Written by Johanna Dong
The rise of digital media over the past two decades has prompted a wave of headlines declaring that print is dead. Newspapers, magazines, books—the future, according to some, lies entirely online. While it’s true that numerous print publications now incorporate digital media into their business models, there’s one industry where traditional print is unlikely to be going away anytime soon: the book publishing industry.
Though the exact number fluctuates slightly from year to year, the U.S. book publishing industry is currently worth around $26 Billion. The trade sector (which encompasses general-audience books, such as fiction, as opposed to religious or educational materials such as textbooks) is one of the most significant sectors within book publishing, comprising about 61% of the overall industry. Trade publishing has seen steady annual increases in revenue, with over 70% of total sales still originating in hard-copy books and less than 20% deriving from digital formats like e-books.
The view that digital books are taking over their print counterparts likely stems from the rise of online retailers such as Amazon, as digital books comprise a higher percentage of online retailers’ book revenue, almost 27%. However, e-book sales overall have actually decreased alongside the initial boom of e-reader devices a decade ago, while trade print has seen consistent—if occasionally slowed—growth across most genres and vendors.
Literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry especially are also seeing a kind of renaissance due to massively popular book clubs run by influential figures along the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Oprah. TV and film adaptations, as well as a more recent industry culture that expects authors to be involved in multiple areas outside of purely writing, has also contributed to the increased readership of printed texts. All of these venues have arguably brought trade publishing to the fore of arts and entertainment.
Looking toward the future, it’s hard to ignore the activities of Amazon. Amazon has begun to expand its in-house publishing operations by contracting established authors to pen series that are then promoted in both digital and print formats, while also underpricing nearly all of the books it stocks. This has inevitably led to an increase in units of books sold, though the company has also come under heavy criticism for suppressing the growth of many other book retailers, including indie bookstores, major chains like Barnes & Noble, and other intermediaries.
This isn’t to say, however, that the major publishing houses—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House—aren’t quick to adapt to evolving trends. Audiobooks now comprise a not insignificant portion of their total revenues, and these companies are still responsible for the vast majority of books published every year, across all formats. The sectors within book publishing will certainly shift over the next decade as new technologies such as audiobooks rise or fall, but print books and the industry itself remain steady.