Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing

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June 2013
by Johanna Vondeling

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At Berrett-Koehler, we are currently engaged in a strategic planning process designed to help the company achieve growth and long-term sustainability. As part of that process, I’m creating a list of the most important trends underlying the many tumultuous forces now affecting all of us in the publishing industry. I offer it here as a work in progress. BK and I would gratefully welcome your feedback via jvondeling@bkpub.com, and we’ll share the final version of the list when the time comes.

1. Everyone’s a Publisher

Now that digital content is popular and relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, millions of individuals and thousands of non–book-publishing media companies have leaped into the business of creating and distributing it, often also offering print-on-demand options.1

The near-elimination of barriers to entry into the publishing marketplace has produced an ever-increasing flood of information and entertainment options for consumers.2 Publishers’ primary competition today isn’t other books but rather other forms of media, including social media platforms, games, and streamed content.

As the presence and relevance of physical retail space for books continues to decline, so too will the necessity for other entities—including authors and other content producers—to work with established legacy publishers to bring books to market.3

2. Content Comes First

All content producers now need to approach format as a secondary consideration. The innovators are designing workflows that prioritize the development and the pre-publication tagging of content regardless of format, knowing that the outputs could be almost infinitely varied.

Print book? E-book? Online course? Webinar? App? Blog? Tweet? Tagging must be “semantic” (with tags pertaining to meaning, not just terms) to facilitate discoverability. Content producers must make it as easy as possible for content to be re-purposed by its curators in editorial and production departments and leveraged and shared by its marketers and distribution partners.

3. Content Marketing Is King

Content is still king. And content marketing is edging out traditional push-marketing practices. It can be defined as “marketing without marketing, or building soft power and social gravity for a brand through shared values and interests,” or (as Deltina Hay noted in the April Independent) as “getting your content in as many different forms as possible, on as many different platforms as possible, in front of as many different eyes as possible.”

By disseminating great quality and immersive content through social platforms, content producers can market themselves without interrupting consumers with more explicit advertising.4

Content marketing facilitates reader engagement. Engagement, in turn, produces strong brand ties, leading to increased purchasing, product loyalty, and customer advocacy.

But there is no standard definition or metric for engagement, and most organizations don’t fully understand the migration from engagement to revenue.

The challenges are (1) understanding what’s happening within the dynamic ecosystem of content and social media and (2) being able to make tactical changes to increase conversion and revenue.

4. Big Data Rules

The amount of data in our world has been exploding. Analyzing large data sets—so-called big data—has become a key basis of competition, driving growth and innovation. The rise of multimedia and social media and the increasing volume and detail of information that enterprises capture have been fueling exponential growth in data.5

As a result, businesses can now have broad and deep visibility into their stakeholders’ behaviors and values. But which information matters most? Big data offers promise in making sense of complexity.

The few businesses that have successfully migrated from print-first to digital-first models have invested significantly in building in-house data and analytics teams.6 While data analysis is becoming more important, the need for creative thinking in the changing world of marketing has never been greater. Note the rise in recruitment of “data scientists” who are savvy in computer science but—crucially—also able to apply creative thinking to data-driven challenges.

5. Mobile Matters

This year, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population.7 In 2012, mobile subscriptions in China surpassed 1 billion, and mobile Web users overtook people using PCs to access the Web.8 Millions of individuals in developing countries may never own a book or a computer, but they do own mobile phones.

Moving forward in “mobile optimization” requires conceiving and designing content explicitly for mobile devices. Every experience offered through digital channels—every Web page, shopping cart, and piece of rich content—must work well on any device in any location.

Customers generally understand that concessions need to be made for the smaller screen, touchscreen input, and slower speed, but they won’t accept what seems unnecessary hassle or delay. Apps are a part of today’s approach to mobile, but they are not a cure-all to this challenge, as use of the mobile Web increases daily.9

6. The Internet Is the Classroom

The education industry is experiencing dramatic disruption. Profits and enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities in the United States are growing at a staggering rate.10 Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are proliferating.11 Education startups are creating and offering online study groups, flash cards, lecture notes, and a wealth of other tools for free. Investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year.12 And while digital textbooks have been slow to gain adoption, many education providers are turning away from print textbooks in favor of digital devices in classrooms and lecture halls. In response, some publishers are diving into the growing business of online education.13

The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for containing the soaring costs that are driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It is also a potential boon to displaced workers under pressure to become “lifelong learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.14

7. Flux Makes for Strange Bedfellows

Legacy industries, such as book publishing, are concluding that previously unlikely alliances can help them survive and thrive. Many are funding or acquiring startups to help them adapt amid the present flux and strategize for the future.

In 2012, Pearson bought Author Solutions, one of the leading providers of “self-publishing” services. In 2013, Pearson and Kaplan both launched incubator programs to help vet and mentor education-tech start-ups. Macmillan has been aggressively investing a fund of over $100 million in ed-tech startups.15

Other publishers are leveraging ties with other branded media platforms and content providers. Hyperion is selling its backlist and will focus exclusively on content tied to its sister companies Disney and ABC.16 Wiley is distributing material from (former competitor) OpenStax College, an open-source platform that makes introductory college textbooks available as free downloads.17

8. High-Value Networks Offer Opportunity

Platforms like Craigslist and eBay engage in “commons creation” by establishing virtual spaces in which strangers can pool their ideas, sell products or services, and make social connections. The platforms that can provide real value gain users (and often revenue) quickly.

We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise in the use of digital personal assistant networks such as TaskRabbit. And Amazon successfully launched Audiobook Creation Exchange, a platform that connects freelance narrators of audiobooks with owners of content who are looking to publish audiobooks.

As workers experience less job security and turn increasingly to independent and task-based employment options, such platforms provide value by leveraging the sponsor’s “right-of-way” to create credible networks that connect people seeking products and services with those eager to provide them.

9. Crowdfunding Comes of Age

Digital crowdsourcing platforms such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Unbound, and Pubslush are proliferating, gaining both users and donors at a remarkable pace.

Now, content curators can use these platforms to locate content that readers are attracted to and willing to pay for—before it is produced and distributed.

Combined with the boom in self-publishing, this trend means more opportunities to identify content with proven market demand, and more ways to identify the hardcore fan base for a particular set of content before making the decision to invest.18

10. The Means of Production Goes Hyperlocal

Paradoxically, globalization is both making it easier to purchase a product on the other side of the planet and moving the production of goods closer to the site of purchase.

The emergence of “additive manufacturing” and 3D printing holds the promise that individual creators and users can “make” anything in their own homes. Book and magazine publishers are printing closer to their customers through globally dispersed printing operations and print-on-demand programs. Espresso Book Machines facilitate the printing of out-of-stock and self-published books in some physical bookstores.19

All these developments offer the opportunity to bring production closer to the customer, facilitating just-in-time sales and providing more sustainable alternatives to current distribution practices.

Up Next

Hard as it may be to identify and describe the most important trends, deciding what to do about them is even harder. That’s the task that comes next. Your ideas and reports about taking action or—for various reasons—not taking action on major industry trends are also invited. Please email me at jvondeling@bkpub.com and/or Independent editor Judith Appelbaum at judith@ibpa-online.org.


Johanna Vondeling is vice president for international sales and business development at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. To reach her: 415/743-6476 (direct), 415/288-0260 (main) or jvondeling@bkpub.com (email).

Article Notes

1. Jeremy Greenfield, “Shatzkin: Soon, Most People Working in Publishing Won’t Be Working at Publishing Companies,” Digital Book World, March 19, 2013, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/shatzkin-soon-most-people-working-in-publishing-wont-be-working-at-publishing-companies; and “Ecco, MLB Team Up for E-book Series,” Publishers Weekly, March 20, 2013, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/56443-ecco-mlb-team-up-for-e-book-series.html?et_mid=608647&rid=2644681.

2. Steven Piersanti, “The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, March 6, 2012.

3. Evan Hughes, “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future,” Wired, March 19, 2013, http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/03/publishing-industry-next-chapter/all.

4. “Quarterly 2013 Digital Intelligence Briefing,” January 2013, Econsultancy, http://econsultancy.com/au/reports/quarterly-digital-intelligence-briefing.

5. James Manyika et al., “Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, May 2011, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/business_technology/big_data_the_next_frontier_for_innovation.

6. Jeff John Roberts, “The FT Has ‘Crossed Over’ to Become a Digital Business—but Can Anyone Else Replicate That Feat?” paidContent, March 18, 2013, http://paidcontent.org/2013/03/18/the-ft-has-crossed-over-to-become-a-digital-business-but-can-anyone-else-replicate-that-feat/?utm_source=General+Users&utm_campaign=62b2f6bc50-c%3Amed+d%3A03-19&utm_medium=email.

7. Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017, Cisco, February 6, 2013, http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns827/white_paper_c11-520862.html.

8. Mark Tanner, “2013: The Year Nothing but Mobile Matters for Any Business Selling in China,” MobiThinking, December 20, 2012, http://mobithinking.com/blog/china-skinny-1.

9. Cisco Visual Networking Index.

10. John Aubrey Douglass, “The Rise of For-Profit Universities and Colleges,” University World News, July 15, 2012, http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120710160228719.

11. Emma Boyde, “Massive Open Online Courses: Time and a Little Money Are a Worthy Investment,” Financial Times, March 11, 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/c101d4cc-800f-11e2-96ba-00144feabdc0.html.

12. Kevin Carey, “The Siege of Academe,” Washington Monthly, September/October 2012, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/septemberoctober_2012/features/_its_three_oclock_in039373.php?page=all.

13. “Wiley Launches Digital Classroom, Video and Ebook E-Learning Site,” Digital Book World, March 19, 2013, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/wiley-launches-digital-classroom-video-and-ebook-e-learning-site/?et_mid=608236&rid=2644681.

14. Carey, “The Siege of Academe.”

15. Publishers Lunch, March 7, 2013.

16. Ibid.

17. David F. Carr, “Wiley, OpenStax Team on College Biology Textbook,” InformationWeek, March 11, 2013, http://www.informationweek.com/education/instructional-it/wiley-openstax-team-on-college-biology-t/240150451.

18. Liz Shannon Miller, “Veronica Mars Lives Again: Lessons from a Record-Breaking Kickstarter Campaign,” paidContent, March 17, 2013, http://paidcontent.org/2013/03/17/veronica-mars-lives-again-lessons-from-a-record-breaking-kickstarter-campaign.

19. “Just Press Print,” Economist, February 25, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/15580856?story_id=15580856.

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