Closing the Books: the Fate of Modern Book Publishing Industry

Picture of By Gaukhar Orkashbayeva

By Gaukhar Orkashbayeva

John Green, the author of distinguished books such as Looking for Alaska, The Faults In Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines once said, “There is a lot of talk in publishing these days that we need to become more like the Internet: We need to make books for short attention spans with bells and whistles – books, in short, that are as much like ‘Angry Birds’ as possible. But I think that’s a terrible idea.” With these words, the acclaimed writer tried to sum up the modern state of the publishing industry, and, unfortunately, John Green is not alone in his conviction of the doomed fate of our beloved paper books.

Growing up, I believed that numbers were my true calling and that I was destined to be an accountant because once in third grade, my teacher told my parents that I had an analytical mindset and an extraordinary math capacity. Given that you are reading this piece, you can guess how that turned out. Since high school, I have had a change of mind regarding future specialty more times than there are stars in the sky, but when my Russian Literature teacher suggested a job as an editor in a publishing house, somehow that thought felt right. My parents were not as thrilled with the idea, advocating that publishing as an industry will soon cease to exist, and I am just digging my own grave (my parents are funny like that). Today, I am still holding onto my dream. Nevertheless, occasionally, I cannot help but wonder if publishing is indeed a dying industry.

Please note that, when talking about the publishing industry, I specifically refer to the fiction book publishing industry, as there are various types of publishing, from newspaper to directory publishing. Still, we will not go there unless you want to be stuck with me for a lifetime, I am a nice person.

Nowadays, big publishing houses, like Penguin Random House and Hachette Livre, are facing multiple challenges that hinder their further development and decrease revenues. Below I will go through several such issues.

Piracy… but not Jack Sparrow type, sorry.

It is undoubtedly the case that electronic books, or e-books, are more affordable than paper ones. I believe we can also agree that e-books are of greater convenience as they allow for storage of a whole library in one digital device. With such advantages of digital books, it is no surprise that traditional physical copies took a back seat in the publishing market. However, the advent of Internet libraries and Kindles has also brought about significant inconveniences for publishing houses. The most obvious one being piracy, and believe me, I wish we were talking about Johnny Depp and cool ships, but that is for another time.

Piracy puts out of business not only publishing companies but also the authors who choose to promote their work in a traditional way.

Piracy in publishing takes place when readers access stories and other intellectual property formats on the Internet illegally and free of charge. Piracy puts out of business not only publishing companies but also the authors who choose to promote their work in a traditional way. With an increase in publishing costs, it comes as no surprise that if the story is available for free, more often than not people would opt for piracy. I mean… Have you seen how much new books cost? The lack of access to particular books in some areas of the world contributes to the spread of piracy cases. When I was living in Kazakhstan, the only English books I could acquire were tale books for children from 5 to 7 years old, and shipping would cost as much as my soul.

It can be argued that the solution to the problem of piracy lies in the hands of the writers themselves. In the matter of decreasing cases of unauthorized distribution of fictional intellectual property, the online and offline connection and communication between the author and the audience are essential. Interviews, conferences, and live sessions on social media are an effective way for an author to provide direct links and share the location where the physical, online, or audiobook purchase is more convenient. These methods also bring the audience closer to writers increasing respect for their work. Furthermore, writers can mention the publishing team in the acknowledgments, thus building the appreciation for the corporate aspect of book creation.

Who’s faster?

Another problem that publishing houses are facing today is the soaring rise of audiobooks. Yes, apparently, the danger is everywhere. At first sight, it is not clear why they would cause such a problem for the industry, considering that audiobooks are a product of publishing companies too. Audiobooks are usually recorded a while after the release of the physical copy. This enables people with access to simple modern technologies (like GarageBand) to record high-quality audiobooks and distribute them online before the introduction of the official audio recording produced by the publishing company with copyrights for the story. Besides decreasing the sales of physical copies, untimely recordings discourage people from acquiring official ones.

To resolve the issue of piracy in audiobooks, some publishing houses record the audiobooks where the authors themselves narrate the story. The voice conveys emotions better than a thousand words. Therefore, it is a priceless experience to hear the story as the creator intended it. Such a strategy is efficient in keeping the loyalties of the audience and increasing the demand for audiobooks.

“I am Lord of myself, accountable to none” – Benjamin Franklin

Rapidly developing self-publishing constitutes another threat to the publishing industry. While the definition of the process may hint at the idea that the writer is the one creating, editing, and promoting a story, in reality, this is not the case. Self-publishing emerged as opposed to traditional publishing, where authors sell the copyrights of their work to the publishing agency, which is then fully responsible for the editing, design, and promotion of the book. This means that the house bears all the costs and takes all the risk. However, in the case of the book’s success, it is also the publishing house that reaps the majority of profit, whereas the author receives small royalties. In the case of self-publishing, the author is in full control of the whole book journey from the writing until the promotion. It does not necessarily mean that the writer executes all of the actions single-handedly. Rather they have the final say in important decisions regarding the creation of the book. While self-publishing may not be a threat to the publishing business as a whole, it certainly challenges the industry’s traditional layout.

Some Statistics, because they are just so fun

Despite the challenges of the publishing industry mentioned above, the publishing market statistics indicate that the sector fares well. According to Publishers Weekly, the five dominating publishing companies’ total sales have increased by an average of about 16% since 2019. Moreover, the unit sales of print books rose by 10.5% in December 2020. While this may not be a considerable increase, this means that people still buy paper books despite the spread and convenience of e-commerce.


Cover: Stephen Phillips

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