A year of “romantasy” and narrative non-fiction on the horizon for 2024

CHICAGO – Feb. 2, 2024 For the U.S. book industry, annual print volume reached 767 million in 2023, down by 3% compared to 2022, according to Circana, a leading advisor on the complexity of consumer behavior. A sales lift during the fourth quarter and annual gains in adult fiction and young adult were not enough to offset declines primarily driven by the kids’ segment.

Adult fiction was the brightest spot in 2023. Fiction print sales grew by 1%, or 1.5 million units, over the prior year, led by fantasy, romance, coming-of-age, and historical fiction subjects, according to Circana BookScan. This is the fifth year of unit growth for adult fiction in the U.S., which benefited from time spent at home during the pandemic. The young adult segment also posted positive gains in 2023, driven by the dystopian, romance, and thriller genres.

The kids’ book segment experienced the steepest declines in the industry, selling 13.5 million fewer units than 2022 and contributing two-thirds of the market declines. Fantasy, magic, and humorous stories drove the declines in fiction, down from high sales the year before. Pockets of growth included Bluey licensed books, holiday books, and activity books. Kids’ non-fiction volume fell, with study aids and activity books posting the steepest declines, while biography and religion were two growth areas.

“Despite an overall decline and keeping in mind that the market is still normalizing from a record-breaking year the industry had in 2021, the U.S. book market showed resilience in 2023,” said Kristen McLean, books industry analyst at Circana. “The market experienced a more moderate decline in 2023, compared to the prior year, and a stronger than expected Q4. Looking ahead, there are bright spots for genres across different age segments, and despite softer sales, it’s important to remember that kids’ books up eight million units versus 2019.  

Here are the themes that McLean is keeping a close eye on as 2024 gets underway: 

Continued hedging in consumer sentiment. While the U.S. book market outperformed overall general merchandise in 2023, increased household debt and continuing uncertainty over domestic and global affairs will keep consumers focused on their wallets. For the book market, these macro factors could translate to downward pressure on higher-priced titles after the holiday season, and increased rates of library borrowing over purchasing in the first half of the year. 

The year of “romantasy.” Genre fiction will continue to drive key parts of the book market, and no area is getting as much attention as “romantasy,” or genre fiction that is a blend of romance and fantasy. This fan-centric category has a lot of fuel, authors like Cassandra Clare and Rebecca Yarros are demonstrating how powerful the author and fan relationship can be, and publishers and content producers are investing. Given the high-end finishes and higher price-points the category is commanding, it seems like a good bet. However, it’s questionable how long the runway will be, and whether influencer culture in places like TikTok will remain steadfast enough for the market to size the curve. 

History may outperform poli-sci. Sales of history and political science books typically spike in an election year. If modeled off market expectations based on 2016 or 2020, Circana expects a banner year in 2024. However, the political and social environment is different from previous elections. Instead, narrative non-fiction that blends history with psychology and storytelling may be more compelling to readers in 2024 as they look to escape today’s reality by diving into past events. 

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