March 2020 Book Market: Best Book Genres during COVID-19

How's the book market doing amid COVID-19? Very well. See bestselling book genres, categories, countries, and more in our report updated monthly.

Kinga Jentetics |

Everything is changing. What doesn’t change is our mission to help authors and publishers sell more books. Get the latest market trends here.

COVID-19 has affected communities of every size and function; from large institutions to small businesses, and also the 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.

Below we go over the trends and data in this ever-changing market, key in seeing what’s selling digitally these days. Plus, we give an overview of international digital book sales -- we’ll be constantly updating 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.

(To maximize our support during this time, we’ve also added more marketing support, new stores to our distribution network, and more.)

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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.

Book sales data covid-19
Infographics for Digital Book Sales Data during COVID-19

Digital book sales are increasing.

During this pandemic shutdown, people want more at-home entertainment, prioritizing digital means to get them. Things like movie-streaming services, video games, and of course books 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.

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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. Our popular book genres were related to fiction, especially the romance genre, fantasy, thriller, and crime books. Self-help related to non-fiction titles was doing well too.

However, 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 a new group appearance of online book sales.

In the following chart, see the top 30 bestselling book genres in PublishDrive. We compared their 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, and also, people looking for educational content.

bestselling book genres growth PublishDrive

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.

bestselling countries book sales growth publishdrive

Spike 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.

bestselling ebook stores publishdrive

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.

bestselling ebook stores publishdrive

Growth for bestselling categories or countries may differ based on the store.

We all know that 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. Noteworthy to mention, 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 with over 50%, and New Zealand with over 3 times more in growth. 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 covering with over 2bn potential readers on Android phones or tablets. Their main readership is usually more sensitive to price, so lower-priced books typically deliver better results.

Since February, we’ve seen a huge bump in the US and UK -- 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 this insightful. Remember, come back on a monthly basis to make the best-informed decisions in your publishing business – we’re rooting for you!

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