Publishing has reached a "new normal", with Amazon and other major platforms and businesses owning a major share of the business. However, I believe in the brilliance of everyone in this industry to create a brighter future for writing, publishing, and reading. We must experiment with new ideas, new technologies, and new models, to create a fairer and more sustainable industry.
Here are five predictions about what successful publishers will look like in 2025.
#1: They’ll have diverse readers, authors and staff.
People are hungry to see themselves represented in books. But according to a CLPE study, only 4% of children’s books published in the UK in 2017 featured a BAME main character.
The success of films such as "Hidden Figures", "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Love Simon" show that everyone wants to see themselves as the hero of a great story, and they’re willing to pay for it. Publishers can do what’s right and see incredible commercial success at the same time.
So why aren’t we seeing broad representation? A bookcareers.com study of the UK publishing industry in 2017 found that around 90% of the employees were white. In a business where acquiring editors choose and champion books which speak to them, if the staff at publishers is not broadly representative, the books they champion likely won’t be either. But that means we’re leaving a LOT of readers out in the cold.
The future of publishing is one where everyone is represented, and can see themselves not just once, but in many characters.
#2: They’ll flee expensive cities and move more of their operations online.
Technology has changed how we work, and now proximity is much less critical than it used to be. A literary agent can Skype with a publisher across the country without having to jump on a train.
Real estate in London and New York is astronomically expensive, and the salaries in publishing are abysmally low, so it no longer makes sense for us to gather in these expensive major cities. We need to diversify the staff in our industry, but that won’t be possible if we’re asking people fresh out of school to move to the most expensive cities in the country to take jobs that won’t pay them enough to live and eat. Bright young people will understand that that’s a bad deal, so publishing will only get employees who can afford to work for nearly nothing.
In the next five years, publishers will leave New York and London, and new publishing hubs will crop up in smaller cities.
#3: They’ll be community-driven and connect with readers beyond the pages.
Readers love to talk about their favorite books and discover new ones. The Bookstagram hashtag has almost 30 million posts, and some BookTubers have hundreds of thousands of followers. Goodreads has over 80 million members who have added 2.3 billion books to their virtual shelves.
But in general, publishing doesn't excel at using digital tools to connect with readers or to connect readers with authors. Publishers pay a premium to sign writers who have substantial platforms; instead, they should be teaching great writers how to build an audience to share their messages. The internet is a multimedia playground, and savvy publishers will create toolkits to take advantage of that.
Publishers must also build direct relationships with readers, and make it feel delightful. Their websites should be a point of discovery and engagement when they’re more often simply a sales page sending people to Amazon—which is, conveniently, alphabetically listed first in most vendor lists.
#4: Publishers will use data to guide their thinking without letting it dictate their choices.
Publishers must work to own and understand their own data. They might use social media, but that data and those relationships are owned by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Amazon’s 2013 purchase of Goodreads was brilliant chiefly for the data it provided them. Amazon understands how people discover books, and uses that understanding to inform their business practices. Other publishers must find ways to do the same.
Kickstarter, my employer, helps creators build community and raise funds for creative projects such as books, bookstores, and festivals. Project creators get access to information such as how people found the project, which sources drove the most pledges, and where their audience is located. Gold dust.
As publishers, we should invest time and energy in platforms that let us build that kind of relationship with and understanding of our readers, and deprioritize platforms that lock down data or make us pay to reach our own audiences. That includes Amazon. This retailer owns some of the most precious information that exists in the publishing world, and they refuse to share, drawing on what they know about our successes to fuel theirs. Instead of pandering to their data hoarding, we must build direct connections with readers and gather our own.
#5: They’ll publish in many formats and diversify their revenue streams.
Publishers need to meet people where they are, and this is a great moment to do that. People have started leaving Facebook and rethinking their relationship with social media. In addition, more people have expressed willingness to pay for digital content.
Publishers should experiment with creating and packaging their work so people can read or listen to it in 10-30 minute blocks. Startups such as Serial Box, Radish, and Wattpad have been experimenting with the serial format with great success.
Mouse Books has created tiny books that readers can slip into their pockets. And Tor.com pubilshes novellas digitally and in small paperbacks. Publishers could publish these and even shorter works in e-editions. They would be cheap to acquire, edit, and produce, so publishers could sell them inexpensively to let a reader take a risk on a new voice.
Publishers must also diversify into new revenue streams and funding models. The typical book sales model of investing in a book years before the publication date and not being paid til months afterwards, if the book sells and copies aren’t returned, is a terrible model. It puts far too much risk on the publisher, which then outsources some of the risk to authors in the form of lower advances. Kickstarter, of course, offers a very different approach.
Book subscriptions are rife for exploitation, too, building a direct relationship with readers while creating a regular source of income with no fulfillment costs.
The rate of change in publishing isn’t going to slow down. If we focus on telling great stories, creating critical explorations of our history, our present, and our future, and connecting these with readers, I think we will be OK. If we bring all our ingenuity to bear in understanding how to tell new stories, or old stories in new ways, then I think we’ll do great.
If you are interested in collaborating with colleagues around the world to design the future of publishing, join The Next Page: Creating the Future of Publishing Conference, which will be streamed live for free on May 11th.