The Director’s Dish: Current Trends in Publishing

I recently was asked to guest lecture at a publishing class about what I see as major trends in the book industry. You don’t always get to sit down and organize on paper (in this case, on Power Point) the things you know are happening in your industry. I thought I’d share some of the things I think are current trends in book publishing:

  1. Consolidation across all the channels. Whether it’s publishers themselves (e.g., the recent Penguin/Random House merger), printing presses (the number of printers has declined 18% in the last seven years), the mergers of significant wholesalers (e.g., Baker and Taylor with Blackwell North America), or the disappearance of retail chains (like Borders), we have seen major consolidation. All of this, of course, is because it’s a tough business to be in and margins are slim. As in any industry, consolidation has become the only way to survive. Bigger is better.
  2. Flattened ebook growth. The rate of ebook growth has slowed down, and pundits are predicting it will level off. The “early adopters” have slowed down their ebook purchases, and those who haven’t started reading electronically probably aren’t going to. But it has still had a significant impact on print sales—we just don’t know whether it will be the same steady number or if it will grow.
  3. Self-publishing. This has been a burgeoning field, with more than 300,000 self-published books (electronic and print combined) last year. This is primarily due to Amazon’s Create Space and to Smashwords (together these two own 80% of the self-publishing market). The main genres are romance and science fiction. I think it’s a good option for some authors who can’t get their books published by conventional publishers. And the Internet allows these folks somewhat of a “level playing field” in terms of reaching the consumer. Authors don’t get some important things when they self-publish—such as access to capital, or access to foreign agents for translation, or the help of on-the-ground sales representation—nor do they get a good developmental or acquisitions editor (although, in some “self-publishing” houses you can purchase the assistance of an editor). But, if you really want to publish and no one will take on your book, go for it. Very few are successful, but the occasional Amanda Hocking success story gives other self-publishers some hope.
  4. The global nature of publishing. When I started in book publishing it was pretty hard to find a rare book or a book that had a small print run, or to know if someone in another country had illegally translated your book into another language. Now, with the Internet, consumers can search for books all over the world. We know if a foreign publisher has illegally translated one of our books or is selling our books without permission. The global nature of publishing has also  pushed down price; books must be sold at “parity” because consumers in one country know what consumers in another country are paying for that book. Further, they can order it online and, if the shipping charge isn’t onerous, get the book cheaper.
  5. Blurring roles. Nobody along the supply chain does just one thing anymore. Amazon is a publisher, not just a retailer. Warehouses run print-on-demand facilities. Wholesalers offer distribution and electronic file storage. Barnes and Noble has its own book publishing imprint. Vertical integration—another attempt to either cut costs or gain market share—has become a business norm.
  6. Authors as promoters and marketers. Successful authors have always been self-promoters. But nowadays the promotion of a book really rests on the author’s shoulders. He or she is expected to have a platform—that is, a following of some sort. How many Twitter followers does the author have? How many hits does the author’s website get? Is the author already on the lecture circuit? Does he or she teach? If so, is the book something that could be used in the author’s own courses? Even at large commercial publishing houses, the author is expected to cover all expenses of a bookstore tour.
  7. Price sensitivity and used books. Finally, another major trend I’ve noticed is price sensitivity. Consumers now see books as “commoditized.” The Internet allows them to search for the lowest price. Heck, I remember when the list price of the book was what everyone paid! Now, consumers can easily compare prices from three or four e-tailers to determine where to buy the book. And e-tailers discount their books as “loss leaders.” But even at a lower price, publishers are happy when we sell new books to a customer, whether it’s electronic or in physical form. Because one other thing the Internet has created is an efficient marketplace for the sale of used books. Now, you don’t need to trek to three different used bookstores. You simply go online, search the book, and click on “buy used.” The author and the publisher have been cut out of that transaction altogether.
  8. Open access. Finally, I’ll turn briefly to the biggest trend in academic or scholarly publishing: the open access movement. Of course, nothing is really free, so if books are to be available free to readers, either the host institution (usually through its library) or the publisher has to make the product available at no cost. It goes without saying that publishers can’t stay in business giving away their products for free. Time will help us know better what happens with this trend and who ultimately picks up the tab.

People ask me all the time, “Will the physical book eventually disappear?” Of course not. Some areas—such as reference—are better served electronically, where the ease of searching and the need for continually updated information make electronic delivery ideal. Other genres—such as romance or sci fi—may be more ephemeral and readers may not care whether the book is on their shelves or even if technology someday will render their electronic copy irretrievable (think of what happened to floppy disks).  But for the books that people want to have and to hold—like the ones we publish here at the Press—you’ll still be able to go into a bookstore or go online to an e-tailer and purchase the physical book. And put it on your bookshelf.

-Donna 

 

    

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