The business book market continues to shift.
We now have three weeks of retail sales data from March and can compare February and March sales.
1. Total Market
Overall, the categories of business and self-help are down 33%.
NPDecisionKey has been highlighting business and self-help in the last two weeks as among the most negatively affected categories in book publishing.
And to use a Wall Street method of comparison, the ratio of losers outnumber winners in a ratio of 9 to 1.
The most popular categories of business and self-help books have seen the largest drop in sales:
- Personal Growth
- Personal Success
- Motivation and Inspiration
The lone mild but notable category of growth is Creativity in the Self-Help category. This group is where you find guided journals like Burn After Writing by Sharon Jones, the various versions of Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith, Create This Book by Elizabeth Moriah. This demand feels like a corollary to the huge increase in sales of children’s coloring and activity books. In the case, they are activity books for teenagers and adults.
If the top-selling categories are being affected, individual titles in those groups are too.
Titles with the biggest drops in units sales include:
- StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
- Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Tiny Habits and BJ Fogg
- Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry
- Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
- Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
It is very interesting to see the books people are moving to as we work to understand and deal with the current state of the world. Here are the notables on the list.
- Shift – The Keller Williams CEO Gary Keller and his co-authors wrote this book in 2009 following the mortgage to help agents adjust to the new market.
- The Intelligent Investor – The 1949 classic on value investing from Benjamin Graham sells, as people try to navigate the stock market.
- The Black Swan – Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s 2005 book about huge events you can’t see coming (for the record, Taleb thinks this is a white swan).
- Remote – the guide from the founders of Basecamp on how they work as a company with employees all over the world.
- The Obstacle Is The Way – Ryan Holiday’s first book on stoicism with a perfect title for the time.
Speaking of timely tiles…
5. A Lesson on Framing
Mark Manson is a bestselling author with two books in the market.
His 2016 bestseller The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a F*ck has been a huge success with over three million copies sold. This book has been adversely affected at similar levels to other bestsellers listed above, with sales down 30%.
Everything Is F*cked, Manson’s follow-up from 2019, has done well but not reached the levels of his first book. The interesting part is that, in the last month, sales have been up 11%.
Like The Obstacle Is The Way, this most recent book from Manson, is titled in a way that speaks to the particular felt need that people have right now around fear and uncertainty.
The timeless lesson for developing books: be clear and direct when you title a book.
6. So, what’s going on?
I have been thinking a lot about what’s going on in the business book market and if there is a way to adjust to those changes. Here are the biggest factors in my estimation:
- The events industry has been shut down completely – Conferences, conventions and training are an important source of direct selling and follow-on sales after an audience seeing an author.
- Retail “stores” are almost completely closed – With state mandated closings in most states, physical bookstores are closed all over the country. Barnes & Noble reported that all their stores will be closed in the next few days. Airport stores are open but empty. Libraries, another source of literary interaction, are also shuttered during this time. While many, particularly independents, are adapting and taking online orders to solid demand from customers, our exposure to books is dampened right now and online sales are not replacing all of the prior demand.
- We are choosing the more immediate – Books are great at telling stories in the long form, after the fact. The story of this time is being told right now and we are choosing more immediate forms of media to watch it unfold. Business podcast listening is up 10%. CNBC has twice the audience they did at the beginning of the year. Even President Trump’s news briefings are drawing ratings similar to a Monday Night Football game. Books don’t exactly fit the kind of information we are looking for right now.
- Cost cuttings – In 2008, as the economy began to tighten during the last crisis, large organizations reduced expenses with what was deemed optional. Books were at the top of the list. That was a tough hit for the market. A combination of purchase orders and corporate credit cards fund a lot of purchases. We are seeing that belt-tightening in market segments most affected by the shutdown, such as retail and aviation, but it doesn’t feel like the effect runs across all business segments.
7. What’s good?
Well, books are still selling. In March, the market was 1.9 million copies. The market isn’t going to go to zero.
Books are still launching. The Blueprint by Doug Conant, The Catalyst by Jonah Berger, and Upstream by Dan Heath all launched in March with more than 10,000 copies sold in their first month.
…BUT (and this is a huge point) all of these books launched before March 10th. Launches since then have been very modest. The business book publishers, like all media firms, are pushing publication dates into the fall, which creates another risk with the certain preoccupation we will all have with the presidential elections in the U.S.
One test will be the business book launch of Joy At Work by organizing phenom Marie Kondo and her co-author Scott Sonenshein. It will be released April 7th.
I think it is a tough mix for business books right now. Lack of attention and lack of money are slowing the market.
Books are a long lead time product. If you have written something that can help clients adjust like the Winners above, you are in a good spot. Share and promote to create awareness. You likely have new customers for your work.
Get close to your clients and find out what is arising for them right now. Beyond the coronavirus, everyone is finding weaknesses in their businesses. I know several examples of companies that are using this time to get their processes fixed to be ready when we get to the other side. Don’t look for the book they need now; write the book that people need next.
I’ll keep posting updates. More soon. -Todd