COVID-19 Book Sales & Trends

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the book industry saw an unexpected rise in sales in 2020 compared to previous years. While the pandemic itself played a major role in the reason for the boost, the events and trends of 2020 factored into which book categories helped to lead this increase.

After long days of video conferencing and countless emails, many are looking to books as an alternative to television and social media. In 2020, Americans spent more time in front of screens than ever before during the COVID-19 pandemic. A new poll shows 55% of Americans have increased their computer screen time since the start of the pandemic. 

With the interest in screenless activities rising, unit sales of print books simultaneously rose 8.2% in 2020 over the previous year – the largest annual increase in over a decade. E-books also saw a jump in sales, most heavily at the beginning of the pandemic (up 31% in April). This boost was mostly attributed to the reduced availability of print books with the closure of books and libraries during the early days of the pandemic.

When looking at book readership comprehensively, it’s noted by the Pew Research center that overall, more Americans prefer printed books only. Their research shows that of the 72% of Americans who read books, 37% read printed books only, while 7% are digital-only readers. About a quarter (27%) of readers prefer a mixture of both formats.

Although these sales increases are great to see on their own, it’s interesting to note that the events and trends of 2020 played a large role in which books helped contribute to sales over the last year. Current events and the lifestyle changes brought on by the pandemic weighed heavily into the categories of books sold over the year.

Race relations played a large role in the increase of sales during the summer. With the Black Lives Matter movement taking the world stage again in late May, it ignited many race-driven conversations and increased interest in social justice. Books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi both climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2020, even though both books were released before 2020.

With many eyes on the election for the majority of the year, political books also saw an uptick in sales due to the increased attention. Mary L. Trump’s family tell-all, Too Much and Never Enough, and Barack Obama’s A Promised Land were both highly anticipated in their own respects. Both also reached the Times’ bestseller list and played a large part in the year’s sales, even with Obama’s post-election release date.

With the amount of uncertainty around the return to school at the beginning of the pandemic, many parents ordered educational and school readiness books to keep their children on track.

Juvenile and Young Adult fiction also saw a large boost due to the increase of children indoors. In the YA category, two well-known authors, Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer both released new installments for each of their well-known series.

Which books did not do so well in 2020? Unsurprisingly, travel books saw the largest decline in sales over this period, with sales dropping over 40% in this category.

What impacts and trends will we see in 2021? As the pandemic continues, it will be interesting to see its longer-term effect on the book industry as a whole. We’ll have to wait and see what format and category choices are made when it comes time to sign off and pick up a book in the new year.

By: Jenny Gonzales


Publisher’s Weekly

Pew Research