11 Key Publishing Trends For 2021-2024
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The publishing industry generates nearly $26 billion in revenue in the United States every year.
Even though that number has been flat for the past four years, the industry has been experiencing some sizable shifts.
(For example, the emergence of ebooks, audiobooks, and digital technology.)
As publishers and consumers adjust their expectations in the coming years, which trends will be the most important?
Learn about 11 of the biggest publishing trends for 2021-2024 right here.
1. Growing Demand for Audiobooks and Ebooks
During the last 10 years, demand for print books has waned.
However, demand for ebooks and audio books has skyrocketed.
Searches for the audiobook platform “Audible” are on the rise.
Although print books are still the most popular book format (65% of people read a print book in 2019), 25% of adults read an e-book in 2019.
And 20% of US consumers have listened to an audiobook in the last year.
Industry reports show that sales of audiobooks have seen continuous growth since 2012.
In fact, audiobook revenue has been up 14.3% year-over-year.
Audiobooks are one of the biggest high-growth sectors for the publishing industry.
Interestingly, ebook sales are actually outperforming audiobooks.
Ebook sales have increased 16.5% last year, with more than $956 million in total revenue.
(Driven mostly by Amazon's Kindle.)
For many independent authors, the ebook and audiobook trend is an untapped opportunity.
Search growth for the keyword “independent author”.
But, with tech developments in the publishing space, it’s getting easier to create and launch digital books.
Amazon’s subsidiary ACX will package an author’s audio file and list it on Amazon, Audible, and Apple iBooks.
Self-publishing tool ACX essentially transforms a single book into multiple formats.
Two years ago, the numbers reached record highs: 326 million pieces of digital content were downloaded—that was a 20% increase.
In 2020, ebook checkouts from libraries soared even higher with a 52% increase year-over-year.
An Internet technology company (and TikTok owner) ByteDance sees the future profit available in the digital publishing industry.
Searches for “TikTok” over 365 days.
They’ve launched a reading app with AI narrators.
ByteDance's new reading app.
And ByteDance recently invested $170 million in Zhangyue, one of China’s largest ebook publishers.
2. More Book Summary Platforms Emerge
We’re seeing a growing number of platforms and services designed to summarize nonfiction book content.
Searches for “Blinkist” over 5 years.
Blinkist summarizes books into audio and text summaries that they call “blinks”.
And the startup has raised $34M in VC funding to date.
Another startup in this space is MentorBox.
MentorBox is one of many growing book summary startups.
Instead of simply summarizing, MentorBox collaborates with authors to turn a book’s material into a course.
Authors on the platform include Donald Miller, Jonah Berger and Reid Hoffman.
3. Political Books Remain Popular
In recent years, books in the political genre have been immensely popular.
And this trend is set to continue through 2024.
Former President Barack Obama’s third book, A Promised Land, sold 3.3 million copies in the United States in its first month of publication.
President Obama's third book was a bestseller.
Publishing experts expect sales of the book to continue to rise, surpassing the sales of other recent presidential memoirs like Bill Clinton’s My Life and George W. Bush’s Decision Points.
Both of those books sold between 3.5 and 4 million copies total.
Obama’s book is the first of two planned volumes—the release date for the second book has not been set yet.
Of course, books about President Donald Trump are also insanely popular.
As of December, the 12 most popular books about Trump had sold more than 3.1 million physical copies.
Books about President Trump's time in the White House are still selling well.
Even after President Trump leaves office, we can expect more books about the presidency to get released to strong sales.
We already have a preview of what consumer demand might look like during the next four years of a Biden/Harris presidency.
Right after the 2020 election, four of the top 10 most popular books on Amazon were books written by or based on Kamala Harris.
The first books taking an in-depth look at her political career will be landing in early 2021. Simon & Schuster will be releasing Kamala’s Way on January 12.
Dozens of books about President-elect Joe Biden will be released in the next 12 months, too.
Prior books written by Biden have been popular with consumers.
His most recent book, Promise Me, Dad, was a New York Times bestseller and sold more than 300,000 copies.
Biden also earned $1.8 million from the 30-stop book tour.
4. Small Bookstores Continue to Dwindle
The plight of the small bookstore continues into 2021.
And the overall future for small bookstores looks to be bleak.
Although independent bookstores recently rallied, reporting 49% growth from 2009 to 2018, COVID may be a hurdle that many of them simply cannot clear.
Nearly 60 small bookstores closed for good last year.
And reports show that up to 20% of the remaining stores could close within the first months of 2021.
Like many industries, mom-and-pop bookstores simply cannot create the kind of revenue they did before lockdowns went into place.
Publisher’s Weekly reports that bookstore sales in the first 10 months of 2020 were down nearly one-third from last year.
That’s a drop of more than $2 billion.
Local bookstores, like many small businesses, depend on holiday sales to get them to year-end in the black.
Some bookstores earn up to one-third of their entire annual revenue during the final months of the year.
Many small bookstores say their holiday season has been a bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous year.
With in-store occupancy limits, online sales have become a lifeline for many of these bookstores.
And eCommerce is challenging for bookstore owners who have never sold online and don’t have the logistical power to make it happen.
But bookshop.org is stepping in to simplify things.
Searches for “bookshop.org” over 5 years.
Small bookstores can become affiliates of bookshop.org.
That means that they can create a link to the Bookshop store and they’ll get 30% of the profit from the sales of people using that link.
Bookshop takes care of all the logistics—inventory, packing, shipping, and returns.
Local communities are also doing their part to save the small bookstores they love so much.
5. Libraries At Odds with Publishers
As demand grows for digital media, libraries and publishers are locked in a duel.
Libraries advocate for the free flow of information.
But many publishing companies are worried about library checkouts cutting into their revenue.
This fight has been brewing for years.
And has only been heightened by the pandemic.
In previous years, book publishers have put limits on how libraries could offer their ebooks to patrons.
Often, they would allow libraries a certain lifetime for an ebook—for example, 2 years or 52 checkouts per ebook license.
But libraries have been paying an average of $45 per ebook, which is nearly 3.5 times more than the consumer price.
In late 2019, Macmillan, one of the “big five” publishing houses, created a new policy that would allow libraries only one copy of an ebook until it’d been on the market for two months.
Since Macmillan reports that 45% of their ebook reads are coming through libraries, they reportedly wanted to use this policy to see if they could push more sales.
The policy did not last long, though.
Macmillan was forced to reverse a policy limiting library access to their ebook titles.
Libraries are concerned with Amazon’s ebook regulations, too.
The internet giant does not allow libraries to purchase any ebooks published under their imprints.
However, they have recently started negotiating a plan for library distribution with the Digital Public Library of America.
In addition, Rhode Island and New York have proposed legislation that would require publishers to make ebooks available to public libraries at fair prices.
The disagreements between the publishers and libraries still remain.
Many in the public library system fear the fight over ebooks will be reignited once the pandemic is over.
6. Tech Becomes a Competitive Advantage
Technology is going to be a key driver of change in the book publishing industry in 2021 and beyond.
One unexpected way is that publishers are on the brink of using artificial intelligence to write books.
Many online publishers are already using AI to write articles.
Searches for "AI writing" have increased by 1.9x.
But as of now, AI struggles to write compelling fiction.
As the USC Annenberg Relevance Report put it, “AI is not ready to write a best-seller yet, [but] it is a powerful tool that can improve stories and increase audience engagement.”
So far, it’s easy for many to tell that a fiction book was written by a non-human.
But, taking into consideration that these AI programs have made huge gains in the past few years.
And it may not be long before we see AI write fiction that's much less robotic.
Book publishers have other uses for AI, too.
They are utilizing the technology for content classification, acquisitions, plagiarism checks, and book marketing.
AI technology is being used by the publishing industry in numerous different ways.
The opportunities associated with digital marketing and promotion in the publishing world are seemingly endless.
First chapters are being read on live social media feeds, virtual literary events are drawing crowds of more than 500k people, and publishers are tracking consumer behavior and data like never before.
“Bookstagrammer” is a real thing on Instagram with more than 8 million posts under the hashtag.
Searches for “Bookstagrammer” spiked in July 2020. But are still growing.
7. Self-publishing numbers keep climbing
Self-publishing books have been on the rise since 2010.
In that year, there were approximately 153k ISBNs assigned to self-published books. By 2018, that number had climbed to more than 1.6 million books.
In 2020, the pandemic and the popularity of e-books seemed to push the trend even further.
Authors, especially new authors, are lured by self-publishing because they get to do exactly what they want with their book.
Instead of a publishing house picking the cover design, managing the editing, and setting the price, the author takes charge.
In recent years, authors who’ve already successfully published with a traditional publishing house have also turned to self-publishing.
Horror author Adam Nevill had already written 19 novels when he self-published his first book in 2019.
His reason? Better pay and more control over the books packaging and marketing. His self-published book has even out-sold some of his other novels.
Wattpad is another popular self-publishing avenue. But the premise is a bit different than the usual self-publish process.
Wattpad had a surge in 2020 and searches remain high in 2021.
Launched in 2006, the website and app are built around a social community of storytelling.
Authors post their stories. Then users read the stories they like and provide feedback.
Most of the stories on Wattpad are free. But they do have a “paid stories” platform, too.
A few of the most popular stories on the site have been turned into printed books through Wattpad Books and movies through Wattpad Studios.
For some authors, Wattpad is a launching pad to working with other publishers.
For example, the After series was originally published by author Anna Todd on Wattpad.
After is a book series that was originally self-published.
Her story was noticed by Simon & Schuster, and she’s printed five books through the publisher.
Wattpad was recently bought by a South Korean company for more than $600 million.
Before this deal came about, it was reported that other internet giants like Facebook, TikTok, and Netflix were interested in Wattpad.
8. Publishing giants consolidate
In the early 2000s, the publishing industry was dominated by the “big six.”
Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster were the only major players.
These “big six” accounted for 50% of all books sold in the US in 2012.
In 2013, Random House and Penguin merged, leaving the industry in the hands of the “big five.”
Stats show that these five publishers account for 80% of all books sold in 2021.
In 2021, Penguin Random House (PRH) announced that it would buy Simon & Schuster for more than $2 billion.
Penguin’s purchase of Simon & Schuster helped consolidate the remaining publishing industry giants.
This means there will only be four major players in the industry, further concentrating publishing power in the hands of a few companies.
Before this merger, Penguin Random House was already the biggest publisher in the US.
Now that the two houses are together, that’s one publisher putting out 34% of the books sold each year.
The Authors Guild is sharply critical of the merger.
They predict that this imbalance in the publishing industry will reduce competition for manuscripts, drive down financial advances, and make it difficult for authors to negotiate contracts.
In late 2020, The Authors Guild released a statement advocating against the merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House.
Other publishers have also spoken out against the deal.
A HarperCollins spokesperson said that the merged company of PRH and Simon & Schuster would control 70% of the U.S. literary and general fiction market.
9. Independent publishers make gains
As many in the industry view the top publishing houses as turning into behemoths that seek to control the entire book market, indie publishers are seeing a surge.
These smaller publishers are in direct contrast to the big-money operations of the top four publishing houses.
As one author put it, “small publishers now provide a far wider variety of literature, politics, history, and journalism, of art-making and truth-to-power-speaking, of actual risk-taking — and from a far more diverse group of authors — than the commercial conglomerate publishers.”
Searches for “indie publisher” are up and down, but you can see a sharp rise during the pandemic.
Independent publishers often take risks on books in unusual genres and unknown authors.
Some of their print runs are only 1,000 copies.
Despite the small scale, these indie publishers still find success.
Mango Publishing is a small indie publisher that has seen company revenue growth in recent years.
In 2017, they published 68 titles. In 2019, that number was up to 130 and sales were up 162%.
Mango Publishing prides itself on publishing books from distinct and diverse voices in our culture.
The publisher has only been in business for six years but has made multiple appearances on Publisher Weekly’s fastest-growing small publisher’s list.
Wolfpack Publishing has also made huge gains in recent years.
From 2018 to 2020, it was the fastest-growing independent book publisher in the US. Their sales grew 309% during that time.
The company has just 14 employees, but had $2.2 million in sales in 2019 and was on track to get to $3 million in 2020.
As their revenue has grown over the past few years, searches for “Wolfpack Company” have increased.
10. Increased calls for diversity
In 2019, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) analyzed the children’s and YA books they received and reported the diversity statistics of those books.
Out of the 3,700 books they analyzed, nearly 42% had at least one caucasian primary character.
In contrast, 36% of books had a primary character from another race.
Interestingly, 29% had an animal or other type of primary character.
CCBC found that whites and animals starred as the main characters in books far more often than African-Americans and brown-skinned people.
Another organization, Diverse BookFinder, has analyzed more than 3,000 children’s books since 2002.
They report that only 29% of books feature a black character and that these books are frequently about oppression and resilience, or they’re biographies.
In addition, recent surveys have shown a lack of diversity among those working in the publishing industry.
Lee & Low Books reports that 76% are white and 74% are women.
These stats from 2019 are incredibly similar to the results from their 2015 survey.
The results of Lee & Low Books’ diversity survey found there isn’t really much diversity at all in publishing.
Stats like these have led many in the industry to call for more diversity—in authors, in characters, and in publishing executives.
Many on social media are using #weneeddiversebooks to call attention to the issue.
The hashtag has more than 200k posts on Instagram.
In 2020, the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe went viral, as well.
On Twitter, authors used the hashtag to share the value of their book advances. It became clear that white authors had more lucrative deals when compared to black authors.
After the hashtag went viral, The New York Times went on to analyze more than 7k books.
They found 95% of the books were written by white authors.
One way publishing houses have responded to the criticism is by hiring editors specifically focused on acquiring books by Latinx and BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color).
The trend of “BIPOC books” popped up in 2020 and searches are still high in 2021.
The push for diversity could usher in a new era of publishing or it could fizzle out.
As an author, Dr. Anamik Saha said, “It is too early to say whether this is will be a short-lived commercial trend, or whether the profound reckoning with racism that #BLM has provoked is going to lead to radical change. Either way, the publishing industry has to learn that there is more than one audience out there.”
11. Authors go all-in with digital marketing
Authors and publishers want to build long-term, ongoing relationships with their readers.
Customers who are engaged like this are more likely to buy books in the future.
To that end, email marketing is one of the most popular ways to sell books in 2021.
One publishing expert says that email is 100x more effective than social media when it comes to book sales.
Some authors give away free stories to the readers on their email lists.
Some even monetize email subscriptions by offering premium content.
Author Seth Godin has written more than 20 best-selling books. He uses a daily email to market to and engage his audience.
Plus, the content of his email is posted every day on his blog—it has more than 7,000 entries.
Even though email is a successful marketing trend that looks to be sticking around for the future, authors are also experimenting with promoting their books on social media.
Posting on TikTok, a relatively new platform has emerged as a genuine marketing strategy for many authors.
The popular #BookTok has nearly 12 billion video views.
The beauty of #BookTok is that the marketing content is user-generated.
Instead of the authors talking about their own books, it’s actual readers recommending books, giving summaries, or crying after the emotional ending of a book.
Searches for BookTok took off in 2021.
The trend is so big that a TikTok video focused on a 2014 book, We Were Liars, was viewed 5.5 million times.
The book even returned to the best-seller list in the summer of 2020.
The head of marketing at Random House Children’s Books says he works with nearly 100 TikTok users to market books.
Hosting virtual author events, which became popular during the pandemic, is another new marketing trend that’s seeing success.
Even though the pandemic is easing, the accessibility, low cost, and success of these events have kept them around in 2021.
Publishers are very hesitant about bringing back in-person events.
In fact, one literary festival reports they are currently holding off on booking authors for their spring 2022 event.
Even though some publishers have started paying bookstores to put on virtual events, some bookstores believe that “zoom fatigue” and lower sales will eventually lead to the end of these virtual events.
Publishing is an industry that has always needed to adapt to changing conditions.
However, the last few years have likely seen the fastest (and most disruptive) changes to date.
Including a number of new threats (podcasts) and opportunities (audiobooks).
Either way, it will be fascinating to see how these publishing industry trends play out over the next few years.