Book Sales Soar During the Pandemic

By Tom Freiling

Temporary as it may be, the book publishing industry as a whole is now cold as ice, all due to COVID-19. Author tours are cancelled, book signings are on hold, publishers are pulling out of conferences and book festivals through the summer, and an entire spring list is still sitting on bookshelves behind locked doors. Indeed in my 25+ years of publishing and selling books, I’ve never experienced a deep-freeze quite like this.

It all sounds pretty depressing, doesn’t it? You’d think as a result book sales have also collapsed. But on the contrary, book sales are heating up!

I spoke to a major book distributor yesterday who told me they are shipping so many books, it feels like Christmas. Indeed, according to Rakuten Intelligence who tracks online sales in all categories, there has been a whopping 777% increase in book sales during coronavirus, and online book sales are outpacing all other product categories. Audio and eBook sales are also fast increasing. Michael Tamblyn, CEO of eBook and audiobook seller Rakuten Kobo reports “record sales.” Book sales are also exploding overseas. In England, for example, fiction sales have risen by 30% while children’s books sales skyrocketed by 235%, the highest on record. That’s right, more than in all of human history!

What’s selling? Just about everything, but in particular the sale of Bibles and religious books are absolutely exploding, along with fiction, children’s books, books about entrepreneurship, as well as books on marriage and relationships, cookbooks, gardening, and many other genres including the classics. The pace doesn’t seem to abate the further we get into the crisis as last week’s book sales increased another 10.1% over the previous week, according to NPD BookScan.

Surprised? We shouldn’t be. 

A peek into the history of books reveals how incredibly robust sales are during good times and bad. Going back as far as the Great Depression even, books have always been a way for people to pull themselves out of reality. The 1930’s was a time when people sought escapism in movies, radio, and books, because those moments provided people with a chance to forget about their circumstances. Readers were mesmerized by fiction and comic books and in fact, it’s when the Golden Age of novels and comic books started. Modern book publishing was literally born out of the Great Depression and gave us authors like John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf.

Book sales didn’t abate during World War II either, when they were cheap, portable, and had inspirational, patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil, nor after 9/11 or even during and after 2008 when the American economy crumbled. Once again, people turned to books to help them deal with their new realities, or escape them even if momentarily.

We can continue to expect robust book sales during our current crisis, despite a troubled industry, because people simply love to read. Around 1000 B.C., the Hebrew King Solomon wrote, “the writing of many books is endless.” Indeed there will be no end, not during famines, wars, or novel viruses!