I wanted to end the year with a final post that pulls together everything we saw in 2020.
With one week left to report, Bookscan says business book sales are down 11.5%, compared with 2019. This gap had been much wider in the spring and summer months, but the fall and holiday seasons have narrowed that gap in the business book category.
2020 is going to be known as “The Year of the Backlist.” This showed up in the overall book market and in the world of business books. Consider this summary from the bestseller data:
- 86% of books sold in 2020 were backlist titles (books more than 12 months old), compared with 80% in 2019.
- 12 books sold more than 100,000 copies:
- None of them were published in 2020.
- Atomic Habits (2018) was the #1 bestseller with over 375,000 copies sold.
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad (1997), The Total Money Makeover (2003), StrengthsFinder 2.0 (2007) and Dare To Lead (2018) rounded out the top five.
- Half of those 12 books are more than ten years old.
- Only 22 of the 100 bestselling titles were published in 2020:
- The highest ranking title published in 2020 came in at #22.
- Two were new editions of old books (7 Habits and Bad Blood).
- Seven were written by CEOs (David Rubenstein, Tom Golisano, Arthur Blank, Reed Hastings, Peter Diamandis, Daymond John, and Shellye Archambeau).
- Five were personal finance titles (The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+, Psychology of Money, Great Devaluation, Random Walk Down Wall Street, and Die with Zero).
- Three titles I would describe as economic/politics (Dark Towers, The New Map, Arguing With Zombies).
- Traffic Secrets was an outlier in the solid how-to for online audience building.
- That left four titles in the pop business category to break through:
- Joy At Work by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein
- How I Built This by Guy Raz
- Upstream by Dan Heath
- The Motive by Patrick Lencioni
- The Top Selling Authors of 2020 were:
- Robert Kiyosaki
- Dave Ramsey
- James Clear
- Simon Sinek
- Jon Gordon
Research Reports from 2020
With the remarkable shift that took place in March, I started to look for information to get a better understanding of what was happening in business book publishing. It was difficult to find much that was specific enough, so I started to dig into the data and see what I could find. The results were published in five reports throughout the year.
- March 22, 2020 – This first report just tried to get an overall sense of what was going on.
- April 6, 2020 – Within a few weeks, we could see that the effects on the business category were going to be bigger than the overall market.
- May 20, 2020 – The big finding in May was seeing that self-help shows more resilience than business books. By this point, we were also getting several reports of strong sales in the digital formats of ebooks and audiobooks.
- July 22, 2020 – In the summer, I wanted to look deeper into what was happening in subcategories. Habit books were a mixed bag and career books didn’t show much strength.
- October 22, 2020 – Most of my report was about the dampened sales on the launch of new titles in 2020.
This year, I looked at seven lists from media and retail outlets —The Financial Times, Inc. Magazine, Strategy + Business, The Economist, Porchlight Book Company, BookPal, and Amazon. They chose a total of 100 different titles. Only five of those books appeared on three or more lists:
- No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer – Selected by five of seven lists. Just a great book on the Netflix’s culture.
- No Filter by Sarah Frier – The best account of the rise of Instagram, appearing on three lists including winning the Financial Times / McKinsey Business Book of The Year Award.
- Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson – Things are changing, lots of examples here. Appeared on three lists.
- If Then by Jill Lenore – The history of the first analytics company Simulatics; the book appeared on three lists and was a longlist nominee for the National Book Award.
- Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan – Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. It was also selected three times.
You can read my full essay at Marker on Medium.
Publisher’s Lunch does a similar analysis for the broader book market. They looked at 59 sources “including major publications of all kinds, but also retailer and library selections, major award nominees, public votes, new “tastemakers” and more.” The top vote getting title was Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, the first non-fiction book to hold that position. The top fiction book was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Here is a link to their whole list (PL subscription required).
For me there were three books that stood out this year:
- Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
- No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
- Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan
You can read my reviews of these three books at toddsattersten.com.
News from The World of Book Publishing
There has been continual change in the book publishing industry since I joined the industry in 2004, but I am not sure we’ve seen as much change as we did in 2020. Many of these themes accelerated as a results of the pandemic; others arose anew as a result.
- Penguin Random House plans to buy Simon & Schuster for $2.3 billion.
- Barnes & Noble has one-third less employees than it did 18 months ago.
- Lockdowns and public reluctance severely dampened physical retail sales, in particular airport bookstores.
- BookExpo, the yearly publishing convention, has been retired; London Book Fair and Frankfurt face uncertain futures.
- Indie bookstore sales are down 20%.
- Backlist sales reached 68% of total book sales.
- LSC, the largest printer in the US, filed for bankruptcy and Quad sold its book printing operations.
- Denver’s Tattered Cover sold to a local group of investors and becomes the largest Black-led bookseller in America.
- The starting wage of employees at most publishers increases after a grassroots campaign.
- A host of leadership positions at major publishers were filled by female and Black individuals, some from outside the world of book publishing.
- Everyone seems to be taking a deeper look at who is being published.
And with all that change, book sales in the overall market are up 8.2% year to date!
I don’t have any predictions for next year, but I do have advice.
If you are an author working on a book or launching one in 2021:
- People are looking for guidance on how to think about what happens next. How does leadership and management change with more distance between team members? How do you market and sell direct and online? What strategies change and tactics adapt in the post-pandemic world?
- If you are launching a book, you need to work twice as hard to find an audience with many of the common marketing and sales paths unavailable. Think about activities that run over 12 to 24 months after your release date.
Best wishes to everyone in New Year!