The Christmas shopping period is fully underway, home to the largest weeks of the year for print book sales…but just how many of the books bought at this time of year are intended as Christmas gifts and how many are from readers buying for themselves?

Typically, from 10% to 12% of print books are bought as Christmas gifts each year, adding up to more than 25m books annually. Unsurprisingly most of those gifts are bought in December, with those pronounced peaks shown in the graph below, but since 2015, buying for oneself has actually accounted for more print book purchases in December than buying Christmas gifts has, with buying for others just not specifically as a Christmas gift increasing as well. So while Christmas gifts remain integral to the final weeks of the year, that shift toward more self-purchasing has had an impact on the shape of the market and most popular categories as well as how consumers approach their shopping.

In earlier years, children’s books were much more prominent at this time of year, accounting for 45% of purchases in December 2012 to 2014, and just under 60% of Christmas gifts. They were still the largest sector for Christmas gifts in 2018 to 2020, but non-fiction has overtaken children’s for overall December print purchases, thanks to gaining a bit of the gifting market but more significantly rising to 55% of self-purchases. More than 60% of non-fiction books bought throughout the last three Decembers were intended for the buyer’s own use, compared to under half from 2012 to 2014, with that shift stemming from all corners of the market – even humour, source of many a stocking filler and Secret Santa gift.

Despite those gains for non-fiction, pre-school & picture books and children’s/YA fiction remain the top categories for December purchases, accounting for more than one in five books bought and rising to nearly a third of books bought as Christmas gifts. Children’s books have seen more fluctuations in the gifting categories over the years, mainly children’s fiction and non-fiction becoming more popular than activity books and annuals, while we see more changes for non-fiction self-purchases, many of them echoing wider trends in the book market, such as the increased popularity of self-help/popular psychology and popular science.

Consumers understandably have different approaches for shopping for others as opposed to themselves – books bought in December as Christmas gifts are more likely to be completely planned, and increasingly so in recent years, while books for one’s own use are more driven by impulse. On a genre level, that does vary, and in fact, key gifting categories pre-school & picture books and activity books appear the most impulsive among the leading December genres. They’re joined by humour, annuals, crime & thriller and children’s non-fiction all ahead of the market average of 30%, as well as sport/games and history & military if we group in those consumers that set out to buy a book but weren’t sure ahead of time which one.

The more impulsive genres would naturally have the potential to be more impacted by prominent displays, bookseller suggestions and browsing, relative to other large categories like cookery, auto/biographies and children’s fiction where the buyer is more likely to aim for a specific book, no doubt influenced by the dominance of celebs and big names in these genres. But bringing together the changing recipients, shifting genres and different levels of planning, this does point to an increasingly varied shopping atmosphere for the end of the year, with the consumer path to gift purchase frequently interrupted, or at least complemented, by bookish treats for oneself (or vice versa!).

Data extracted from the Books & Consumers monthly survey from 2012 to 2021. For more information, please contact infobookresearch@nielseniq.com.