Book sales in the United States were very strong in 2021, according to data from NPD BookScan, which reports on about 85 percent of print sales nationwide (through all major retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Target, Walmart, and independent bookstores).
This follows an upward trend we’ve seen over the course of the COVID pandemic. In rounded numbers: In 2019, reported unit sales nationwide were 694 million books; in 2020, 758 million; and in 2021, 826 million.
COVID has created a strange environment for data benchmarking, though. You really have to study the numbers, and what’s behind them, to come to insightful conclusions (and avoid misinterpretations).
For example, within the category of adult nonfiction, the subcategory of travel books saw the most dramatic increase this past year, up 23 percent. That’s not surprising, since everyone was sheltering in place in 2020. The travel-book niche crashed that year. Finally, in 2021 we were able to travel more comfortably and securely, and reader demand for travel books took off again.
(My own 2021 travels consisted of two trips: One to New York to visit family in June/July, and the second in August, to Chicago, for the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money. A far cry from the “old normal” of a half-dozen or more trips per year—but it felt like a lot more than the zero trips of 2020!)
After travel, the second-largest 2021 gain within adult nonfiction was in business and economic books, which enjoyed increased sales of 19 percent. Are Americans starting more DBAs and pursuing new entrepreneurial opportunities?
One thing is certain: Book sales are strong, and that includes antiques and collectibles. Across all adult nonfiction (the category that includes nearly every numismatic book), the year’s sales were up 4.4 percent over 2020.
Demand for the annual Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) is a bellwether of the strength of the rare-coin market. (Case study: The boom market of the early 1960s; in 1964 the 18th edition sold a record-setting 1,200,000 copies.) Everywhere you look, coin dealers and auction firms are reporting 2021 as a very successful year, and we see that reflected in the publishing world. Collector demand for the Red Book increased in 2021, even after we saw stronger and stronger demand in 2019 and 2020. Whitman Publishing kept the presses running to ensure supplies of the 75th edition met collector interest.
2022, meanwhile, is shaping up as an exciting year, with new Whitman books on their way. World coins will be well represented, in addition to U.S. coins. The silver bullion market will see two new publications. Several Bowers Series books will be updated in new editions, including Barber coins and Morgan silver dollars. Die-variety collectors will welcome the latest volume of the Cherrypickers’ Guide. And of course, the perennial Red Book, Blue Book, and Mega Red will be on bookshelves before you know it.
Reading and coin collecting go hand in hand. It appears the new year will bring more of both as the boom continues.
Dennis Tucker has served the hobby community as publisher of Whitman Publishing since 2004. His column “Notes Published” covers books and publishing in general, with a special emphasis on antiques and collectibles. Whitman is the Official Supplier of the congressionally chartered American Numismatic Association. The firm produces many standard references relating to the art and science of numismatics (the study of coins and related objects). Numismatics is a field that touches on American financial and banking history, economics, artistry and design, technology, mining and metallurgy, political history, society, and culture.