Book Publishing, A Quick Look at the Industry

Publication2On April 24 I had the pleasure of sitting on the Publishing Panel at the Writers in the Mountains’ annual book festival held this year at the Union Grove Distillery in Arkville. I was joined that day by Leslie T. Sharpe, professor, author and editorial consultant; Anique Taylor, poet, painter and educator; and Lillian Browne, journalist. We all shared very different perspectives on publishing.

Here were some of my contributions to this conversation.

  1. General Considerations

Independent publishing or self-publishing, as it is now called, has always existed. Shortly after the invention of the printing press, artists and writers with entrepreneurial spirit learned to design and publish their own books. Digital technology has of course made things a lot easier. I highly recommend the essay “From Papyrus to Pixels” published by The Economist in 2014.

Self-published authors are those who set up accounts with various self-publishing platforms, and publish that way, and those who set up their own presses, and become their own publishers, the likes of Mark Twain and Virginia Wolf.

Earlier this spring I attended the Woodstock Writers Festival, co-sponsored by The New School. One author explained that publishing a book is ultimately a way to connect with readers, and self-publishing is one way to do so. But authors shouldn’t choose self-publishing as a way to avoid gatekeepers, because gatekeepers can really help make a manuscript better.

Four authors were asked about their route to publication, and all four of them had a different answer:

  • One of them met his publisher at a party in Woodstock.
  • Another one had a more methodical approach: she started by googling “how do you get a literary agent?” and then googling “how do you write a query letter?” Her manuscript was accepted on the first day she sent out query letters to six agents.
  • A third admitted that it had taken her a really long time to find an agent. She started by approaching friends, and friends of friends, and people she met at workshops. Her advice to writers was to look at books that were similar to theirs, and see who published them.
  • The fourth author said that he was lucky, because it took him six years to write the book, but sold it in forty-eight hours.

Ultimately, how you choose to publish a book depends on the complexity of the project, I would say, how resourceful you are, and how much time you have to commit to the project.

  1. Trends

My advice to writers has always been to remain constantly creative and curious, and look for new models in publishing, because the industry is changing rather rapidly. For instance, at the Woodstock Writers Festival last year I met someone who works for Diversion Books in New York City: Diversion takes a digital marketer approach to books – they use data analytics to assess book consumption, and enhance the commercial success of a book. What does that do to the literary value of a book, what does that do to poetry, and projects that don’t really fall into categories – these remain open questions.

A few trends I’d like to highlight:

  • Millenials watch YouTube more than television. They are the largest generation in the history of the country. The millennial market (18 – 34 year old) is estimated at 92 million people, and $200 billion worth of spending in the U.S. (source: Publishing Perspectives).
  • Digital audio books are becoming more and more popular, and more common in independent bookstores.
  • Also, we see more digital content in schools.
  • New apps, and new tools for writers are introduced every day – tools for writing, editing, organizing content, designing and publishing books. For instance, Amazon StoryWriter app automatically formats screenplays, so writers type without worrying about format. Moleskine introduced a Smart Writing Set that includes a smart pen and a notebook that instantly digitizes notes, including sketches – this comes in handy for illustrators.
  • Retailers are giving independent authors more space.
  1. Statistics

Smashwords 2016 Survey (conducted between March 2015 and February 2016) reveals that among Smashwords authors:

  • Fiction dominates (89.5% of Smashwords sales were fiction titles);
  • Offering books for free remains a powerful discovery tool – free books get about 41 times more downloads than books at any price, according to Smashwords;
  • Preorder is becoming more and more popular: 13.5% of new books released at Smashwords during the period under investigation were released as preorders, up from 9.8% in the year before;
  • Series books outsell standalones.

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Also from Mark Coker at Smashwords:

  • Print books continue to dominate: print accounts for 70% of the market;
  • Independent authors control 15 – 20 % of the e-book market;
  • Kindle Unlimited model reconfigures the entire industry – readers get used with reading for free;
  • Libraries remain an area of growth and opportunity for independent authors.


The American Association of Publishers reported that:

  • When it comes to traditional publishers, e-book sales decreased 12% in 2015 compared to 2014.
  • After years of decline, physical retail stores saw an increase of 3.2% in revenue ($3.80 billion from $3.68 billion) and 4.1% in units (577 million from 554 million) in the trade category in 2014.
  • Online retail remained the top sales channel for customers in the trade category, selling 832 million units and providing $5.90 billion in revenue in 2014.

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© 2016 Simona David

One thought on “Book Publishing, A Quick Look at the Industry

  1. Thank you for taking the time to distill some of the figures. It can be a statistician’s nightmare to look at the numbers from all sides of the publishing industry.

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