February 16, 2018

What’s Hot Now? | Materials Survey 2018

What’s hot, what’s not, and how much does it cost? That’s what LJ first asked two decades ago when it launched its annual book-buying survey of U.S. public libraries. With today’s media mostly on the horizon, the survey initially dwelled on print, and library purchasing power was the main thrust. Now the survey takes in ever-shifting funding and borrowing data for an ever-growing range of materials, with a greater focus on what circulates.

Budgets first, though, and while this year’s respondents report that materials budgets are up, it’s only by a fingernail-thin 0.1 percent. (Owing to a different sample, the forthcoming annual budget survey reports a juicier figure.) Only 26 percent of respondents saw an increase, down from last year’s 31 percent, and 59 percent saw no increase at all, effectively a cut considering the impact of inflation. A decade ago, materials budgets averaged $763,000, which, adjusted for inflation, would buy $915,000 worth of items today. But this year’s materials budget averaged just $843,000.

Print books now claim only 54 percent of materials budgets, while netted media (audios, DVDs/Blu-rays, and streaming media) take a 30 percent bite, up from 27 percent last year. ­Ebooks held steady at nine percent, having risen from one percent in 2009. A third of respondents saw their ­ebook budgets increase, for a healthy 12.7 percent increase overall.

In the end, the biggest budget movement happened within media. Audiobook spending is up 16 percent on average, with physical audiobooks now demanding 8.6 percent of the materials budget and downloadable audios nearly five percent. DVDs/Blu-rays slipped a bit to 11.5 percent. But streaming media debuts with just over two percent of the budget, and music CDs/downloadables now claim 3.3 percent, up from 2.3 percent last year.

Circulation trends

This year, 46 percent of respondents volunteered that circulation increased, though, like last year, the increase averaged under one percent. Print books accounted for only 55 percent of circulation overall, having fallen eight points in five years. In that time, ­ebooks rose three points to average seven percent of circulation, while media rose on average from 31 percent to 35 percent.

As with budgets, the biggest movement in circulation happened within media. While the circulation of physical audio rose only slightly, that of downloadable audio skyrocketed by 20.7 percent. Four-fifths of respondents now offer downloadable audio.

Says LJ media editor Stephanie Klose of this digital audiobook explosion, “The main factor, as far as I can tell, is how easy—almost frictionless—the process of downloading and listening has become. I can borrow an audiobook from my library and be listening to it on my phone in less than a minute.” Other factors: the stepped-up popularity of podcasts, “since people are used to finding and listening to spoken-word entertainment on their devices,” and the ease of streaming content through car speakers.

Now offered by just over half of respondents and entertaining an overall ten percent increase in circulation, streaming media also proves to be a growth area. Explains Matt Enis, LJ senior editor, technology, “Given the growing popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu in the consumer market, it’s inevitable that library patrons will expect to have access to streaming content.”

What’s hot in print

Shifts in print circulation were ­especially evident in nonfiction. Biography/memoir took over the top spot, a position held by cooking since 2010. Impressively, nearly four-fifths of respondents cited biography/memoir among their top five nonfiction circulators, compared with only 39 percent in 2010. Cookbooks may have sunk because they’re rebounding as ebook fodder, but LJ associate editor Stephanie Sendaula has another ­explanation.

“I think it has to do more with an increased in popularity of biographies/memoirs than anything else,” Sendaula offers. “Nearly all of my history and sociology reviewers are interested in biographies/memoirs in their respective areas, and publishers are publishing more overall.” In ­every area—military and religion, sports and music—­authors are focusing on individual stories. Cookbooks might have also suffered because they’re so expensive, observes Sendaula, who adds, “Chef cookbooks are sometimes polarizing.”

Nonfiction subjects with strong uptake this year included medicine/health, up 12 points to claim third place, having fallen to fifth place last year; travel, also up 12 points; and ­political science/current events, up ten points from last year’s 25 percent and an 18 percent showing in 2013. Perhaps the most interesting gains came in the arts arena, with arts/crafts/collectibles making a six-point leap to 42 percent and fine art/photography claiming ten percent, up from last year’s bare one percent.

Says LJ senior editor Liz French of this booming interest, “Escapism is probably a big factor, but in photography, a lot of the best-selling books are documentary and not at all escapist.” French instead highlights the nature of illustration itself: “People are beginning to realize that a lot of art books must remain books; PDFs and websites just don’t cut it.” And since most of us can’t afford original art, books are the greatest means to art appreciation.

Print nonfiction subjects that fell in users’ estimation include history, down by a surprising 12 percent (perhaps because biography is rising), and self-help/psychology. Though the latter has grown since 2013, when only a quarter of respondents cited it among their top nonfiction circulations, this year it fell nearly 20 points from last year’s 52 percent high. (See “Nonfiction Print Subjects: Key Circulation Trends,” below, for a five-year tracking of this year’s biggest movers.)

Of this drastic dip, LJ self-help columnist Deborah Bigelow observes, “I’d say that there are too many self-help titles. Too many ‘celebrity’ authors who cover the same old territory. There are some very good niche books, say, for the gay population, but maybe these ‘targets’ don’t know the books exist.” Her comments are augmented by LJ Reviews assistant managing editor Annalisa Pešek, who’s concerned that “self-help books are not very ­diverse.”

Print fiction was steadier in the popularity rankings, but change was afoot. As always, mystery and general fiction handily filled first and second place, though mystery got fewer endorsements from respondents than last year and general fiction got more. With traditionally third-place romance losing 12 point as a top circulator, it slipped to the fourth spot, behind thrillers. Christian fiction, too, had a big fall, from the 40-plus percent rating it’s held since 2013 to 27 percent this year. (See “Fiction Print Subjects: Key Circulation Trends,” above.)

Romance may have swooned as some authors moved to writing more women’s fiction and other genres, but LJ romance columnist Kris Ramsdell also points to issues of marketing and perception. “Romances are sometimes mislabeled by publishers, so they don’t get counted as romance. Also, once romance authors become big, they often end up in ‘Fiction,’ though they’re still writing romance.” In addition, notes Ramsdell, “a huge percentage of the romance market is nontraditionally published, and much of that doesn’t make it into libraries.” Meanwhile, Christian fiction has hit hard times, with the major retailer Family Christian Stores closing this year. LJ fiction editor Wilda Williams confirms, “I don’t get nearly as many Christian fiction titles as I used to.”

In contrast, thrillers and historical fiction won big. Thrillers were cited as top print circulators by fully 70 percent of respondents, compared with last year’s 56 percent and only 42 percent in 2013. Historical fiction made similar leaps, grabbing top marks from 48 percent of this year’s respondents, compared with 36 percent last year, and LJ reviewer Kathy Piehl explains why.

“Many people have gotten interested in history because of TV dramas like Downton Abbey and movies like Hidden Figures and the [Broadway] musical ­Hamilton,” says Piehl, adding that “there seems to be a hunger for the past to try to make sense of the present.” Reviewer Mara Brady concurs, saying, “Given the year we just had, historical fiction may be feeling a lot more directly relevant to people’s lives.” With the past done, say both reviewers, there’s a greater ease in discussing the difficult issues these books might raise.

What’s hot in ebooks

While ebooks may not be effecting the monster publishing makeover originally envisioned, they are on track in libraries; 58 percent of respondents report a circulation increase averaging 18 percent, compared with an 11 percent increase last year. Fiction reigns in ebook circulation even more than in print, but contrasts are evident. Mystery and general fiction still deliver that one-two punch, but mystery isn’t quite as popular electronically, and general fiction drops 13 points.

Thrillers fare just as badly, falling from 70 percent in print to 57 percent in ebook format. Christian fiction, women’s fiction, and historical fiction also fell six or seven points in ­ebook circulation, compared with print. (See “Fiction Ebook Subjects: Key Circulation Trends,” above.)

The winners? Romance and sf/fantasy, which register eight-point and 18-point increases in ebook circulation over print, respectively. For romance, this leap is significant, as it retains its third place ranking even as fewer respondents than last year named it a top ebook circulator. And sf/fantasy gets a big boost in rankings, from bottom-of-the-barrel tenth place in print to seventh place in ebook format, showing where its readers are.

Differences in print vs. ebook circulation are even more marked in nonfiction. Biography/memoir are top ranked in both formats, but cooking, the second-ranked print circulator and doing better in ebook format than in the last two years, still falls to fourth place in that format; third-ranked medicine/health falls to fifth and fourth-ranked arts/crafts/collectibles to tenth. History, ranked fifth in print circulation, makes a 13-point ­ebook leap to third place, while humor, barely there in print, gets cheered by 29 percent of respondents. In addition, however admirably sixth-place politics/current events grew in print, this area fared even better in ebook format, racing ahead to a second-place finish. (See “Nonfiction Ebook Subjects: Key ­Circulation Trends,” above.)

This year’s materials budget and circulation breakdowns show that library collections just keep diversifying; tracking subject circulation over five years shows how quickly reading tastes can shift, while tracking print and ebook circulation shows how—and how differently—readers use the two formats. Whatever happens next, what’s hot and what’s not will never look the same.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for the great article,

    It was interesting to see the new trends in circulation and how they have evolved over time. This gave me an incite into what our patrons might be more interested in and in what format.

  2. It would be interesting to know how much is push/pull in fiction. For instance, there has been a steady increase in “biofiction” titles (many 20th century figures) and in multiple storylines, which may be in the historical fiction category. Is publishing going after demand, or are readers reading what is published. Dunno.

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