Soaring e-book sales level off as more bookstores open

Last year in 2020 marked the first time since 2013 that annual e-book unit sales from major U.S. publishers grew, rising 22%, year-over-year, according to The NPD Group. With many physical bookstores closing last year due to pandemic restrictions, e-book format sales have benefited. However, so far in 2021, eBook growth has slowed and monthly levels were more consistent with pre-pandemic 2019 sales. Year-to-date through June 2021, unit sales were down 8% from a year ago, but sales were still 8% higher than they were in 2019 before the pandemic.

“With brick-and-mortar stores closing last year, e-books were simply easier to buy than print books,” said Kristen McLean, book industry analyst for NPD. “The digital format has enabled frictionless and virus-free purchases. Now that bookstores are open again, we expect full-year 2021 e-book volume to fall below 2020 levels, with the caveat that supply chain disruption could lead to a further increase, if key books are not available during holidays. Either way, the e-book format will definitely remain a staple of the US book market – and a key format for certain categories.

Combining print and e-book sales across all categories, e-books account for 18% of sales, or more than one in six books sold. In the 12 months ending June 2021, e-books lost one point of market share compared to the previous year. Absolute earnings from print book sales were eight times greater than earnings from e-books.

Adult fiction posted the largest e-book share, accounting for 41% of combined sales, but it also lost the most format share points from a year earlier, down 3 points. “January 2021 sales were up thanks to Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ book series,” McLean said. “Sales returned to normal levels the following month and have performed more in line with 2019 volume since then.”