Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)

Trena White, co-founder of Page Two, a full-service publishing agency specializing in nonfiction books, gave us a tour of some of the trends in trade book publishing at the March Editors BC meeting.

Subject trends, like adult colouring books, which peaked in mid-2016 or so and have since declined, or the imported Danish trend of hygge, which was particularly popular in late 2016, can be interesting but usually pass within a year or two. White wanted to focus her talk on the broader changes in the publishing landscape.

“Traditional publishing is great,” said White, in that the industry is committed to best practices in editing and design. But when White and co-founder Jesse Finkelstein launched Page Two in 2013, it was out of a recognition that traditional publishing, which tends to be technophobic and slow to react to change, doesn’t serve everyone or every book. There are legitimate reasons people might want to self-publish, and Page Two wanted to help authors and organizations publish professionally by fully embracing all things digital and being interested in changes in publishing.

White highlighted a few key trends:

Corporate consolidation

Older people in the industry wax nostalgic about the 1960s and ’70s as the “glory days” of Canadian publishing. In that era, independent publishers, independent bookstores, and CanLit grew as the government committed to funding Canadian writers and presses. “I never experienced that,” said White. “To me, the industry has always been tumultuous.”

Not even twenty years ago, McClelland & Stewart, Knopf, Doubleday, Penguin, and Random House were all distinct companies. Today, they are all Penguin Random House. Publishers likely saw consolidation as the only way to gain market clout in dealing with Amazon.

The consequence of this consolidation is that authors have fewer places to submit their work, and although agents do submit to the different imprints, the submissions are all vetted by the same sales and marketing team, and the company sets a ceiling on how much imprints can bid against each other. Because larger corporations are beholden to shareholders, they’re less likely to take risks on new or midlist authors.

On the retail side, Canada saw consolidation of WH Smith, Coles, The Book Company, and Chapters into Chapters-Indigo in the early naughts. The chain puts a lot of pressure on publishers, charging 5% co-op fees and often stocking only a single copy of titles by midlist authors as it moves more toward being a lifestyle store rather than a bookstore.

But, White said, “Indigo seems like a mom-and-pop shop compared with Amazon,” which accounts for 70% of publishers’ sales and encompasses entities like Audible, which dominates the audiobook market. Yet, books are only 7% of Amazon’s revenues. White speculates that Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores are really places to showcase their devices. Its web services make up the company’s fastest-growing division.

Return of print

Amazon’s Kindle dominates the ebook landscape: in the US, 65% of all ebooks sold are Kindle books. In Canada, that share is lower, because of Kobo’s market penetration.

In 2009, ebook sales grew by 354%, leaving a lot of traditional publishers scrambling to develop the infrastructure to produce them. After that initial panic, the industry has grown comfortable with ebooks: 87% of Canadian publishers produce ebooks now, and 7% are in the process of starting. Almost 40% of publishing houses have at least one dedicated digital staff member. Some early experiments, like enhanced ebooks, haven’t really borne fruit: for bells and whistles like links and video, people would rather turn to the web. To most publishers, the ebook is just another format, like hardcover or paperback, and today ebooks account for 25% of books sold in Canada.

What we’re seeing now is a bit of a resurgence in print books. Millennials, in particular, are choosing to read in print more than any other age group, a trend that may be related to the fact that 37% of book buyers aged 18 to 24 say that they want to spend less time on digital devices.

There has also been a slight resurgence of independent bookstores, which have been growing, albeit slowly, since 2010 or 2011. People love the curation and informed customer service that independent bookstores can offer.

Growth of international publishing

Digital publishing isn’t just about ebooks: it’s changed publishing in many other ways. Canadian publishers used to focus on the Canadian market, but it’s small and fractured, with a lot of competition. Today, with print-on-demand technology, it’s easy to send digital files to be printed almost anywhere, and Canadian publishers have begun adjusting their lists to see the world as their market. Even small, independent publishers have found success with titles with international appeal.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are the largest-growing format by far, similar to the growth of ebooks about eight years ago. Younger generations are embracing audiobooks, possibly because they accommodate multitasking and appeal to commuters. They’re also more accessible for people with low vision and have a performative aspect that may increase engagement.

Downloaded audiobooks grew almost 30% over last year. Although Audible dominates the audiobook landscape, other companies are hoping to capitalize, including Penguin Random House, which is launching an audiobook program this year.

Professionalization of self-publishing

Thanks to digital production tools and online sales, anyone can be a publisher. Self-publishing isn’t new, but now the tools let individuals and smaller organizations create professional products.

Tracking self-publishing is tricky, because a lot of it doesn’t get captured: not all self-publishers request ISBNs or make their books available through traditional channels. But between 2010 and 2015, 727,125 ISBNs were granted to what Bowker considers self-publishers. Self-published titles now account for about 20% of all books sold.

The distinction today, White said, quoting James Altucher, is no longer between “traditional publishing” and “self-publishing” but between professional and unprofessional publishing.

Self-publishing is no longer seen as “lesser,” and many authors move between traditional and self-publishing models. When they’re serious about sales, authors are more likely to bring on professional support like freelance editors and designers.

Some people who have self-published have launched businesses, like Waterhouse Press and Promontory Press, to help others self-publish. The traditional publishing industry is also engaging more with self-publishing: many traditional distributors are now taking self-published books, which, White said, was unthinkable even five or six years ago.

Books as content marketing

Professionals and entrepreneurs are using books as content marketing tools to establish credibility, generate leads, and build marketing lists. The Content Marketing Institute lists ebooks as the most effective content marketing method for small businesses. These books are often not sold through traditional channels and are sometimes given out for free.

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“The sky isn’t falling on book publishing,” said White, “but the landscape is ever changing.” Editors’ skills are and will still be in demand as the industry evolves.

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