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Bookstore Sales Fell 37% in the Last Decade

Here’s a bit of news that will put a damper on future stories about the revival of bookstores.

PW reported yesterday that preliminary estimates show sales at US bookstores fell last year:

A slump in the second half of 2017 led a decline in bookstore sales in 2017 compared to 2016. According to preliminary estimates released Wednesday morning by the U.S. Census Bureau, bookstore sales dropped 3.6% last year compared to 2016. Sales in 2017 were $10.73 billion, down from $11.14 billion in 2016.

After rising in the first part of 2017 over 2016, bookstore sales ended 2017 on a five-month losing streak, capped by a very soft December. Sales in the last month of 2017 were $1.18 billion compared to $1.29 billion in December 2016. The weak end to 2017 mirrors to some degree the experience of Barnes & Noble which reported a 6.4% decline in sales in the nine week period ended December 31, 2107 compared to the same period a year ago.

There are two details worth noting. The first is that these figures include everything a bookstore sells, and not just books.

The second detail is that bookstores sales have declined almost every year since 2007, when they totaled $17.2 billion.

Bookstore Sales 2006–2017 (in billions)

2006 $17.02
2007 $17.21
2008 $16.91
2016 $11.14
2017 $10.73
% Chnge 2007–10 37%

Another thing you should know is that these numbers are bullshit until they have been revised for at least the third time; look up the 2017 statistics in 6 months and you will get something completely different, and then it might change again when you look a year from now.

I spent Thursday morning looking at PW’s past coverage of bookstore sales, and found multiple conflicting stats for any given calendar year (it’s why I left the gap in the chart). The one consistency is that the sales stats are usually revised downwards, which means the sales figure for 2017 will end up being lower by several hundred million.

While a significant part of the drop in sales was Borders closing in 2011, PW did also note that sales fell every year aside from 2016. (Even the coloring book fad in 2015 didn’t help.)

Do you know what you call an industry that declines 2% to 3% every year for a decade?

One that is dying on the vine.

This will be hard to accept – some will point to things like the ABA gaining 74 new members last year as data that refutes my conclusion – but the simple fact is bookstores aren’t selling as many goods as they used to.

Indie bookstores will be able to pick up some sales when B&N goes, I don’t see any sign of this trend reversing.

Do you?

image by jlodder

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Paolo Amoroso February 15, 2018 um 12:56 pm

Paper fatigue?

Nate Hoffelder February 15, 2018 um 12:58 pm


No, print sales are good – it’s just that people are buying on Amazon now

Xavier Basora February 15, 2018 um 8:11 pm

And the customer gets a variety of formats will little hassle or attitude. Nothing grates more than some wannabe 20 something sniff at my choice of genres that aren’t Litetatur(tm)


Chris February 16, 2018 um 5:37 pm

Indigo still has plans to enter the US market, albeit very slowly and cautiously. They’ve got 5 stores planned to open in the next two years and the first one in NJ is going to be only 30,000 square feet.

I was initially pleased that Amazon’s moving faster on their physical stores as well but they just look so sterile, and apparently the prices in the physical stores are higher than online and they tell you that upfront. They’re probably too forgone now to fix anything, but IMO if B&N would have backed off the monstrously huge store model a year or two ago they might have been able to survive.

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John Hennessey March 13, 2018 um 5:46 pm

Sales in almost all brick and mortar stores are down, bookstores seem to be slipping a bit less. Yes, Amazon makes life quick and easy when you know exactly what you’re looking for. But most of us love browsing the physical store, you just don’t know what you’ll turn up.

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