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As we look forward toward a new decade, it’s important to also look back at the book publishing industry’s previous decade of experiences. There’s no question that the digital age disrupted the traditional book publishing industry. The rise of audio books, the decline in print readership, the increase of book piracy, as well as the abundance of channels, platforms, and content mediums vying for readers’ attention have all left their mark. The publishers, authors, and book sellers who understand these trends and evolve with them will likely succeed in this new era of publishing. Here’s what you need to know about the current state of book publishing and where it’s headed.

Changing markets and continuing challenges

According to a presentation about publishing trends at the 2019 BookExpo, although overall book sales were up in 2018, sales for both digital and print have since stagnated and the long-term outlook suggests sales will remain flat. Audiobook revenue, however, grew 37% year-over-year through November 2018 and continues to grow. Self-publishing also grew 40% in 2018, and shows no signs of slowing.

Unfortunately, a shortage of truck drivers and companies that either had to reduce the size of their fleet or shut down altogether due to cut back in demand over the last couple of years continue to present distribution challenges for book publishers.

The paper market has experienced volatility over the past several years, resulting in mill closures and production conversions to packaging or specialty products to compensate.  Despite these concerns, current trends and information point to stability in early 2020, with potential increases in demand as the year progresses. Midland Paper speculates, “Overall supply reduction should help stabilize the market to a degree, but even with planned conversions, the paper market is still facing demand pressure. Magazine ad pages and catalog circulation were both down compared to the previous year.” With 2020 being an election year, the production of new and backlist political titles are likely in the second half of the year and paper demand could spike. Further capacity reductions in 2020, paired with an increase in demand, could result in a demand greater than capacity and spark price increases.

There is some good news about the China tariff situation, however. The U.S. government suspended the tariffs on children’s books that were set to go into effect in December. It also reduced the tariffs on all other printed books (except religious texts), which went into effect last September, from 10% to 7.5%. The book industry will continue to push for the removal of all tariffs on educational materials.

Piracy, fake news, and changing reader habits

Piracy continues to be a problem for the book industry.  eBooks make it easier to steal titles and make them available through alternative channels, leading to losses by authors and publishers. Theft of print books is a problem as well. Scammers may solicit manuscripts from unsuspecting authors and sell them on sites such as Amazon or eBay. They also may make illegal copies of a book and sell them as legitimate copies to unsuspecting buyers. Authors and publishers are losing millions of dollars and buyers get stuck with inferior counterfeits.

Fake news is not new, but it does seem to be trending. Or at least it’s more top of mind for readers now than ever before. Careful fact-checking by not only authors and editors, but publishers as well, is crucial for sales and reputations.

Challenges present opportunities

The good old days of publishing a manuscript from a well-known or promising young writer, arranging a few publicity tours and book signings, and voila — a best seller — are over. These days, publishers need to use new methods and tools to get their book into the hands of readers.

The rise of search engines has made it easy for readers to find exactly what they want to read about. Therefore, it’s critical that publishers understand search engine optimization (SEO) principles to ensure their books appear at the top of the results.

The highly competitive book market means that your book needs to stand out. Don’t skimp on quality. Make sure your cover gives the reader a reason to choose your book above the others. Targeted marketing through audience segmentation can maximize your marketing budget.

As the cost of goods and services continually rises, a focus on how to reduce overall costs has pushed the popularity of print on demand (POD) technology. After a book’s initial print run, publishers can save on printing, paper, inventory, and shipping costs by printing books as needed, which also reduces waste.

To remain relevant and profitable, publishers need to be aware of current and upcoming trends and explore advances in technology that will help them overcome some of the challenges that are disrupting the book publishing industry. It’s not a time to stick with what worked in the past; it’s time to embrace the future.

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