whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books
Philip Jones | Editor of The Bookseller
Before his promotion in 2012 to Editor, Jones was deputy editor of the magazine and editor of Futurebook, the Bookseller Group’s digital blog.
Publishers and booksellers once met as equals: publishers needed booksellers as a route to book buyers, and there were almost as many bookshop businesses as there were major publishers. This is no longer the case. Over the past decade publishers have got bigger and more profitable, and although the major groups have consolidated, there also remain many small- to medium-sized publishing companies trading well and doing so profitably.
Booksellers have had a trickier decade. While Amazon has provided a platform for publishers (and as we saw during the lockdowns now provides a substantial route to customers), the giant e-tailer from the west has undermined the high street at every turn. It has a strong position in the old world (supplying printed books to readers), and a dominant one in the new world (its market share across digital reading and listening is well north of 90%).
But bookshops are not finished. Indies have had a terrific half-decade and in the UK there are now close to 1,000 of them on the Booksellers Association’s books, and more are opening daily as an occupation once unfairly characterised as dusty has become fashionable, its importance reinforced by the period during the pandemic when stores were forced to close. Furthermore, the combination of Waterstones, the US chain Barnes & Noble, Foyles, Blackwell’s and Wordery under one ownership (be that private equity’s Elliott Advisors, or as a public company) speaks to a potential rebalancing, as trade publishers realise that once again they have two global customers representing two very different sides of their business, each with unique needs and customer expectations.
What happens next will depend on how publishers can deal with these two sides. Amazon will want a fast-moving product, and more of it. As it has shown with its impressive move into self-publishing, it has an audience of voracious readers (and listeners) who want the content but not necessarily the package. They want it overnight, if not immediately, and they do not want to pay a premium for it. By contrast, Waterstones et al require a slower feed of well-made presentable printed books that their booksellers can hand-sell at prices that will sustain the high costs of their physical premises. Both will want bestsellers, and occasionally they will compete over price and speed, but over time I see two very distinct ways of being a bookseller emerging.
Publishers face other challenges. Over the past decade they have got used to curating their own marketplace. Belatedly realising that Amazon was on the march and the ebook was becoming a major threat to print, they have intervened on numerous occasions to arrest this trajectory. Most notably, this was around the pricing of ebooks (agency agreements, for anyone interested in a little publishing history), but also on making printed editions better, and producing exclusive versions for high street bookshops. Most recently, they have financially supported indies, Waterstones and Barnes & Noble, and via books such as The Lyrics, priced at £75, have helped make a product that works best when displayed in store. They will need to do more of that, while at the same time resisting the urges to cheapen production costs as the price of paper, ink, printing and distribution escalates.
The rise of Amazon, and social media, has given publishers many opportunities to get books in front of customers in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Author signings on Zoom, cover reveals on Twitter, and TikTok memes have empowered publishers’ marketing and publicity teams and cemented how important they have become to sales, especially at launch. We might deduce from this that booksellers have become less important, and will become even less significant as the remainder of this decade plays out. I think the exact opposite will happen. The power of individuals to influence, shape decisions, push books, amplify authors, damage or build reputations, online and in real life, will far outstrip the old lofty levers of price, promotion and placement. In that world, booksellers, because of their sheer number and their ability to connect customers with books, regain their advantage.
If I am right, then publishers and booksellers will exit the 2020s as they began the millennium, as equals.
Sam Missingham | Founder of The Empowered Author
Missingham has been working in publishing for nearly ten years – at HarperCollins as Head of Audience Development until 2017 and before that at The Bookseller as Head of Events & Marketing. She founded The Empowered Author to help new authors who are taking more control of their writing careers, offering practical support to help them navigate opportunities and make informed choices about their publishing options.
My personal view is that authors have benefited hugely from the transformation of the book world. Being published is now a much more open and accessible process, and there are a huge number of options beyond the traditional publishing route. Authors can reach readers and build fans by publishing their work on Substack, Wattpad, in any number of literary magazines, on their own blogs, social media – the list goes on – as well as having the ability to self-publish their books on platforms such as Amazon KDP and Kobo Writing Life and manage all areas of the publishing, distribution and marketing of their own books.
We are starting to see a steady flow of self-published authors hitting the bestseller lists and receiving critical acclaim. I anticipate more of this as authors upskill to become entrepreneurial bosses of their own small publishing houses. Plus, I think the technical elements behind self-publishing will get easier and easier and many of the gatekeepers will open to self-published authors as standard.
The traditional publishing industry will continue to think it doesn’t need to innovate because of the endless supply of willing authors still entranced by being ‘traditionally’ published. But I see the confluence of a few key issues over the next few years: the increasing cost of raw materials, production, transportation and distribution; publishing staff no longer accepting the living wage as a good enough trade-off for working with books, as the cost of living escalates; further innovation from Amazon and new players, especially when much of that is skewed in favour of self-published authors. I can imagine even more disgruntled mid-list authors choosing to test alternative publishing routes. And from a book-retailing point of view, having one dominant player in the UK and US will increase pressure on publishers.
The future is in the hands of the author. Good times ahead.
Ian Hudson | Executive Director & Managing Director Consumer Publishing at Bloomsbury Publishing
Before joining Bloomsbury, Hudson worked as the Managing Director of Random House Children’s Books, then CEO of Penguin Random House International and Deputy CEO of Penguin Random House UK until he was appointed CEO of DK. He was also the former president of the UK Publishers Association and is a non-executive director of Which?.
Challenges that I’m seeing in the crystal ball
Sustainability will become a bigger and bigger issue for publishers, printers and retailers alike, partly driven by passionate colleagues within the industry, partly by consumer demands and ultimately by government carbon taxes.
- As an industry we have a huge responsibility to improve our sustainability and I believe unsustainable book ‘finishes’ will eventually be shunned, with implications for all books but especially ‘special editions’, which currently utilise multiple additional unsustainable finishes.
- Formats for illustrated books, both adult and children’s, will become even more standardised across the industry to make more efficient use of paper and reduce wastage in the printing process. Non-standard formats are likely to become very expensive too.
- Shipping books long distances will be incompatible with climate/sustainability targets, thereby presenting a challenge to printing colour books in China for the EU/US markets and incentivising more local printing in all markets. It will also raise the long-overdue question of why US editions are shipped to Europe when UK editions of the same titles are readily available locally.
Supply and accessibility problems will persist:
- Ongoing lead-time and shipping issues.
- Significant cost increases putting some smaller publishers under financial pressure.
- Books will inevitably become more expensive and less accessible to some (unless we do something to address that).
- Devices for reading books could become more book-like and tactile.
- Ownership of NFT (non-fungible token) rights could become contentious.
Creative people are at their most innovative when barriers are put in their way and they need to find ways to work around them. Some of the challenges above, especially those relating to sustainability, will provide those barriers and unleash a new wave of creativity and innovation across all areas of the industry. We have a huge pool of creative talent in publishing, so:
- Book designers will find more and more innovative ways to make books look beautiful without using unsustainable finishes.
- New, more sustainable inks and materials will be developed and widely used.
- New forms of ‘special editions’ (or bonus material) will evolve rather than using additional finishes and unusual formats to differentiate books in store from books online.
- NFTs – there’s a huge opportunity for publishers and authors to work together to develop exciting new products and offerings.
Supply and accessibility opportunities:
- More local printing to reduce freight costs and carbon emissions.
- More efficient short-run printing.
- Investment in local community centres and libraries (including mobile libraries) to ensure books remain accessible to everyone.
- Opportunity to develop a more tactile and book-like device on which to read books.
- Online (e.g. Amazon) book marketing campaigns could be run by machines not marketing departments (based on a combination of historic information and new real-time data).
Orna Ross, ALLi
Ross is a novelist, poet and proud indie author and advocate for self-publishing as artistic expression, as a viable business option for authors, and as a necessary skill for every business in today’s digital, networked economy. Her work for ALLi has seen her named one of the 100 most influential people in publishing by The Bookseller.
We have been one-dimensional in our thinking about how we get books (long-form text and audio) from authors to readers. In the decade to come, that’s going to change.
As the ‘publish-me-please’ mindset fades among authors, we’ll see more writers offering direct sales on author websites and apps. We’ll move further away from centralised distribution (where third-party publishers or large self-publishing platforms dominate the route to market and access to readers) and towards distributed networks (where the reading market breaks down into niches and access is fragmented). The creator economy, of which author-publishing is a significant part, will expand exponentially. And more creator economy platforms like Patreon, Podia, Substack and the like will emerge.
More indie authors, and other savvy digital publishers, are already decentralising their digital book sales and distribution, moving to sell directly from their own websites, while also distributing through a number of different outlets on a non-exclusive basis, and selectively licensing rights, shunning exclusive all-rights, world rights deals. (At ALLi, we call this self-publishing 3.0.)
Now they are also beginning to incorporate the sale of NFTs on blockchains, a distribution method that will become more mainstream as the decade advances. This is a game changer. Blockchains have a number of potential advantages for authors and other makers, making ownership of content indisputable, providing a secondary market for digital products, so the text accumulates value to the author on resale, and training readers to go to the source, rather than a retailer, for books and other content.
Authors will need to upskill as publishers to meet these demands. And, as ever, getting readers on board is the primary challenge, but now that Facebook has its own (bookish-sounding) cryptocurrency, Libra, Facebook users will soon become comfortable with crypto, which will help overcome barriers.
Blockchain as a Service (BaaS) for authors and other publishers will emerge, enabling writers to develop their own blockchain products and smart contracts, without needing to own blockchain-based infrastructure, or understand how it works. Social media platforms will sell more books than online retailers.
As the decade goes on, these trends will see more and more readers going to the source – the author – when purchasing ebooks, audiobooks and POD print.