Shelf Awareness brings us this report of buoyant book sales as reported by the Association of American Publishers. What are we to make of this comparison of November 2018 book sales with November 2017? What does a “Huge Jump in Trade Sales” really mean?

Table from Shelf Awareness

A 36% jump is certainly “huge” but timing counts. Monthly sales are just monthly sales. Annual sales tell more and with five or ten year sales trends we are beginning to get into the area where we can make projections. We also have to keep in mind the boost given to recent book sales (adult hardcover) by our controversial political situation. Solace for chaos often seems to be sought by buying a book and keeping your head down, reading away. Of course a book sold is a book no longer cluttering up the supply chain, so we rejoice. These big books no doubt attracted big print runs, and we should wait till a bit later to say they were all wild successes: the temptation to order too large a reprint increases as sales numbers go up. But such carping is out of place: next year and the year after there’ll no doubt be some big books, not perhaps about politics, maybe climate change, football payola, Hollywood scandals, supernovas, fruit canning — well, maybe not fruit canning, but with a changing climate who knows. These booming sales numbers are good news. Even if they will be over-interpreted and draw the snideness of indie publishing boosters — no, the numbers do not include sales of self-published books: unsurprisingly the AAP can only report on sales numbers reported to them.

Ebooks don’t look to be doing brilliantly except among the young and spiritual, but the worst news comes from the university press segment. However these numbers in fact include data from a dozen university presses plus a couple of wholesalers. The Association of University Presses has over 140 members, largely but not exclusively in the USA, so these sales numbers have to be looked at in context.

AUP members

What that context amounts to is opaque of course. The main ingredient has to be a recognition that one month is merely one month and with relatively small numbers percentage changes will look more dramatic than a similar change to a larger sales number. The take away ends up being “Don’t over interpret numbers put out by industry bodies”. This I’m sure is not a lesson we will ever manage to learn though.