The futures of the book. Where is the publishing market going?

Llibres exposats a una de les parades de la plaça Reial amb motiu de la diada de Sant Jordi del 2021. © Mònica Moreno

Things are looking promising for the publishing sector right now. The pandemic, which has broadly been catastrophic for the cultural sector, has generated an unexpected recovery for books, thanks to citizens’ solidarity and a return to reading. Overall, Amazon was the biggest winner, because it was responsible for 47% of sales during the months of the pandemic. This figure poses questions around our new buying habits and the consequences they may have both on sustainability and on the survival of small shops and independent publishers.

Since the pandemic, the big publishing groups have bounced back and recovered well, while among the smaller houses and the publishing middle class, the future is not so pleasing and sales have dropped significantly. Furlough schemes have helped to save companies, but the whole sector has a structural problem: the market stopped growing years ago. Further, we are faced with a new ecosystem, characterised by the explosion of new technologies, which define the new environment we are moving in.

The new grants available to the publishing sector through Next Generation funds will be conditional on two elements: sustainability and digitalisation. The books of the future will include a label on the credits page indicating the carbon footprint they have generated. And the use of e-books will continue to grow, according to a report on reading habits.

Nonetheless, few publishers have a digital book strategy as they see this in terms of market demand, rather than as the opening of a secondary channel. Now, different book formats coexist (paper, e-books, audiobooks), but we are still a long way from digital normalisation.

We are seeing the rise of new business models: subscription platforms have triumphed internationally. Podcasts and audiobooks have their own subscription platforms, like Storytel and Audible, while books have Scribd, with thousands of subscribers. The consumption of digital books in Spanish via subscription platforms has risen from 5% in 2016 to 20% in 2022. In other words, 20% of e-book readers are now using subscription platforms. The arrival of blockchain and cryptocurrencies also open up a new stage for digital consumption.

In this debate, we will talk to different experts and participants in the book value chain about the challenges and opportunities the future holds for an industry facing a quiet yet urgent reorganisation.

Retrat de Manuel Gil Portrait of Manuel Gil.

Manuel Gil
Publishing consultant and writer. Lecturer on master’s courses in Publishing. Ex-director of Madrid Book Fair.

The publishing sector faces the challenge of correcting some structural faults if it wants to satisfy future generations, which will support a green economy. We are seeing the decline of the baby boomer as a compulsive buyer. e-Commerce is bad for the environment, as delivering parcels to the buyer’s door is unsustainable; the disproportionate demand for cardboard to package products suggests that this model will not be viable in the medium term.

The publishing industry must assimilate the idea of selling before publishing into its DNA. It is likely that, in the future, paper and digital will coexist, and books will be sold through multiple channels, in hybrid formats. Subscription platforms have discouraged piracy. They have taken root in the musical and audiovisual spheres, so why not in the publishing world, too? Sooner or later, we will have a kind of Netflix for books.

Exports have fallen by 26%, and look like they will drop even further. Books are sent to Latin America to be stored in depositories, so they are not real sales. If the payments do not come in, we run the risk of our assets becoming fixed. Sending twenty copies of each book to Mexico makes no economic sense. The print-on-demand system could be part of the solution; this way, only bits, rather than atoms, have to travel. Amazon already offers thousands of print-on-demand books. Bibliomanager, meanwhile, is a print-on-demand platform created by international partners. Its aim is to help more books reach more people and places in less time and with lower costs.

Retrat de Patrici Tixis Portrait of Patrici Tixis.

Patrici Tixis 
Chair of the Catalonia Book Chamber. Chair of the Guild of Publishers of Catalonia.

This is a wonderful time for the publishing sector. These two years of pandemic have changed our habits. Books have come back to the forefront and occupy the position they deserve within the cultural entertainment scene. It is highly significant that, in 2020, when book shops were closed for almost three months, sales were the same as the previous year. 

This upwards trend was confirmed in 2021, and we had our best year for sales since 2008, with growth of 20% (not counting textbooks). What will happen in 2022? It will be hard to maintain this rate of growth, but we have to try and consolidate it, and this is what seems to have happened in the first few months of the year.

This has also been an opportunity for book shops, which became a kind of out-of-hours pharmacy for emotional health during the pandemic. Surveys show that 79% of readers prefer to buy from a local book shop. Small book shops were having difficulties keeping up with the sector’s growth, but now they have caught up. Anyway, it is unlikely that we will see 20% growth this year like last year, but the most important thing is to consolidate the progress we made in 2021.

Retrat de Margarita Guerrero Portrait of Margarita Guerrero.

Margarita Guerrero
Head of Partner and Publisher Relations at Readl. She has been responsible for content acquisition, business development and digital distribution at Bookwire, and international digital commerce at Penguin Random House.

Web3, based on blockchain technology, poses a challenge to our current internet model, which is controlled by the major platforms. Blockchain proposes a decentralised system, where there is no body or organisation directing traffic or interaction and where users can interact on an equal footing in any transactional environment.

From this context Readl has emerged. It offers a future for the publishing world based on the creation of NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Readl is a digital book publishing platform that uses its smart contracts to certify unique ownership of each copy. All of this is about digital property. As soon as you certify digital ownership of a book, you can resell it, because it is recorded on the blockchain as exclusively yours. In turn, the publisher and the creator of the book can receive the royalties owed to them for each resale. Blockchain technology can perpetuate the monetisation of intellectual property, because all transactions are recorded and traceable.

With the current model, data is centralised in few hands, while with blockchain, all transactions are public. Web3, blockchain and NFTs are paving the way for authors, publishers and readers to be the stars in digital ownership and community.

Retrat de Neus Chordà Portrait of Neus Chordà.

Neus Chordà 
Book marketing.

I have been working in the Catalan publishing sector since 1979. At that time, though there were authors who sold a lot of books, there was no such thing as a celebrity author. Back then, no publishing project could begin without its viability being assessed and its economic journey being confirmed to be feasible. Today, we see publishing projects with more heart than economic analysis.

Over the years, the sector has improved a lot in many aspects. Rights are respected more: a printing certificate has been implemented to guarantee transparency in print runs and in payment of royalties, the Spanish Reproduction Rights Centre (CEDRO) has been created, etc. Catalan authors have had access to important improvements, though some still publish books without any advance. And translators’ work is valued much more.

Book marketing has changed a lot. In the ’80s, we sent a list of new releases by post to the press. The current rate of publication has also led to the professionalisation of book marketing. Today, the publisher cannot talk to the authors every day, and it is often press officers who have the most direct contact with them. We act like psychologists without ever having studied to do so.

Today, everything is expected to be much more immediate.

Retrat de Daniel Fernández Portrait of Daniel Fernández.

Daniel Fernández 
Publisher at Edhasa. Chair of the Federation of Guilds of Publishers of Spain.

For a while, people were saying that the book publishing sector would end up like the music industry, but for now, we have resisted the internet tsunami. A good indicator of this is the fact that banks have not taken funding away from companies in the sector, because book publishing is viewed as a solid business, even if the profit margins are low.

So, what effect has the pandemic had? If we take stock of the book industry – the most important cultural sector in Spain, as it is the one that makes the most money and contributes the most to the State’s coffers – we will see that physical books have resisted over this time, largely thanks to online sales. Overall, we can say that turnover has increased for book shops. However, this piece of information must be counterbalanced by the fact that exports, especially to Latin America, have fallen by 30%. If 70% of the average publisher’s sales are on the national market and the other 30% in Latin America, we can see that this reduction is significant, but has been neutralised somewhat by sales on the domestic market.

Spain and Italy are the European countries that have recorded the biggest growth in book sales following the pandemic. This has not happened in France or Germany, which are more stable markets than our own. Here, unfortunately, 35% of the population never buy books of their own volition.

Retrat de Carlota Torrents Portrait of Carlota Torrents.

Carlota Torrents 
Literary agent. Deputy director of the Publishing master’s degree programme at the Barcelona School of Business.

There is a sense of euphoria in the sector, which can be detected in the creation of publishing start-ups and new book shops. It is all a bit dizzying. In a more culturally mature society, this would be normal, but here in Catalonia, this expansion is built on a certain level of instability.

The publishing sector in Catalan is polarised. The bulk is made up of small publishers with limited means that are looking to make a niche for themselves in a market dominated by large publishing groups, which can afford to release a book on the market with a print run of 3,000 copies.

There are small, independent houses that publish in Catalan with print runs of 500 copies. In some cases, these publishers are more professional than they were a few years ago, but they are still reluctant to deal with literary agents, due to amateurism or inexperience. Overall, over the last few years, some things have improved, especially practices. Publishers are more polished now, and as a literary agent, I have seen that they have better relationships with authors.

The young people on the Publishing master’s course today are as idealistic as we were when we started out, but they are more natural entrepreneurs and have fewer barriers to starting up their own project. Our job is to make them understand that publishing must be sustainable as a business. Over the twenty-five years of this course, around fifty publishing houses have been founded by alumnae, half of which in the last ten years. A parallel phenomenon has been seen in the Escola de Llibreria [Bookselling School], which has led to the opening of new book shops. Making books is easy. Selling them takes work.

Retrat de Bernat Ruiz Domènech Portrait of Bernat Ruiz Domènech.

Bernat Ruiz Domènech
Publisher and publishing consultant. Lecturer on the postgraduate course at the Escola de Llibreria and on the Recommending Reading course at the University of Barcelona.

Following the pandemic, the big publishing groups have recovered, but the small ones are struggling more and have seen significant falls in income. Furlough schemes have helped to save companies, but the whole sector has a structural problem: the market stopped growing years ago. The optimism in the air throughout the sector is unfortunately not backed up by facts. The figures from 2020 and 2021 are not reliable indicators, because the exceptional circumstances skew the picture. There is one particularly worrying statistic: in the last ‘normal’ year we had, 2019, turnover in the sector was the same as it was in 1996. Why is it that, in 25 years, taking into account inflation of 60%, the industry has failed to grow in terms of income?

What has gone wrong? First, the distribution system needs an overhaul. Up until now, it has consisted of flooding book shops with titles and hoping that few come back. A lot of copies are printed, but we cannot print readers. In fact, the number of people who read for pleasure has only grown by 0.5%. Reading promotion campaigns do not work, because reading is not an imperative; it becomes attractive when a habit is created.

Book shops have been undergoing an erosion process that started before the crisis. They are still in the majority, but in relative terms, as they now make up just 40% of sales. The book sector is competing to retain an audience who can now find fiction on Netflix or in audiobooks. Even if it might seem that we are maintaining each other, all cultural sectors are actually competing for the public’s attention, and in absolute terms, we are losing ground. Things are going well for some publishers, but the general trends in the sector are cause for concern, and we will not be able to embark on a thorough analysis until 2023, once we have returned to a certain degree of normality.

Retrat de Reina Duarte Portrait of Reina Duarte.

Reina Duarte
Director of publications at Editorial Edebé.

Children’s and young adult literature is thriving, probably the most it has in the last thirty years. We have reached high standards of professionalism throughout the book value chain. We have left amateurism behind, and many illustrators, authors and publishers can now make a living from their work. We have also gone past that type of children’s literature with a moral or lesson behind it as its only purpose.

Our authors and artists have gone international, through translation into other languages. The prestige this has given them has generated more appreciation from the media, which has abandoned that patronising idea that making children’s and young adult books is a capricious, feminine task. In this regard, the best-selling Harry Potter series marked a turning point in publishing houses’ perception of this kind of book, as they realised that it was highly profitable. This led to more marketing efforts being made and better care being taken when launching books that could make as much or the same profits as literature for adults.

The months of lockdown helped families to rediscover reading together, and this has been a great opportunity. There is still plenty of room for improvement and growth, though.

Retrat de Lluís Morral Portrait of Lluís Morral.

Lluís Morral 
Bookseller at Laie.

After 37 years of working as a bookseller, I get the feeling that the publishing world is suffering from some level of intrusion. Why does every social media star have to publish a book if they are not a writer? If they are successful on Instagram or TikTok, what do they gain from publishing a book? The only sales argument their publishers put forward is that they have a million followers on social media: a purely commercial reason.

In the last ten years, independent publishing houses have accumulated momentum and prestige. Some of these publishers have covered neglected niches, and independent book shops have welcomed them with open arms. This has encouraged anyone and everyone to set up their own publishing house. Some of these new publishers have stuck to publishing new editions of classics, which are in the public domain because their copyright has expired, so they are cheap to produce. But what is the point of publishing a sixth translation of Treasure Island or ten editions of Kafka’s The Trial? It feels like publishers are backing books that are cheap but do not offer anything new.

Another scourge is the number of publishing houses that carry out covert self-publishing, because they charge the authors to publish their work, and in most cases, they publish books that make no sense in a book shop. When it became clear that book shops had survived the pandemic and had even got stronger, a generalised euphoria erupted throughout the sector, and that triggered an absurd avalanche of new publications.

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