Bookstore sales dropped just a bit in 2012, says the US Census Bureau

Preliminary estimates from the Census Bureau show that US bookstores as a whole experienced a 0.5 percent decrease in sales for the year of 2012.

Ann Hermes
Patrons hold a meeting in the Book Cellar, an independent bookstore based in Chicago, Ill.

Independent bookstores and big retailer Barnes & Noble have reported their holiday numbers, and now the verdict from the US Census Bureau is in: For US bookstores, 2012 was pretty much the same as 2011.

Preliminary estimates from the Bureau indicate a 0.5 percent decrease in sales during 2012, with total sales coming in at $15.21 billion. Sales total for 2011 were $15.28 billion. 

The data also shows, however, that sales numbers for December 2012 increased 2.9 percent from the sales for December 2011, with bookstores selling $1.69 billion worth of items over the 2012 holiday month, according to the Bureau.

As pointed out by industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, for the purposes of these numbers the Bureau defines a bookstore as “establishments primarily engaged in retailing a general line of new books. These establishments may also sell stationery and related items, second-hand books, and magazines.”

The overall story of 2012 for US bookstores was more up-and-down than anything. Sales numbers were higher than in 2011 for the months of April, May, June, July, October, November, and December. Numbers fell for February, March, August, and September, while they were even with 2011 sales figures in January.

Jack McKeown, co-owner and president of Books & Books in Westhampton Beach in New York, wrote on the Publishers Weekly website that he thought booksellers should be “cautiously optimistic” about this news.

“Let me get this straight,” he wrote. “The industry loses 12% of its brick-and-mortar shelf space with the collapse of Borders (third quarter 2011); suffers tough comps with the impact of Borders liquidation sales; and endures further encroachment from online and ebooks, and yet bookstores still managed to turn in a virtually flat performance 2012 vs. 2011? And a strong December uptick. Pretty remarkable."

In 2012, independent bookstores reported some of their strongest sales ever for the month of December, with their numbers rising almost 8 percent for the year, also experiencing a 28 percent rise in their online sales. By contrast, Barnes & Noble saw a 10.9 percent drop in retail operations for the holiday season. The retailer plans to close about one-third of its stores over the next decade

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