When you sell as many books as Penguin Random House, the world's largest general-interest publisher, you get a lot of information about where books are selling and in what numbers. And that information isn't just interesting from a profit-and-loss point of view.
To illustrate this point, the company has just released six lessons it says that book sales from 2021 can teach us about our collective experience. While these are focused on the USA, they echo trends and movements spreading everywhere around the world right now, so every creative can learn from them. We list the six trends below and explain what's behind them.
1. Jo Biden's inauguration inspired people
Even for non-Americans, the ousting of Trump and his replacement by Jo Biden was one of the biggest stories of the year. And if you were in any doubt of the cultural impact this event had within the States itself, Penguin Random House has some facts and figures for you.
At Biden's inauguration, 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman was asked to read her poem, The Hill We Climb. She'd written it in the weeks following the 2020 election, with significant passages written in response to the storming of the Capitol. Its theme was a call for unity among the American people and to emphasise the opportunity that the future holds.
The day after the inauguration, says Penguin Random House, 14,820 people pre-ordered the print edition of The Hill We Climb. It went on to sell 200,000 copies in its first week of publication in March and shone a light on the works of other contemporary poets. And they say poetry doesn't sell!
2. We escaped through fiction
When times are hard, books can provide a useful escape route for the soul. And the desire to escape through genre fiction was stronger than ever in 2021, reports Penguin Random House.
Romance and sci-fi/fantasy were two of the fastest-growing categories in 2021, up 50% and 46%, respectively, while comics and graphic novels were up 113%, and Manga sales were more than double any other previous year on record.
And perhaps there was another reason for the success of these categories, which all frequently feature alongside the #booktok hashtag on TikTok. "These categories," the report notes, "are particularly diverse and progressive, featuring protagonists from various ethnic backgrounds, religions, body types, gender expressions, and sexual preferences".
3. We felt our feelings
While some people turn to emotional comfort food during a crisis, others double down. And Penguin Random House reports that a new generation of readers has been revelling in emotionally intense books over the last year. "The books that thrived on #booktok in 2021 were overwhelmingly books that make you cry, demonstrating that sharing our collective grief makes us feel less alone," they explain.
As part of this trend, many rediscovered Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel, A Little Life, through TikTok, with 58.3 million views for the tag #alittlelife. The video platform's users also responded well to Burn After Writing, with 89.6 million views for #burnafterwriting videos.
4. We celebrated black excellence
Black Lives Matter isn't just about protest. It's also about educating yourself. And people were doing that in their droves in 2021, a year that saw the release of From The 1619 Project, Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Born A Crime by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah were mainstays on the New York Times bestseller list. At the same time, Penguin Random House calculates that Barack Obama's author-narrated audiobook A Promised Land was listened to for more than 4,255 years in 2021.
Elsewhere, Tiya Miles' All That She Carried won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and Jason Mott's novel Hell of a Book won the National Book Award for Fiction. Readers also continued to turn to the greats, with a 22% spike in James Baldwin readership over 2019.
5. We talked to kids in meaningful ways
More than ever in 2021, parents were being asked difficult questions by their children, and books were here to help. And so, children's literature has continued to evolve, making it address topics that are never too early to understand.
In this regard, Penguin Random House highlights the picture book My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain, which addresses anxiety, and My Rainbow by mother-daughter transgender advocates Trinity and DeShanna Neal. Elsewhere, Cori Doerrfeld's New York Times bestseller The Rabbit Listened explored grief and loss, while Areli Is a Dreamer by DACA dreamer Areli Morales told her immigration story. As a whole, they say, picture books were up 17% from 2020, with middle grade up 10% and Young Adult up 15%.
6. We rallied to stop Asian hate
Asian Americans made their voices heard through several popular publications in 2021. Most notably, Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner debuted at number 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for over 20 weeks.
Additionally, Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith was a finalist for The Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize and named one of the New York Times' Most Notable Books of 2021. And Minor Feelings author Cathy Park Hong wrote about Stop Asian Hate for the TIME 100 and became a TIME 100 cover star.