In what seems like a technologically obsessed era, the role of books is being questioned.

Penguin Random House has provided a succinct and insightful answer to that question. That answer proves that books play a plethora of roles in our life from escapism and self-help to activism and academic education.  

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 person can learn from them. 

We felt our feelings

“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.

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.

The #booktok hashtag on TikTok may also have influenced the sales. “These categories,” the report notes, “are particularly diverse and progressive, featuring protagonists from various ethnic backgrounds, religions, body types, gender expressions, and sexual preferences”.

We spoke 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%.

We celebrated black excellence

As Black people across the Western world protested for their rights and recognition, the media finally started acknowledging the lack of representation. It’s extremely important for non-black people to educate themselves on Black history and the role slavery and colonialism plays in more modern portrayal and discrimination towards people of the African diaspora. 

2021 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.

Penguin Random House also acknowledges the importance of audiobooks and calculated that Barack Obama’s author-narrated audiobook A Promised Land was listened to for more than 4,255 years in 2021.

Joe Biden’s inauguration inspired people

Even for non-Americans, the ousting of Trump and his replacement by Joe 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!

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.

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