By Dr Millicent Weber
The decade that was
While for many reasons the new millennium seemed to threaten the demise of print, what we've seen instead has been a diversification of the market and the formats available.
On the production side, looking top-down at the publishing industry, there's been significant conglomeration, and multinationals dominate the market share for print, electronic, and audio publishing. But this is not the full story. The last two decades have seen niche and independent publishing thrive. Self-publishing has driven a surge in titles published across a number of genres. Meanwhile home-made audiobooks and ebooks are circulating at massive rates, both through and outside of mainstream retailers.
Like other forms of participation in cultural production, it’s undoubtedly true that many of the changes in the publishing industry over the last decade have been directly facilitated by the prevalence of increasingly affordable technology, as well as by the transition from wholly analogue to increasingly digital circulation and consumption. It’s a lot easier to distribute a self-published ebook through, say, Wattpad or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, or indeed to write and then sell a print-on-demand title, than it was to distribute hardcopies in the past.
On the consumption side, audiences are neither eschewing print, nor rejecting electronic publishing. Rather, we're seeing a diversification of tastes and habits, with readers engaging with literature across a variety of platforms and mediums—not only print, electronic, or audio, but also through social media, live events, participatory fan practices, etc. Looking specifically at ebook and audiobook consumption is tricky, not least because the data on sales is patchy when you move away from physical bookstores as retailers, but audiobooks’ popularity in particular tends to correlate pretty well with growing smartphone usage. The work that I’ve done interviewing and surveying writers’ festival audiences has shown that readers value the flexibility of these offerings, and are generally pretty savvy in how and why they engage with books, reading, and other forms of participation in literary culture. In other words, books still thrive as a means of communication and cultural engagement, but people use these books in the ways that best suit them.
Prediction for 2020-2029
Audiobooks will, I think, continue to grow and will then plateau, and ebooks will retain a steady market share similar to what they have now. It also seems likely that print will remain relatively steady. Niche sub-genres and independent publishing practices will continue to proliferate and consolidate, and it will be very interesting to see which sub-genres blow up big. In 2011, 50 Shades of Grey—which of course started its life as Twilight fan-fiction—spawned a whole new subgenre of titles, and there’s no doubt that there will be other equally big surprises in the next ten years.
The last decade has been a tricky one for publishers, librarians, industry data aggregators, and of course researchers like me, who’ve all had to try and grapple with a quickly changing publishing landscape, but at the end of the day people still write and read—just in slightly different contexts. I’d be very surprised to see that changing in the near future. Anyone who’s read Harry Potter and the portrait of what looked like a large pile of ash would, I think, agree that the computers aren’t taking over any time soon.
Dr Millicent Weber is a Lecturer in English in the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. She wrote a piece for Overland earlier this year on audiobooks and literature in this post-digital age. You can read that here.