More American readers are choosing fiction over fact

Story at a glance

  • Nonfiction book sales have fallen by 2 percent since 2019, while fiction sales have seen a 45 percent surge.

  • Recent political titles from such A-list authors as Mike Pence and Michelle Obama have underperformed.

  • Meanwhile, a literary subset of TikTok has helped propel fiction phenom Colleen Hoover to the top of the bestseller list.

America’s readers may be tiring of reality.

Fiction book sales have risen by 45 percent since pre-pandemic 2019, while nonfiction sales have slipped by 2 percent, according to data from NPD BookScan for the adult publishing market.

Readers purchased 158 million fiction print books this year through Nov. 19, according to BookScan, which covers most U.S. transactions. Nonfiction sales totaled 240 million. As a share of all print books, fiction titles have risen from 31 percent of the adult market to 40 percent in three years.

New titles by former Vice President Mike Pence, former White House adviser Jared Kushner, New York Times star Maggie Haberman and former first lady Michelle Obama all have underperformed, industry analysts say. The latest offering by organizational guru Marie Kondo, “Marie Kondo’s Kurashi at Home,” sold 3,232 hardcover copies in its first five days on shelves.

Meanwhile, book buyers are snatching up titles by Colleen Hoover, a romance novelist from Texas who, a decade ago, was self-published and living in a trailer.

“I just think there’s something going on in people’s taste for nonfiction,” said Kristen McLean, lead industry analyst at BookScan. “I think the younger readers are driving the fiction market, and I think the rest of the market is just not buying the way they were, even last year.”

The publishing industry hit an all-time peak for print book sales in 2021, with 497 million in the adult market. McLean credits the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone had a lot of time on their hands,” she said.

With the nation emerging from COVID-19 in 2022, some backslide seemed inevitable. “But fiction is the only area that’s still up,” McLean said.

Theories abound for the creeping nonfiction malaise. If any one person bears the brunt of blame, perhaps it is former President Trump, whose White House tenure fueled nonfiction sales for half a decade.

“What was driving nonfiction three, four years ago was Donald Trump, and he’s not driving nonfiction anymore,” said Thad McIlroy, an author and publishing industry analyst. “Any damned thing about Trump news could become a bestseller. A book by a guy who drove him to the airport could’ve been a bestseller.”

The Trump era yielded such blockbuster titles as “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, “Fear” by Bob Woodward and “Becoming” by Michelle Obama in 2018 and Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough,” Woodward’s “Rage” and Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land” in 2020, a mix of titles that alternately celebrated the former president and took the new one to task.

Then came the 2020 election, the curtain-closer on Trump’s presidency. “It feels like some kind of switch flipped for people, and they were in the mood for some escapist storytelling,” McLean said.

The current crop of heavyweight political books has not fared so well.

Pence’s new book, “So Help Me God,” sold 37,546 hardcover copies from its Nov. 15 publication date through Nov. 19, according to NPD BookScan. Kushner’s “Breaking History” has logged 97,992 hardcover sales since Aug. 23.

Haberman’s “Confidence Man,” the latest top-drawer Trump book, has sold 112,052 hardcover copies since Oct. 4. “It did fine,” McLean said, “but it didn’t do Bob Woodward numbers, which we would have expected a few years ago.”

Michelle Obama’s “The Light We Carry” rang up 144,177 hardcover sales from Nov. 15 through 19: Impressive, “but not the numbers we saw for her previous book,” McLean said. “Becoming” sold 725,000 copies in all formats on the day it published.

“I think people are maybe kind of worn out,” said Jason Bouck, book buyer at Novel books in Memphis. “Like the Mike Pence book. We’ve sold five or six. But I think if that had come out maybe a year ago, maybe we would’ve sold more. The same thing with Jared Kushner.”

The fiction shelf, by contrast, brims with overperformers. One fuchsia-hued name stands out: Hoover.

In Tuesday’s list of Amazon bestsellers for 2022, fiction and nonfiction, five of the top seven spots belonged to Hoover. She has sold 11.8 million print books this year, according to BookScan, three times the number of Dr. Seuss, her nearest rival.

Hoover’s unprecedented rise has upended industry conventions. She started out as a self-published author without an agent, a marketing team, a massive online following or a raft of fawning reviews, customary tools for crafting fortune and fame in publishing.

The core of Hoover’s fanbase lies within the literary BookTok community on TikTok, a platform populated with short, mostly whimsical videos uploaded by a largely Generation Z audience.

“By and large, the people who got this started, they were all teens and twentysomethings who were both creating and consuming content,” McLean said. “It’s kind of an intimate platform, and it has a level of authenticity.”

A quick search of the BookTok universe yields scores of short videos starring dogeared paperbacks, mostly posted by young women: ‘“Here’s me at the start of this book; here’s me at the middle of this book; here’s me sobbing at the end of this book, because I can’t believe it’s finished,’” McLean said, summarizing recurring themes.

McLean places Hoover’s books in a category she terms “books that make you cry.”

Hoover and her young readers have transformed the romance genre, moving it away “from the mass market paperbacks with a Fabio-esque character on the front, and toward a very recognizable, almost cartoon-like cover style that has made the genre more appealing to a wider audience,” said Sarah Arnold of Parnassus Books in Nashville.

“And I believe it’s bringing people into bookstores who wouldn’t otherwise be readers.”

Hoover herself appears in many TikTok videos, goofing on an escalator, printing manuscript pages to a Marvin Gaye soundtrack, surprising her stunned mother with a new SUV. She comes off as sincere, self-deprecating and vaguely subversive. Her Twitter profile reads, “I don’t get it either.”

By helping passionate readers connect, BookTok has succeeded in driving book sales where other social media platforms have failed. “Twitter doesn’t translate,” McLean said. “Instagram sort of translates, but not really. Facebook used to translate.”

Publishers once counted on big sales for books from celebrities with big platforms on social media. Recent history suggests, however, that millions of Instagram followers don’t often translate to millions of sales.

A publisher paid more than $1 million to publish a self-titled book by Billie Eilish, the pop star, who then commanded 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter. Six months later, sales totaled about 64,000, a fraction of what the publisher expected, according to BookScan.

BookTok stands apart. The platform has lifted titles by other breakout authors with young-ish female followings: Sarah Maas, author of the “Throne of Glass” fantasy series; Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of “Malibu Rising”; and Madeline Miller, author of “The Song of Achilles” and “Circe.”

“BookTok has been a driving force in book sales for us this year, and that’s been primarily focused on adult and young adult fiction,” said Susan Kehoe, owner of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“The real world is so turbulent right now, I think the idea of escapism through a book is definitely appealing to more people,” she said. Political titles, by contrast, “have really declined this year. There are still lots being published, but our customers aren’t clamoring for them.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.