By Connie Xie
Fiction, from the Tale of the Genji to Ulysses to Infinite Jest, has long been a source of entertainment and artistic inquiry alike. As such, the market as a whole has retained the same general purpose: “to define and find the audience for which [a] book was written” (Osnos). The shifts in consumer behavior regarding books, however, has required the publishing industry to adapt its methods time and time again.
When television and radio became more popular in the mid-1900s, publishing companies began to face the pressures of competition, resulting in a large volume of mergers and acquisitions in the industry. This resulted in the current “big five” group of publishing houses: HarperCollins, Penguin/Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and MacMillan. The increasingly digital nature of media at the time made mergers between producers of digital media and publishing firms common. Given the increased accessibility of books, demand for a greater variety of subject matter increased, placing pressure on publishing firms to expand their offerings.
In the 1980s, the retail market for books increased in prominence as firms like HarperCollins worked to establish connections with prominent independent bookshops who held strong influence over popularizing books at the time. A decade later, following the growth of companies like Barnes & Noble (then Barnes & Noble and Borders), the number of independent bookstores dwindled, as did the bookselling operations conducted by department stores like Macy’s. This meant that a relatively smaller handful of companies now held influence over the bookselling market, thereby increasing the significance and decreasing the volume of the relationships to be maintained by publishing firms. Paperbacks made a resurgence in “coolness” when computers became commonplace household appliances — despite their earlier association with second-rate literature intended purely for entertainment, these “quality” paperbacks were considered fashionable and sufficiently intellectually stimulating. While this was a boon to the publishing industry, the emergence of electronic media also provided new challenges — given the rise of social media, the public’s interest in books as entertainment gained yet another rival.
The increased prominence of social media addiction has led to decreases in both consumer preference for books as entertainment and in the average American’s ability to concentrate on reading without being distracted by electronic devices. Furthermore, social media sites and platforms such as Quora and Wattpad have enabled influencers and other Internet personalities to churn out their own content, thus bypassing the necessity for a publishing firm to act as an intermediary between the author, the publisher, and the bookseller. To compete with this development, many authors have taken to social media to promote their own work. For some authors, this means posting snippets of their work, writing process, etc. For others, “characters have Twitter pages and they interact heavily with fans” (Habash).
Still, the emergence of internet trends and websites like Goodreads and Bustle helped publishing firms follow changes in consumer appetite — instead of tracking sales in bookstores and discussions in literary guilds and salons, big data and internet traffic became the most prevalent means of assessing the market. Furthermore, while the publishing industry relied largely on reviews, before, the emergence of social media trends could help propel sales on works that may not otherwise garner as wide a readership: “We have [sic] a two-year-old piece get 200K hits over the past few days over a Facebook post. Facebook is late capitalism”, said Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature at an NYU School of Professional Studies publishing panel.
Despite the shifts that the digital age presented to the publishing industry, the occurrence of COVID-19 brought many further changes to the market. The demographic to which books are accessible became even more exclusive as workers were laid off and salaries cut — “In one Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, the top 10% of earners spent nearly 8½ times more on reading than the bottom 10%”, representing a “negative indicator for publishing’s sales and bottom line” (Guren). Customers’ preferred sourcing of books has also become increasingly centralized. While Amazon sales made a notable surge during the pandemic, “U.S. Census data show that bookstore sales declined 28.8% in October 2020 vs. 2019” (Guren).
Future shifts in technology, the economy, global health, and consumer tastes will inevitably continue to mold the publishing industry, making it an exciting and fast-paced career direction. The NYU School of Professional Studies’ Center for Publishing offers summer programs, events, networking opportunities, and the like for those interested in learning more.
Guren, Cliff, et al. “COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021.” Publishing Research Quarterly, Springer US, 19 Feb. 2021, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12109-021-09791-z#Sec24.
“How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?” PublishersWeekly.com, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by topic/industry-news/trade-shows-events/article/80434-how-has-the-internet-changed-book-culture.html.
“What Should Authors Do in the Digital Age?” PublishersWeekly.com, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/55934-what-should-authors-do-in-the-digital-age.html.