Publishing Trends: 2021 and Beyond

08 Jan 2021


After a 2020 that was unusual, to say the least, publishers of all sorts are now looking ahead to see what the future holds for the publishing industry.

In this article, we’re going to break out our crystal ball and focus on leading industry trends while analyzing some of the biggest news in the publishing industry.

So, stay tuned. We have a lot coming your way.

Current State of the Publishing Market

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No matter how you look at it, the publishing industry is clearly in a state of transition as it shifts from traditional print publishing to the digital domain. This is both good and bad for consumers and publishers.

In a broad sense, this transition is a consequence of the digitalization of modern society. Therefore, it is healthy for the publishing industry to adopt a digital approach.

After all, digital channels like Amazon Kindle have fostered greater competition by enabling amateur authors and publishers to make their materials accessible to the public. And, in doing so, the doors to the publishing world have essentially been thrown wide open.

On the other hand, too much of a good thing is rarely the right answer, and the glut of available digital content, much of it downright awful, has hurt the credibility of the self-publishing movement.

Nevertheless, traditional publishers are quickly becoming an endangered species. The digital publishing model is simply too much for them to hold back.

Yet, traditional publishers have not sat by idly while their hold over the written word crumbles. On the contrary, they have responded to emerging trends with decisive action.

A prime example of this is the proposed merger between Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Both of these names were industry behemoths prior to the rise of digital publishing. Alas, their power has been dramatically diminished by the digital market movement over the last 10 years. As such, the merger of these two companies is a clear attempt at monopolizing the publishing market.

On the surface, mergers are about capitalizing on market share. Corporations paint mergers as a type of social Darwinism, that is, “survival of the fittest.”

In this case, the merger between Random House and Simon & Schuster is more about the bottom line than anything else. Consequently, cornering the publishing market would provide the new corporation with a singular opportunity to maximize their profitability while slashing overhead.

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and publisher of Melville House, had this to say in a recent piece published in The Atlantic, “as the big houses have become bigger and bigger, their business has become more about making money than art or protest…”

Indeed, the current traditional publishing market is about making money as opposed to seeking diversity in the authors and works presented to the public.

To further elaborate on Johnson’s point, a 2019 survey conducted by Lee & Low Books looked into diversity within the publishing Industry.

The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey found that among literary agents, executives, and book reviewers, 76% were white, 81% heterosexual, and 89% non-disabled. Additionally, the survey indicated that 74% of industry executives were females.

As such, the publishing industry is comprised predominantly of straight, white, non-disabled females. This trend represents an apparent lack of diversity within the people who run publishing companies. Naturally, this implies a bias in the type of authors and content published.

While publishing companies have publicly manifested their desire for more diversity among authors and materials, these statistics paint an entirely different story.

In 2015, World Book Night announced its 15 titles, among which none were written by authors of color.

Also, a 2017 study by CCBC found that a mere 3.68% of books in the teen and children’s fiction category contained LGBTQ+ characters. Moreover, only 7.7% of romance novels were intended for ethnically diverse audiences, according to the 2018 State of Diversity in Romance Publishing report.

It is clear that more needs to be done to shift the publishing industry from the bottom line to the minds of readers.

The Role of Independent Publishers

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In response to the apparent monopoly in traditional publishing, excluded individuals have turned to independent publishing houses not associated with the large houses.

While traditional publishing companies seek to corner the market, independent publishers provide an opportunity for diversity and inclusion among authors and niches.

On the whole, indie publishers can focus on niches that traditional corporations won’t touch.

How so?

The main reason here is scale. Indie publishers are smaller and, in some cases, completely digital.

This makes their overhead far less than large corporations and, in turn, makes them more willing and able to take risks. This is especially relevant as indie publishers tend to be more socially conscious as well.

For example, Adam Z. Levy, the founder of Transit Books, states that his publishing house is “mission-driven and not market-driven.”

This is a huge distinction.

The core ethos of most independent publishers has led them to grow in size and turnover. Mango Publishing out of Miami, Florida, has shown the largest increase within the indie publishing domain. From 2017 to 2019, Mango reported an increase of 162% in sales. This led them to swell from 68 titles to 130 during that span.

Other publishers showing triple-digit growth over the 2017-2019 time span are Medial Lab books out of New York City; Familius from Sanger, California; and Blue Star Press hailing from Bend, Oregon.

The secret to Mango’s success has been in publishing titles in various niches. For instance, Kate Allan’s You Can Do All Things and Becca Anderson’s The Book of Awesome Black Americans both highlight the diversity that independent publishers bring to the table.

Indeed, indie authors are expected to gain more momentum in the next few years.

There is no question that catering to a diverse audience provides a significant opportunity for growth.

And while the average indie publisher’s turnover may be significantly smaller than that of large-scale publishers, the fact is that smaller publishers can, slowly but surely, gnaw away at the dominant market position held by large incumbents. In doing so, independent publishers can fill a need that large players seem to disregard willingly.

A great example of indie publishers filling a void in the industry can be seen in the writing community, Big Black Chapters, which features authors of color.

Given the fact that traditional publishers are predominantly white, Big Black Chapters seeks to reclaim precious publishing space denied to writers of African heritage. This endeavor began with two friends putting pen to paper. Since then, it has grown to a community of over 3,000 authors around the globe.

While Big Black Chapter may not be a commercial powerhouse at this point, it serves to illustrate how the indie publishing movement has gained traction around the world.

Therefore, we can assume that it will only be a matter of time before independent publishers take a significant chunk out of the overall publishing market.

But will independent publishers eventually overtake traditional publishers? Only time will tell.

The Rise of Digital Publishing

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With traditional publishers working hard to keep a stranglehold on the traditional publishing market, it seems they have lost sight of the most important thing in publishing: the reader.

By focusing only on the bottom line, traditional publishers fail to cater to the array of tastes out there. Sure, self-help books and romance novels are great money-makers, but then again, there should be options available for everyone.

This is where digital publishing has provided a viable alternative to traditional publishing.

Amazon’s Kindle brand has spearheaded the rise of digital publishing. Along with Kindle, Amazon also owns the highly successfully Audible brand.

Audible is the leading provider of audiobooks. In tandem, Amazon controls roughly 80% of the digital publishing market.

This is a concerning fact as Amazon is quickly becoming a monopoly in its own right. As a result, leading publishing industry organizations recently told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Antitrust Committee that “a few tech platforms in the digital marketplace wield extraordinary leverage over their competitors, suppliers, customers, the government, and the public.”

To gain further perspective into the rise of digital publishing, here are the key trends that have contributed to its exponential growth over the last half-decade.

  • Roughly 44% of the population in the United States subscribes to at least one podcast. That number is estimated to surpass the 50% mark by the end of 2021.
  • Digital subscriptions are now the primary revenue source for news publishers. Over 40% of their revenue sources come from digital subscribers.
  • 64.2% of publishers have indicated reading blogs as a source for up-to-date industry news. Also, 11.7% of publishers reported obtaining market information from other online forums.
  • The traditional book industry is worth over $100 billion annually. However, it has not seen any growth over the last two years.[i]

These statistics are a telling sign pointing to the rise of digital publishing.

There is no question that digital media has taken over more and more of the market share that once belonged to the traditional publishing houses.

According to Business Wire, the digital publishing industry accounts for about $64 billion worldwide. This market cap is expected to be achieved during the 2020-2024 time period.

Indeed, it is clear that digital marketing is nipping at the heels of traditional publishers’ market share.

This fact illustrates the growing trend toward digital media as the primary source of publishing content. Additionally, it is essential to include the increased popularity of audiobooks in the discussion.

In 2019, the audiobook industry closed with an approximate $1.2 billion market cap. This amounts to an estimated increase of 24.5% from 2017 to 2019.

Undoubtedly, the growing trend toward audiobooks points toward an emerging market force.

Given the rise of digital publishing, self-publishers account for an increasingly valuable market presence. According to Steven Spatz, President of BookBaby, a self-publishing corporation, self-publishers are no strangers to change and will continue to adapt and prosper. In his words:

“Change is a constant for self-publishing businesses, but 2020 presented challenges like no other. I’m thrilled to report that BookBaby met all those challenges – including transforming our sister company’s warehouse space into a Covid19 Face Shield production company! 
We also found that writers put all those days and weeks in quarantine to good use. Thousands have come forward this fall with completed manuscripts and we’ve added new people and processes – including having our entire office staff working remotely – and bringing in printing/bindery equipment to take good care of this huge wave of great books. We’ve experienced record sales month after month to end the year and our growth shows no sign of slowing down as we go into 2021.”

Indeed, self-publishing will continue to increase in relevance moving forward. Naturally, this is a clear indication that traditional publishers must adapt to the changes the publishing market is undergoing.

2021 Publishing Trends and Beyond

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Considering that 2020 is beginning to fade in the rearview mirror, the question then becomes, “what can we expect in 2021?” To answer that question, we must look at the trends that will define the publishing industry in 2021 and beyond.

Ella Ritchie, founder of Stella Communications Houston, a renowned independent publisher, has a number of ideas based on the trends she’s seen emerge in 2020. In her own words:

“Goodness, 2020 has been quite a ride for everyone, including the book publishing industry. In many ways, the industry has reflected how well we’re all faring together. At the start of the pandemic, paper supplies — like toilet paper — suddenly became a problem. Printing runs were delayed, sometimes a month or longer. Meanwhile, eBook sales soared as everyone was eager for easy, at-home entertainment.
The talk of scarcity soon gave way to conversations about minorities in America, and books by black authors topped the best-seller lists. And as the world settled into its new, techno-savvy norms, two technologies jostled for attention: There’s been a lot of buzz about ePub3, a new file format that enables accessibility for audiences with disabilities, and the growing role of AI in publishing, including copyright infringement detection and market analysis.”

Here are some other predictions for 2021 and beyond.

1. Focus on market niches will become increasingly important.

When it comes to small, predominantly online publishers, their focus on a specific niche or group of niches will become more critical than ever.

According to Mark Hodson, co-founder of 191 Holidays, the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, will become more relevant than ever. This means that the 80/20 rule will become the norm for most publishers.

In other words, 80% of revenue comes from 20% of the overall customer base. Consequently, publishers will need to become acquainted with the niches that provide them the highest level of engagement with their followers.

2. Sales should continue to increase.

Despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the overall economy, book sales increased across the board. This bodes well for the industry going into 2021.

Preliminary data on 2020 shows an increase of 3.6% in print sales as compared to 2019. Juvenile nonfiction shot up 26.2%, while young adult nonfiction spiked by 33.4%. In contrast, adult nonfiction dropped by 2.1%.

Also, eBook sales have climbed by 4% in 2020 versus 2019. Indeed, lockdowns have encouraged folks to do a lot more reading, given the extra time they have on their hands.

3. Brick-and-mortar shops will continue to decline.

Even though print sales are up, physical bookstores are reporting a sharp decline in sales. The U.S. Census Bureau reported preliminary 2020 data on bookstore sales showing a 33% drop in March, 65% in April, and 59% in May.

Furthermore, last fall, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt reportedly admitted that his company’s sales are down 20% on the year.

Naturally, this trend is a consequence of the pandemic forcing sales to shift toward digital channels. As more customers get accustomed to online shopping, this trend will only get stronger.

4. IT expertise is more important than ever.

With publishing migrating to the digital realm at an increasing rate, publishers must be prepared to sharpen their IT acumen even if their business is predominantly print.

Even if publishers produce paper books, most of the marketing, sales, and distribution happens digitally. This includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in tasks such as editing and translation.

According to a recent article published by Forbes, AI is “disrupting the publishing industry.” Moving forward, AI is something that all publishers, large and small, need to become acquainted with.

5. The future of the industry will depend on the supply chain.

Given the disruptions seen in supply chains in 2020, the publishing industry’s future will hinge on its ability to ensure fresh content can be delivered consistently.

This puts the onus on the traditional print industry, as digital publishers should have an easier time managing their supply chain. In particular, fully digital publishers should have a competitive edge.

According to Kristen McLean of NPD Books, “demand will not be the driving force behind the publishing industry’s success. Instead, it will boil down to supply chain and financial health.”

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Unprecedented Times

2020 has truly been an unprecedented year for the publishing industry, and it looks like things are only looking up for the independent and self-publishing spaces. Ritchie sums it up best:

“Through it all, I’ve seen a growing sense of empowerment in self-publishing. Even in such uncertain times, the interest in self-publishing has spiked. Perhaps it’s the increasing comfort with social media, which has made it possible for authors to build online followings without relying on traditional publishers for audiences. Maybe it’s the extra time; many authors said that the quiet months at home have allowed them to finally finish the manuscripts that have been on the backburners for years.
Or perhaps it’s the anxiousness that swept the world this year; authors seem ready to share their messages with a new sense of boldness and urgency. Regardless of their reasons, self-published authors are claiming their space. Seventeen of the top 100 selling books are self-published! And as self-published authors become savvier with their options and more confident in their products, I believe self-publishing will continue to grow in 2021. I look forward to a new year and a new adventure in book publishing!”

Zachary Richter 

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