A couple of weeks ago, I predicted how COVID-19 would change what readers are reading. It was an incredibly popular episode. It was also the first Novel Marketing episode to get a one-star review on Podchaser.

People had strong opinions about that episode. Some of my predictions have been vindicated. For the others, we’ll have to wait to see how they pan out.

To learn about the actual data and sales numbers from the last few months, I spoke with the CEO and founder of K-lytics.com, Alex Newton. K-lytics is a leading Kindle market research resource for authors and publishers, and Alex has solid data on the Kindle market. When we want to know about the numbers, we invite Alex to give us the verifiable facts.

Alex’s specialty is Kindle data, but I also wanted to know what he had observed in traditional print and retail sales.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on print books?

Alex Newton: This whole thing started with everybody—including the production capacity of nations—being locked into their homes.

The first thing that happened was the shock and uncertainty that led to the dive in retail consumption over a period of three weeks. The last week of March was the worst week. U.S. retail consumption had dropped by 31%.

After Easter (the weeks of April 4th and April 11th) things were still down 15%-20% compared to the prior year. But in those same weeks, you could already see things starting back up.

But the fact of the matter is that with the decline happening in retail, we saw the print book sales decline according to the association numbers that were reported.

January was still 4%-5 % up versus 2019. February was already in the negative, and March was a 7% decrease from March 2019. If you look at the sheer size of the impact on overall retail, we were surprised to see only -7% in March.

I guess April is going to be even worse for print. But was the starting point for this huge dive across the board.

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: The rule of thumb with traditional publishers is that half of their sales happen on non-Amazon platforms. For every publisher, those numbers are a little different. But in industry associations, that’s the rule of thumb.

A big chunk of the non-Amazon sales are offline sales of print books, and with retail stores closed, those sales were killed. Technically speaking, you could still buy a book at Walmart or Target if your book was fortunate enough to be in their small selection of books.

Traditional and print publishers have been hammered during this time. But the question we’re all wondering about is whether people switched from reading books to watching YouTube? Or did they switch from reading print books to reading ebooks?

Did we see a corresponding boom in ebook sales to match the collapse of print book sales?

Alex: To a certain extent, we certainly did. There were two sales increases. One was for online book sales in general, which can be either print or ebooks. Large online retail market research agencies such as Ruxton Intelligence saw online book sales grow. Amazon saw that increase as well, although they deprioritized shipments of nonessential items, so people did shift to ebooks.

The most striking thing happened on Google and not directly on the Amazon platform. Within the week of March 8th – March 22nd, the search volume on Google for the term “ebooks” doubled within that extremely short period of time and stayed up there.

Thomas: A person who searches Google for the word “ebook” is probably somebody who is new to ebooks. Somebody who owns a Kindle is not likely to make a Google search for the word ebook because they already know how to use them and where to find them. But someone who normally shops at Barnes & Noble has heard about ebooks. Since the store is closed, they finally have the nudge to look into reading ebooks.  

The new ebook reader can’t go to the store. They’re bored, but they know books are available electronically, so they go to Google and type in the word “ebook.”

Are Kindle sales up? 

Alex: YesWe saw that interest translate into two things. One was the increase in device sales. At the top of Amazon’s electronics bestseller lists, you had the Amazon Echo, the Fire Sticks, and all the accessories you need to get the kids set up for homeschooling or to watch television or Netflix.

Once you have the device, you need to have ebooks on the device. That’s when we saw this significant increase in some of the genres of ebooks. Different authors and genres are affected differently, but there were some measurable and immediate effects.

Thomas: Many schools switched to using Zoom for their classes. A $40 Kindle can run Zoom, so if parents needed a screen for their children, the cheapest way to obtain one was to buy a Kindle Fire. You’re not going to get another tablet that runs Zoom for that price and quality, partly because Amazon subsidizes the cost of that product.

As potentially tens of thousands of parents bought their child their first tablet–which happened to be a Kindle tablet because that’s what they could afford–suddenly they had a device that made it easy for them to buy ebooks.

Are more people using Kindle Unlimited?

Alex: Yes. Kindle Unlimited related books have had an ongoing steady increase, so we didn’t see big spikes.

Amazon published its results, and in Q1, the subscription-related revenue (Kindle, Prime, television) grew to $5.6 billion, which was a year-over-year quarter of growth. Amazon’s subscription services have been positively impacted by the pandemic.   

On Kindle, we saw certain subcategories suddenly have unprecedented increases in sales.

The March payout to Kindle Select authors (authors who are exclusive with Kindle Unlimited), was $29 million paid in royalties—the highest Kindle Select Global Fund payout ever. It was the highest monthly increase ever recorded because it was a 6.6% increase over the prior month.

For Kindle Unlimited, March 2020 was the best month ever.

Thomas: Let’s underline that. Kindle Unlimited had its best month ever in March 2020. While the news is bleak on a lot of topics, if you’re an indie author making your money with Kindle Unlimited, the amount of money coming into Kindle Unlimited overall was more than it’s ever been before.

Now, that doesn’t mean every author on Kindle Unlimited saw their revenue increase. If you have a travel book to Italy in Kindle Unlimited, March probably was not a good month for you.

What were some of the biggest genre winners and losers?

Alex: In the initial stage of the lockdown, there was a spike in what I’d call immediate survival interest sales. Book categories that usually would be in complete oblivion, not even selling a copy a day, saw an increase. 

For example, medical ebooks, internal medicine, infectious disease books, which usually rank around 70,000 in the Amazon store, are suddenly up 82% and ranking in the top 10,000.

We saw the same thing in the category for physical ailments or respiratory ailments.

A couple of weeks later, everyone had difficulties getting face masks or medical equipment from suppliers. Suddenly, medical ebooks, reference books, instruments and supplies–a category which is almost nonexistent on Kindle nonfiction—shot up from a sales ranking of 500,000 to the top 70,000 or so.

Next, it was almost like a cascade. After everybody had satisfied their need for immediate survival information, people were interested in keeping their kids busy.

We suddenly saw a 50% sales ranking improvement in the whole category for teacher resources and homeschooling.

Thomas: I predicted the homeschooling genre would be hot because some parents who were on the fence about homeschooling will continue to homeschool even when the pandemic has passed.

Alex: The average sales rank of that those subcategories are currently between 30,000 and 20,000, so authors aren’t going to get rich in that category, but it does illustrate that the market is responsive to demand, and demand changes due to external factors. 

You mentioned that example of travel books. We track the category of travel for Europe, Italy, and Florence. Usually, around Easter, you have a peak in that category.

Well, guess what? It took a dive. It’s down by 150%, and now has a sales ranking of 400,000 on average for the top 20 Florence travel guides. That means nobody is buying a single unit of these types of books.

Thomas: We saw this same phenomenon after September 11th in the United States. From what I understand, travel TV shows were popular in the 90s. After September 11th, 2001, home improvement shows became popular. People were staying at home, and they were improving their houses.

Alex: What you describe is exactly what happened next. After people did their survival reading and then homeschooling reading, people had to fight the lockdown blues. Suddenly books on gardening, horticulture, and vegetables increased. 

After that, we saw the sales for Christian books and Bibles, ministry, evangelism, and sermons as a category shoot through the roof for customers who believe in God and Christ.

For those who are more secular in their thinking, we saw a rise at the end of April for books about motivation and self-improvement.

As people were at home and getting bored, they’d ask, “What does God tell me?” or “Can I improve myself?” or “Can I keep myself and the kids busy doing something physical in the garden, home, or with hobbies?”

Thomas: Have you seen an increase in weight loss books yet?

Alex: That was an interesting one because the whole fitness and health category first took a dive. It’s understandable because, once you are locked in at home with your family in a limited amount of square footage of living area, you are not worried about health and fitness. We saw a decline in fitness, health, and dieting books in March and April. But now at the end of April, they’re coming back up again.

Another interesting trend was that psychology books about parenting and relationships took a dive. When reality hits, parents don’t have time to read books theorizing about the best approach to parenting.

Thomas: That’s a good point. In a crisis, people look for practical instruction rather than theory. When your children are with you 24 hours a day, you need tips that work immediately and strategies you can apply right away.

I predict that the uptick in the diet and health genre is going to become a big spike as people try to put their clothes back on to go back to work and realize they don’t fit like they used to. Suddenly, diet and exercise are going to be hot topics again.

Thomas: Historically, children’s ebooks, while they have been growing, were never a big category. Parents preferred to read books in physical form, even though their children tear up those books.

What are the trends in children’s ebook sales?

Alex: I’ve seen two effects. First, the sheer volume of books has increased. Second is the format of those books has shifted.

At the end of 2017, the share of ebooks in the children’s book top 100 was basically 7%, meaning seven out of the top 100 children’s books were ebooks. There was already a trend towards the acceptability of ebooks as a format for children. Before Christmas, that share grew to 15%, which is not huge. But the acceptability of ebooks for kids was on the rise.

Thomas: For comparison’s sake, in the romance genre, 93 of the top 100 books in the romance genre are ebooks.

Alex: In the big genres, it’s usually more than 70% ebook penetration in the top 100. 

In mid-April, when Google searches for ebooks were doubling, searches for kid’s ebooks were growing ten-fold during the same period.

Thomas: Wow. That’s a 1000% increase.

Alex: The data showed that the share of ebooks doubling in the top 100 children’s books. It went from 15% to 30%. Almost one-third of the top of the market in children’s books is ebooks.

Children’s ebooks are big winners from two perspectives. First, because of the sheer volume sold when people started buying books on how to teach their kids to write. Second, they wanted books for their kids to read.  

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which was a book from my childhood, was in the top 100 in the Amazon store last week. I think that is telling.

Children’s books in general suddenly hit number one storewide two weeks ago. In ebooks, we saw a surge across the board.

Thomas: It will be interesting to observe what impact this will have in the long term. Now that parents have started reading ebooks to their children, they realize they can save money since they already have the devices. Will they continue buying ebooks rather than paper books? Or once Barnes Noble opens again, will they shift back to buying paper books?

Will readers continue buying ebooks rather than paper books?

Alex: Past experiences and data give us some clues. Six years ago, there was a children’s ebook hype. But it was a supply-driven hype because Amazon launched the Kindle Fire and needed a market for it. They marketed it to parents.

For authors, they launched the Amazon Kids Book Creator, which was a lousy desktop application to format children’s ebooks. That created the first wave of hype, but it died off.

Yet we continue to have children’s ebooks as seasonal merchandise, and we always see a peak at Christmas and Easter. Last year, after Easter, when ebook sales usually take a huge dive, it didn’t fall off that sharply.

Part of the reason was that big book publishers started advertising their ebooks. That helped to steady the ebook sales.

Now you have the lockdown, the increase in device sales, the increase in Prime and KU subscriptions, and the crisis have brought the device use closer to the parents.

Parents used to say, “I’m not going to put my two-year-old in front of an iPad because it’s not good for the kid. Let’s stick with the print book.” Some parents will return to that line of thought. But some of the change may be a bit stickier than it was during that first hype because this time, it was demand-driven, not supply-driven.

Thomas: It’s the actual behavior of the parents that drives the change. Your principles on screen time tend to go out the window when you have an important conference call, and you need your kids to be quiet. Many parents are trying to find ways to accommodate noisy children.

Has Romance been up or down since the pandemic hit?

Alex: Out of all the 30 main genres on Kindle, Romance was the biggest loser in the month of April 2020. It saw the biggest loss.

You’d think romance books are a nice escape. But if your husband and kids are in your living room, you can’t sit there and comfortably read your Highlander romance. I’m hypothesizing the reason for the loss, but the data says romance lost.

Does that mean romance is no longer the number-one selling genre on Kindle?

No, it still is.

Normally the biggest selling genres fall in this order:

1. Romance
2. Mystery, Thriller, Suspense
3. Sci-Fi
4. Nonfiction
5. Teen Young Adult

Romance is still number one, but it lost.

Mystery Thriller Suspense is still number two, but it lost relative to the months before.

Children’s ebooks, which used to be number six or seven, shot up to number three.

Nonfiction is still number four.

Sci-Fi took a bit of a drop against nonfiction and suffered a little bit.

Teen Young Adult novels came back up.

As you look at the data, you must distinguish the trend in the relative percentage increase or decrease. We had the biggest increases in children’s books, craft hobbies, and home medical ebooks. Those were the biggest winners, relatively speaking.

But in absolute terms, they have not overtaken those big genres. Out of those big genres, Romance was initially the biggest loser. Also, Mystery Thriller Suspense, and Sci-Fi lost ground versus prior months.

The good news is that teens have started to read again.

Thomas: They’re especially reading ebooks because teens are huge consumers at libraries. Now that public, school, and university libraries are closed, teens can’t check out books, and they are diving into ebooks.  

We know the number is up, and we’re speculating as to exactly why. Anytime you see a big statistical move, there’s usually more than one reason. It’s possible there are multiple reasons for that number to go up and down. We live in a complicated world, but I suspect one of the things impacting that Teen YA boost is that libraries are closed.

What other changes has the pandemic caused for the ebook market?

Alex: We saw two types of changes happening.

On the one hand, we saw how the crisis triggered a statistic to go in the opposite direction.

We talked about the nonfiction categories of respiratory illnesses and medical supplies. If there had been no crisis, there wouldn’t have been an increase in sales of those kinds of books.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Teen Young Adult and Dystopian Romance. The data from 2015 tells me that, on average, the top 20 titles would clearly rank in the top 2,000 storewide.

Over five years, that declined. The Hunger Games and Divergent trend faded.

But after the crisis, within a short period of time, teens had to read something to keep from being bored, so we saw sales of these types of novels pick up again.

Suddenly teens are reading Hunger Games again, and the whole category shoots back up.

There are some instances where the crisis almost helped. As people realized they had time to read the books they’d always wanted to read, Harry PotterHunger Games, and many classics benefited from reader behavior.

The other thing that happened was that some categories, such as the kid’s book category, were already trending upward, and the crisis amplified what was already on the move.

Thomas: We’ve seen the same thing in the economy as a whole. There was already a trend towards working from home, and the pandemic accelerated that trend.

Now many people are working from home. Once this is over, some of those people are going to go back into the office. But some of those people are going to keep working from home because the underlying trend was already swinging in that direction. The crises accelerated the movement.

Pandemics are an amplifier of certain aspects of society. We see it in things like home delivery, online shopping, and the move away from retail. All these trends are being accelerated by the pandemic.

  • Do you want more details on these numbers?
  • Are you interested in the data from your subgenre?
  • Are you wonder how to tweak your story to move it into a hot category?
  • Do you have questions about categories that we didn’t get to?

K-lytics can help.

K-lytics has monitored the Amazon Kindle market extensively for the past six years. They have a monthly database of more than 7,000 genres and all their performance data.

The following are a few of the data points they monitor

  • Increase and decrease in sales
  • Price fluctuation
  • Sales rank of categories
  • Size of a category as a measure of competitiveness 
  • Ready-made reports for specific genres.

We’ve talked about resonance before and used music as a metaphor. These kinds of reports are one way of listening to the music, so your writing resonates with what’s already playing.

If you’ve never written Romance before, but you’re curious about getting into it, get up to speed on the romance market by getting a K-lytics report on romance.

If you’re thinking about writing a children’s book, get a K-lytics report that shows which kinds of children’s books are hot right now.

You can access the database as part of your K-lytics membership. They’ve recently published a 70-page PDF, a video, and a special bonus report on children’s ebooks covering 450 categories.

Be sure to visit k-lytics.com to see how they can serve you.

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