Most Popular Book Genres during COVID-19 [March 2020]

COVID-19 has affected communities of every size and function, including the book publishing industry. There can be lots to worry about especially those who come from traditional publishing. But uncertain times can also mean new opportunities, aka new book sales for you.

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Below we go over the trends and data in this ever-changing market. This is key in seeing what’s selling digitally these days. Plus, we give an overview of international digital book sales. We'll update this study every 20th of the month. Check back to keep up with the newest developments and make the best-informed decisions in your publishing endeavors.

(PublishDrive is an all-in-one self-publishing platform for distribution, promotion, royalty reporting, and beyond.)

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Our Data Has Constraints

Before we dive in, know that like every research, PublishDrive’s catalog and book sales do not cover the entire global market. But we do have enough data to draw statistical conclusions. We analyzed over 10k authors/publishers’ ebook sales data within PublishDrive selling in over 400 stores and thousands of digital libraries.

This report includes only ebook sales data. We’ll add print and audio formats later when we have more data. (POD and audiobook distribution were added to PublishDrive in late March, so sales data will start flow in slowly.) We also compared data to the same quarter/month in 2019 as well as the previous month.

Popular books 2020

Digital Book Sales Are Increasing

During this pandemic shutdown, people want more at-home entertainment. And they are prioritizing digital means to get them. Things like movie-streaming services, video games, and of course books of 2020 are seeing a significant boom.

On PublishDrive, online book sales increased by more than 20% from February 2020 to March 2020. And Q1 2020 delivered over 10% growth in sales compared to Q4 2020. Considering that our Q4 numbers usually bring in over 30% of the whole year’s sales numbers, this is an exceptional result for book sales starting off the year.

We expect to see sales numbers grow even more with an additional 30% based on the initial real-time sales data we see. That’s really beneficial for PublishDrive authors who keep 100% royalties. Since PublishDrive doesn’t take any commission, publishers can get the same royalties as selling directly to stores.

“When you’re selling 5,000 books a month at 10% versus a flat fee of 100 bucks, that’s sort of a no-brainer...We can use PublishDrive, save a ton of money, and still reach the same audience and actually a bigger audience which is awesome too. When I first heard about that, I almost thought it was too good to be true.”
– Bestselling Indie Author Quinn Loftis

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Non-Fiction and Books for Younger Readers Are Selling More Than Ever

With digital publishing, PublishDrive’s bestseller list of categories has been comparable to other statistics on book sales. The most popular book genres were related to fiction, especially the romance genre. Fantasy, thriller, and crime books were also popular. Self-help related to nonfiction books performed well too.

Consumer behavior changed a lot during COVID-19. More people are staying at home as a result of lockdowns in many countries. With no travel, school, and other activities, there has been appearance of online book sales.

In the following chart, see the top 30 bestselling book genres on PublishDrive. We compared growth in March 2020 to February 2020. We see bigger spikes than usual in these book genres: Fantasy books, Literary, Classics, Foreign Language Study, Mystery books, Fantasy & Magic, science fiction or sci-fi, Historical, Education and Action & Adventures. These popular genres reflect the reading habits of a younger generation (e.g. lover of fiction short stories), and also, people looking for educational content.

International Book Sales Are on the Rise

Along with a dominant presence in the US market, PublishDrive gives publishers a huge international reach (English language books are in demand!) Interestingly, when we look at sales growth from February to March 2020 based on the country, there are new countries on the rise. See the chart below with the top 30 bestselling countries and their growth rates from February to March 2020.

The US and the UK are consistently among the top countries based on sales value. Sales in those countries are still increasing month by month. Other countries also stand out: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Mexico, Denmark, Japan, Austria, Switzerland, China, and the Philippines. As countries reacted to COVID-19 with different lockdown periods and measurements, we’ve seen new markets for English language content pop up.

Spikes in Subscription Services, Library Providers, and Regional Stores

Book royalties can come from different sources today, not just from selling one copy to a consumer. Typically, these sources can be categorized as follows:

  • Retail: Major outlets that reach global readers with the usual one copy purchase business model. E.g. Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books, and Kobo.
  • Subscription services: Usually applications or stores that provide unlimited access to books in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. E.g. Scribd, Bookmate, and Dreame.
  • Digital library providers: Book borrowing for not just individuals, but institutions like public libraries, schools, universities, or corporate libraries. E.g. OverDrive, Bibliotheca, Mackin, and Odilo.
  • Regional stores: Outlets that cover a specific region that serves the local community. E.g. Tolino, Chinese stores, Hungarian outlets, and German network.

With book sales, many think of selling ONLY Amazon. Although Amazon is great, there’s an entire mass of readers you can find elsewhere with other stores and business models.

56% of PublishDrive’s book sales come from retail (Amazon included). The other 44% comes from subscription business models (32%), libraries (3%), and regional stores (8%). This also shows how reader experience has shifted in the last couple of years.

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More people are participating via subscription services or even book reading institutions. International book sales own 8% of the overall book sales through PublishDrive.

We’ve also seen trends in ratios according to different business models (see chart below). Regional stores grew the most by 126%, telling us that people looked to local stores for digital books first. Digital library sales exploded by 55% as schools and universities closed and had to switch to digital means. That’s more sales from digital textbooks and educational or academic titles.

Subscription models also increased by 24%. Many of them cover different products: books, audiobooks, music, or even movies. For example, Scribd ran a promotional campaign where they extended its free trial period allowing more readers to join without any financial restrictions. Retailers grew by 11%, also above the usual trend based on last year’s data.

Growth for Bestselling Categories or Countries May Differ Based on the Store

Different countries like different types of books. We dug into our data and found out the most interesting growth rates per some of the stores based on country or content.

Amazon in France and Spain saw a huge spike of more than 2x compared to February. Sci-fi, fantasy, business/economics, history, educational, and self-help related content experienced most of this boom. African American type of content sold extremely well too.

Apple Books has a diverse audience of mainly iOS users on their iPhone and iPad devices in over 51 countries. We’ve seen boosts in English-language countries. UK and US grew with over 30%. Canada hiked by 50%. New Zealand hiked by 3 times more. The bestselling category is romance as usual. But surprisingly, the ones with the highest growth rate included non-fiction categories with Business, Health, Self-Help, Biographies, and Study aids.

European countries like Italy or Switzerland grew 2x with book sales in mainly fiction categories. Twice as many French readers purchased books through Apple Books in mainly non-fiction categories like business, health/fitness, or computer.

Google Play Books has over 76 local stores worldwide. It reaches over 2bn potential readers on Android phones or tablets. Their main readership is usually more sensitive to price. Lower-priced books typically deliver better results.

Since February, we’ve seen a huge bump in the US and UK. There was an increase of over 50% in sales value. France achieved over 50% and Germany over 30%. Interestingly, sales in Poland grew 3x more since February.

From fiction categories, fantasy and thrillers grew the most. As with other retailers, non-fiction categories were super popular on Google Play Books like foreign language study, self-help, business, and psychology.

Kobo has its roots in Canada, so there’s no surprise that our sales data shows 3x more of Canadian readers. With great international reach, we also saw 3x more book sales in France and Germany. And 2x in Japan. In the US and in the UK, there was a 20% climb. Popular categories include romance, fantasy thrillers, literary, historical fiction, and non-fiction titles like business or health.

Among PublishDrive’s numerous digital library providers, we looked at one in particular. Overdrive’s sales data in the US resulted in 5x growth. Genre fiction like romance, fantasy, mystery, thriller, including juvenile fiction and children’s book, performed significantly well.

Subscription services are always interesting to look at, especially during times like these where online services typically see a hike in business performance. Scribd has seen a 20% increase in the UK and 10% in the US.

Interestingly, international sales numbers increased more rapidly with Scribd. To mention a few, Germany grew by 30%, Italy by 2x more; the Netherlands by 30%, India by 2x, Malaysia by 2x more; Mexico by 2x more; the Philippines by 3x more, and South Africa by 2x more. The best selling categories based on growth were fantasy, business, literary, psychology, self-help, health and fitness, thriller, and crime.

So How’s the Book Market Doing? Very Well When It Comes to Digital

We hope you found our information on the real world of books insightful and useful. Remember, books are in demand worldwide!

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I really enjoy the multi-store reach...I reach a lot of different countries...It was fabulous that I could hit one or two buttons and then my whole account transferred over...I found that to be incredibly easy...I would upload it to the system and it would automatically import several fields...I really loved that quick and easy step to get the book up that much faster.”
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