Want to know the future of publishing? Look to business books

Want to know the future of publishing? Look to business books

This week I’m looking forward to piling into a hotel room with around 20 other book- and business-people to argue feverishly about business books for an entire day. It’s our job to cut down the 150+ titles submitted for this year’s Business Book Awards to a tidy set of category shortlists, ranging from Start-up Inspiration and Embracing Change to Sales & Marketing and Leadership. (Well, actually it’s THEIR job: as Head Judge all I have to do is moderate the more violent disagreements, answer difficult questions, and in due course select the overall Business Book of the Year from the category winners.)

Over the last few years, and largely ignored by traditional book journos, business books have quietly become one of the most exciting and dynamic categories in any bookshop, real or virtual. It’s part of a bigger picture: adult non-fiction has been steadily outselling fiction over recent years (for traditional publishers, at least): Penguin Random House US reported in August that adult non-fiction grew to $6.18bn in 2017 compared with a decline in adult fiction to $4.38bn.

But it’s also a perfect socio-economic storm: the disruption faced by established business, plus a boom in entrepreneurship, plus an explosion of smart thinking and positive psychology titles that deal directly with our experience as humans in the workplace.

The relentless growth of digital audio is another factor in the rise and rise of the business book: business people are busy people, and consuming a book while driving or working out is a smart use of time when time is money. Perhaps that’s why Business and Money was the top non-fiction category for audiobooks in the US in 2017.

So business books are doing nicely for now, but where are they heading? If the entrants for this year’s Business Book Awards are any guide, the boom in quantity and quality of titles continues across all aspects from side hustle to boardroom and increasingly in deep niches – this year we’ve introduced a ‘specialist book’ category to reflect the fact that an increasing number of titles take a deep dive in a narrow field.  

Another interesting feature is the mix of publishing routes represented in the submissions: many are from traditional names in the field such as Kogan Page, Pearson, Routledge, Bloomsbury etc, but there are also a sizeable number from partnership publishers such as Rethink Press, Practical Inspiration Publishing, LID Publishing, SRA and so on, and yet more that are entirely self-published. It’s a refreshing change to have a prize that’s open to all these categories, comparing books purely on merit.

For business book authors more than most, the real benefits of publication aren’t advances and book sales revenue but the impact on their personal and business brand: they typically want more control than traditional publishers permit. They also want the freedom to use their intellectual property in other complementary ways, such as an online course, and to be able to buy copies in bulk cost effectively. They’re customers in the market for a service, rather than authors in search of a publisher.

So my prediction is that the diversity of routes to market will increase, and it will be interesting to see how traditional publishers respond to that – perhaps as old-style association publishing contracts decline, they might be replaced at least in part by service provision to individual business authors as publishing partners?

The atomization of business book content will also continue: once seen as a threat by publishers, services such as Blinkist are now widely recognized by most as a valuable tool for discovery and visibility. The book remains, for now at least, the fullest expression of an idea, but in a world where attention is at a premium, until that idea crosses a potential reader’s line of sight and captures their imagination it’s unlikely they’ll invest the time and energy required to read it. It’s our duty to our authors to partner smart, to maximize the surface area those ideas can touch.

Business books are about what works. The subtext is always: ‘so what?’ It’s a great category to watch as an indicator for the future of the industry – while the popular press wrings its hands over literary fiction, business books and their authors and their publishers are quietly getting on with figuring out what works and making it happen.