The publishing industry had an unexpectedly good year in 2020, despite the many challenges created by the pandemic. In the essay below, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch uses lessons from last year to make some educated guesses about where the industry may be heading in the near term.
The essay is part of a larger piece that appears in the Publishers Weekly Book Publishing Almanac 2022: A Master Class in the Art of Bringing Books to Readers. Published last month by Skyhorse Publishing and written in cooperation with PW, the almanac is designed to help authors, editors, agents, publicists, and anyone else working in book publishing understand the changing landscape of the business.
The Future of Publishing
Well, hell! If anyone had doubts about whether book publishing has a bright future, the global pandemic brought proof that our business is one for the ages. The business has been stress-tested by an epochal disruption that severed us from our offices and temporarily closed thousands of booksellers. And while Covid-19 brought untold loss, grief, and isolation, our industry has not just survived but thrived.
The clearest and most heartening lesson of this disruption is: Books are essential. Truly. In all times, and especially in difficult ones, a book is the best source of information, reassurance entertainment, education, escape, transformation. People reached out for connection—and a book remains the richest way ever created of connecting deeply with another mind.
A second lesson is: Readers will find the books they want. We create books in multiple formats and sell them through many types of retailers, and people understand that there are many places to buy and ways to experience books. When favored venues were closed, they found books wherever they remained available, or in digital formats they hadn’t tried before.
And a third, unexpected lesson is: Publishing is portable. Publishers have long carried the overhead of big-city offices, travel and entertainment, in-person events, book fairs, and other accustomed ways of operating. We’ve been profitable enough that we haven’t pressured ourselves to learn all we could do through long-available online communications, digital marketing, and remote-working capabilities. Working from home, freed from onerous commutes, without in-person calls, pitches, conferences, and shows, publishers have opened their minds to new ways of working.
Extrapolating from these lessons and other trends, publishing’s future looks strong. The rapid changes brought by the pandemic make long-distance predictions seem foolhardy. So here are a few thoughts on what we might expect to see in the near term.
Authors will continue to want publishers. Self-publication options are more abundant and easier to use than ever, and self-published books constitute a vast, largely unreported volume of purchases and reads. Most writers will nonetheless continue to prefer finding professional publishers to self-publishing when they are able to do so, for the financial and professional support publishers provide and the opportunity of fully accessing the complex marketplace of physical and digital retailers. Publishers provide advance payments against future royalties, professional editing, copy editing, design, and legal services, copyright protection, manufacturing, warehousing, and, most important, selling, marketing, publicity, and distribution. It is a unique combination of financial support and professional outreach that self-publishing can’t come close to replicating.
Consolidation isn’t over. As the business continues to grow, as top-selling books sell ever more copies, and as retail and wholesaling are concentrated in the hands of fewer, bigger companies, the financial dynamics that turned the Big 6 into the Big 5 will continue to motivate large publishers to keep acquiring, just as smaller publishers will continue to face pressures that make selling appealing.
Online sales will keep growing. Online sales of print books have been increasing steadily for years, and with growth in downloadable audio offsetting declining e-book sales, more than half of all book purchases are now made by someone using a computer, phone, or tablet rather than in a store. The pandemic introduced more readers to the habit of having books delivered to their doors or devices, and they are likely to continue ordering online when there is a particular book they know they want.
Print books are here to stay… I love talking about how powerfully the experience of reading inheres in the delivery system of the printed book. Book buyers clearly agree: in recent years they bought major publishers’ print books over e-books by more than four to one. E-books and audiobooks have their unique pleasures and are perfect for certain kinds of reading. But for a deeply immersive experience, having the writer’s stream of words rendered into a beautiful and lasting typographic object and translated by the voice in your own head is a perfect enactment of that mind-to-mind communication.
…and so are bookstores. As long as readers want printed books, shopping in the sanctum of a bookstore—the experience of curated discovery in a storeful of books, uniquely organized by staff who are passionate and knowledgeable about the books and authors they are selling—will continue to be powerful. Both chains and independent stores will endure based on selection, display, community-centeredness, and personality.
New marketing skills will become essential. Book marketing has always involved influencing established media and retail gatekeepers, and those relationships and skills continue to be essential. An interlocking set of skills, for reaching the world congregating ever more massively online, has grown equally necessary. Trending topics blow up fast, and our ability to speedily join and influence social media conversations will become even more crucial. In a world where top-selling books are driven by TikTok videos, publishers will develop new and constantly evolving skillsets. And the accumulation of data about reader’s desires, affinities, preferences, and habits will inform skills and tactics for marketing particular books to particular readers at particular moments, across entire front- and backlists, beyond publishers’ traditional new-title mindset.
Important work on diversity, equity, and inclusion will continue. The painful and necessary reckoning about race that publishers began during the summer of 2020 has had some tangible early results. Publishers have stated the ethical, creative, and business need for change, and have acknowledged that the efforts they’d made in years past to employ and retain more people from underrepresented backgrounds were not successful. There is a genuine commitment to acquiring more books by traditionally underrepresented writers and investing in multicultural marketing strategies to reach a broader diversity of readers. We should expect publishers to hold themselves accountable by prioritizing these essential initiatives in order to achieve measurable results for employees and for readers.
Publishing houses will spread out. There was a time when major publishers needed to be in New York—home of their corporate parents, the media outlets they rely on for publicity and marketing, and the literary agents who represent the writers they work with. As technology has made it possible to create and nurture relationships with less in-person connection, publishers recognize that in theory they could be anywhere. In practice, they are likely to keep New York headquarters but to open hubs and smaller offices elsewhere. As employers try out hybrid work arrangements with employees in offices a few days a week, publishers will look for lower overhead, increased racial and ethnic diversity, connection with regional literary and cultural scenes, and bringing more varied worldviews and life experiences into their work community. This decentralization will come with serious issues including how to establish connections, inculcate culture, and foster career advancement, and it will take significant work to keep the strong identities and sense of mission that publishers prize.
Publishers will listen more and communicate more. For centuries, publishers have benefited from a stream of entry-level employees willing to put in years working long hours for relatively low pay, for the pleasure of working with writers and among book-loving colleagues. As expectations have changed and social media offers every employee a microphone, publishers are hearing more loudly than ever how their employees feel about their jobs, work/life balance, career development, the company’s position on social and environmental issues, its commitment to diversity, and much more. Publishers will listen more and communicate more, making the company’s ethics and business goals more public, and work harder to make sure that the talented people who choose to work in publishing find it a place they want to stay and grow.
I don’t mean, in this optimistic prognostication, to ignore that there are major concerns confronting our industry: the relentless, escalating assault on copyright waged by well-funded representatives of the major technology companies, new state laws aiming to regulate e-book sales to libraries, the printing and supply-chain bottlenecks confounding publishers for the past several years. Our business, like our world, grows more complex each year, and the questions before us are ever more sophisticated ones. But my optimism holds. The partnership between writers and publishers is profound and essential, and I feel certain that it is more than strong enough to support a rewarding future together.
A version of this article appeared in the 12/13/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Michael Pietsch Looks at Publishing’s (Near) Future