Sales in the '90's: The Details

In the late eighties and early nineties, children's hardcover books were booming. Everybody knew this--even those people who usually don't know what to say at cocktail parties when you tell them you work in children's books! Publishers expanded merrily, but the boom ground to a halt after peaking in 1992. Three years of decline in hardcover sales, though not in paperback sales, were followed by slow recovery.

The recovery hasn't taken the market back to its previous state. Paperback sales are clearly growing faster than hardcover sales. Both upper-middle class parents and libraries now spend some of their income on computers and software, and so publishers must compete for a slice of a smaller pie, or develop new strategies. And then there is the Internet...

Historical sales figures from The Bowker Annual track the story from 1985 through 1994:

Annual sales in millions of dollars
Year Hardcover Paperback Total
1985 250.7 85.5 336.2
1990 761.5 259.6 1021.1
1991 859.0 304.8 1163.8
1992 871.9 326.6 1198.5
1993 783.1 377.7 1160.9
1994 751.3 419.2 1170.5

Sales for 1995 and beyond show the hardcover market hit bottom that year, and then slowly recovered, beginning in 1996. Other reports put the bottom as 1993... (I'm not plugging those numbers into the table, however, since they derive from a different source, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), and were collected using different methodologies. Both the AAP and BISG seem to leave out small publishers, so growth by those companies may be missing. But the trends are valid, at least for that section of the industry covered.)

Over the past three years, actual AAP figures show that sales of paperbacks have seesawed back and forth, up 20% in 1996, down substantially in 1997, and then up again in 1998. Look at the three years together, and you'll see only modest growth--an apparent leveling-off from the consistently high growth rates for paperbacks in the 90's. Over those same three years, hardcover sales had an average growth rate in the high single digits.

Even that solid growth in hardcovers needs to be regarded skeptically. Of the top 20 books on Publishers Weekly's hardcover bestseller list for 1998, all selling over 280,00 copies, only three were true hardcover originals. Six or seven were Disney-related--The Mulan Classic Storybook, Pooh, King of the Beasties, and the like. Five were "Blue's Clues" books. And four were "Teletubbies" tie-ins. So increased sales of hardcover books may not be of the kind of hardcovers you might expect.

In 1999, Harry Potter helped increase hardcover sales by more then 10%, and paperback sales by over 20%. The increase isn't made up only of Harry Potter books themselves, either--booksellers have noted an increased interest in other fantasy and in novels for children in general (For more on that phenomenon, see "The Harry Potter Halo" in the July 19, 1999 Publishers Weekly). And only eleven of the top 20 hardcover bestsellers in the PW list for 1999 were tied to a movie or TV show--thanks in part to Harry (April 10, 2000 issue). Things look good for the industry, but will this last?

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