the country started social distancing we saw a strong pickup in online orders, orders for curbside pickup, and ebooks.” There’s also been significant growth in online print sales from independent bookstores. Bookshop.org, a new online retailer that gives a portion of sales to local book shops, reported a dramatic increase in sales, in large part due to independent bookstores and others in the industry directing customers to the new platform as a way to continue driving sales despite closures.
Readers are turning to ebooks
This shift toward purchasing books online has also impacted digital book sales. Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Rakuten Kobo, told Publishers Weekly that the ebook and audiobook retailer is seeing a spike in new account sign-ups and purchases similar to what they’d see around the holidays. And Kevin Tumlinson, Director of Marketing and PR at Draft2Digital, an ebook distributor for self-published authors, reported increased ebook purchases across all platforms: “While we did see ebook sales slow down during the first couple of weeks following the ‘safer at home’ directive, things have recovered very well. All retailers are up by an average of 25%, and libraries are up by over 130%.”
Authors and publishers are also reporting increased digital sales. Jon Butler, Managing Director at Quercus, an imprint of Hachette UK, shared with The Bookseller that, “like the rest of Hachette, we’re seeing big double-digit growth in the baseline of our digital sales — both ebook and audio — year-on-year for the corresponding weeks.” This sentiment has been echoed by many of our publisher partners recently. And when we reached out to a handful of our author partners, many of them shared that they’ve been seeing steady or increased ebook sales during this period. Author and entrepreneur Mark Dawson told us his sales have grown by 30% since physical distancing began, and romance author Laurelin Paige reported that her entire backlist is seeing a lift of 5-10%. These are just two examples, and results for individual authors are varying significantly based on their genres, book prices, and marketing budgets and strategies, but in aggregate indie author ebook sales appear to be up right now.
We’re seeing similar trends here at BookBub. Ebook sales and activity from our members have been increasing since early in March, when “stay at home” orders took effect in the US. Estimated ebook sales resulting from Featured Deals have increased by double digits over the last few weeks. Measures of reader engagement (email opens and clicks) for Featured Deals also increased over the same time period, and BookBub Ads campaign clicks are up a similar amount. These upward trends were consistent across all of our ebook retailer partners (Amazon, Apple, B&N, Google, and Kobo) and regions (US, UK, Canada, and Australia).
Audiobook listeners are adjusting to new routines
Audiobook distribution platform Findaway noticed volatility in listening behavior across retailers and libraries. Will Dages, Head of Findaway Voices, told us, “As shelter-in-place orders started being announced, we saw a dip in engagement with audiobooks, due to fewer people commuting and filling their time listening. However, after about a week or so, we saw engagement pick back up and on many platforms surpass previous normal levels. Behaviors are definitely changing, but our big takeaway is that people are absolutely still listening… maybe in different places or at new times, but listeners still want access to great audiobooks.”
Findaway is a distributor for Chirp, our audiobook retailer, and the trends we’ve seen on our platform are similar to what they’re reporting for the larger audiobook market. At the outset of the outbreak, average daily listens on Chirp dropped by about 5%, and the largest decline was due to a reduction in listeners during normal morning commuting hours. But as listeners have adjusted to their new schedules, it seems they’ve carved out time for audiobooks again — daily Chirp listeners have increased each week since mid-March and are now above early March levels.
While listening rates have fluctuated, Chirp audiobook sales, like ebook sales, have also increased by double digits over the last few weeks.
Readers are using books to cope in different ways
The coronavirus crisis has impacted the kinds of books readers, and particularly parents, are seeking out. It’s been widely reported that sales of books for kids, and especially nonfiction and learning books, have skyrocketed in response to school closures. Religious holidays in early April contributed to this even further — in the week ending April 11, juvenile nonfiction print sales rose 16% over the previous week, and juvenile fiction rose 26%, both driven by increases in the “holidays/festivals/religion” book categories. On BookBub, we’ve reorganized our schedule to include more children’s and parenting book deals each week to better support BookBub members who have children to entertain and educate during this time, and have seen rising sales in these categories in recent weeks.
The trends for adult readers are less obvious, but there are a few genres that are standing out. Some adult readers seem to be tackling books that may have been languishing on their “to be read” lists. According to Flareau, one of Barnes & Noble’s top trending categories right now is “40 Books You Always Meant to Read,” and Chirp’s Classics category has seen one of the largest percent increases in sales during this time, perhaps because listeners are catching up on seminal works they’ve been meaning to pick up for years.
Others are looking for books to bring them comfort. “11 Feel-Good Books to Read Right Now” is one of the most popular recent articles on BookBub, and Barnes & Noble’s “Feel Good Fiction” list, which includes similar lighthearted, uplifting novels, is also trending, according to Flareau. Draft2Digital reported an unusual bump in romantic comedy sales, particularly compared to March-April 2019, and Google searches for topics like “uplifting books” and “happy books” have increased.
It’s hard to draw many conclusive genre trends from BookBub and Chirp data yet because we only feature a handful of titles in each category each week, and the increase in engagement we’ve seen so far has been fairly well distributed across all our categories. However, we noticed particularly consistent engagement increases in all regions during the four-week period after March 15 in our Bios & Memoirs, Thrillers, Psychological Thrillers, Christian Nonfiction, Middle Grade, and Science Fiction categories. And outside of specific category trends, we’re seeing signs of higher demand for meditation and mindfulness content as well as activity-oriented books (e.g. gardening, home organization, etc.).
Readers are looking for affordable books, but still buying full price too
In a time of economic uncertainty, it’s no surprise that readers would be seeking out more affordable books. Google searches for “free books” have been trending since the beginning of March:
As we mentioned earlier, engagement with BookBub Featured Deals and Chirp Deals is up, but our readers don’t seem to be shying away from higher-priced books either. Engagement and sales from our articles, which predominantly feature full-priced books, are up by almost 50% since March 15. And the various emails we send highlighting preorders and new releases at full price have also seen steady or increased engagement and sales since mid-March.
This is a turbulent time for the publishing industry. Many bookstores, publishers, and authors are facing significant challenges due to the impact on their print sales from store closures. However, one thing that seems clear is that people are still seeking out your books to help them learn, escape, find solace, and cope at this time. We hope this data is useful to you all, but also serves as a reminder that your books are valuable to readers in this difficult time.
Stay healthy, stay well, and please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if there’s anything we can do for you — we want to keep supporting our partners as we navigate this tough time together. If there are any other topics you’d like to hear about from us on the blog right now, please let us know in the comments.
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