Publishing’s Greatest Challenge Might Surprise You

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

In the October 2 issue of Publishers Weekly, the publication revealed the results of its annual salary and jobs survey. One of the questions the 442 respondents answered was, What is the #1 issue facing the industry in 2017?

You can read the online version of that story here.

In reverse order, here are the top six responses publishers gave:

The #1 challenge publishing faces is the limited number of online retailers

Although only 5 percent of responders named this as the prime problem, PW reported,

“…A number of publishers who commented on industry issues named Amazon–in one way or another–as the greatest challenge to book publishers.”

The relationship with Amazon has been fraught from the beginning. Yes, we hate Amazon because it is monopolistic–and more so every day. But where do many (most?) readers buy their books? Uh, Amazon.

In terms of creatively finding ways to drive the price down on individual titles, no other entity can surpass Amazon. This year we had the challenge of which seller will get the sale when the buyer clicks on the buy button. Book sellers other than the publisher received a boon from Amazon when the buy button went to the lowest bidder–the seller with the lowest price. Publishers have been inventively working to hold (or regain) that prime real estate. But that’s just the most recent challenge to publishing’s well-being that Amazon has either benignly or calculatingly posed. 2018 will doubtless add to Amazon’s list of ways to create publishing mayhem. (Not that publishing is being targeted; Amazon functions in the same cutthroat manner with every industry.)

The  #1 challenge to publishing is too many books being published

Publishing looks to the Bowker Report to collect these numbers, and it takes some time for Bowker to assemble them, but this is how the stats stood in September 2016: More than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an increase of 375% since 2010! The number of traditionally published books climbed to over 300,000. The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available.

In 2016, the U.S. population was reported at 323.1 million. Think about how many avid readers would be needed to sustain the present explosion of available books. Is it any wonder that a new title has a few weeks at a retail outlet to sell through to a customer? And how is the reader supposed to ferret through this vast selection to find the books that interest him or her? The problem is staggering.

The #1 challenge publishers face is the difficulty in getting attention for new authors

See #1 challenge above–the onslaught of available books. Other challenges I’ll disclose later in this post also contribute to this problem. The good news for authors is that publishers realize this is a significant problem. Fifteen percent of respondents saw this as their primary challenge. That means they’re working hard to solve it.

The #1 challenge for the industry is the financial pressure on bricks-and-mortar stores

Publishers pointed out several reasons this challenge exists, but the primary reasons listed were Amazon’s existence; Amazon’s encroachment into the physical retail space through their own bookstores; Barnes & Noble’s ongoing struggles to survive; and the collapse of Family Christian Stores. One respondent surmised, “This may be the deciding year for a lot of retailers in general.”

To view a chart of the decline of Barnes & Noble sales from 2012 to 2017, go here.

Retail outlets are supremely important to the publishing industry. Significant numbers of sales are lost when a chain such as Family Christian closes. If a town no longer has a Christian bookstore or any bookstore, where will readers turn to buy their books? Or will they choose to spend their discretionary time on other activities? Discoverability of an author and his or her books also is badly affected.

The #1 challenge publishing faces is the competition from other entertainment options

As alluded to in the previous point, potential readers have many other entertainment options beckoning to them. Video games’ popularity, the distraction of social media, and the upgraded quality of television productions (not necessarily family friendly content) all distract us from books. This issue is viewed so significant that 24 percent of responders picked it as their  #1 concern.

The greatest challenge seen by publishers is flat sales

Twenty-five percent of the respondents are concerned about a publishing variable that is easy for each publisher to track–how many books sold this year? The sobering fact publishers picked this as their primary concern is that it’s core to the industry. Publishing’s function boils down to selling books. If it doesn’t succeed at this, it won’t succeed at all. And it isn’t like 2017 is the exception. No growth has occurred for five years.

As the PW article reports, “According to the Association of American Publishers’ recent StatShot report, total industry sales fell to $26.24 billon in 2016, down 5.1% from 2015. Between 2012 and 2016, sales fell every year except 2014, and over the five-year period sales dropped 5.2%. Within the trade segment, sales rose 1.5% in 2016 over 2015 and were up 1.3% in 2016 over 2012.”

What do these concerns add up?

The truth of the matter is that these issues are interwoven. Amazon’s threat slips into each of these issues, including how easy it is to self-publish through Amazon. Having too many titles doesn’t increase sales; it results in readers having a harder time surfing through all the options to find a book they long to read. We could go on and on, showcasing how each problem is, in a sense, a different way of expressing the same issue: Publishing needs to sell more titles.

The real question is, What will publishing do to sell more titles?

What do you wish publishing would do to solve its problem?

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