Evolving world of publishing

I’ve followed Mike Shatzkin for years. Mike offers strategic consulting to the global book publishing business and posts every 4-6 weeks on happenings in that world. His latest post, which considers the end of the general trade publishing, got me thinking.

Mike’s premise is that “General trade publishing will be soon be recognized as an artifact of a trade that no longer exists. It doesn’t make sense any more for the organizing principle for title acquisition and marketing to be “if it works in bookstores, and we are confident we can convince them it will, we can do it”.”

Mike Shatzkin’s article compares the publishing world of the 1990s with today’s environment. I love making diagrams to reflect what’s going on and have attempted to highlight the differences Mike Shatzkin described in the following diagram.

  • It’s no surprise that Amazon is the elephant in the room. We’re all aware of its reach and influence. It operates as a home for writers who self-publish or are hybrid authors and as a publisher with at least 7 imprints. Through its electronic delivery and marketing machine, Amazon bypasses – and reduces the influence of – distributors, wholesalers, bookstore chains and small bookstores. In two earlier posts, I’ve also looked at how Amazon manipulates its best seller lists to feature its own authors. See here and here.
  • Self-publishing is an increasingly viable alternative for authors. In addition, for authors published by the ‘Big 5’, self-publishing offers an alternative source of revenue for books declined by their publishers, a more lucrative option in the face of declining advances, and/or a way to promote their backlists once they regain rights to those books. An increasing share of books are self-published.
  • Self-published authors along with Amazon reach readers directly. They bypass wholesalers and distributors, are infrequently sold through bookstores, and are less likely to be on library shelves.
  • Today, bookstores are roughly 25% of book sales. This means that it’s increasingly difficult for publishers to make the same margins they did in the past publishing a new book.
  • Audience-specific and topic-specific markets – particularly for non-fiction but also for fiction – are the way of the future. Publishers need data and marketing mechanisms to reach them.
  • General trade publishers who created profitable businesses based on selling 80% or more of their titles through bookstores must find, and are finding new mechanisms to reach readers. Unfortunately, Amazon has such a head start that this is a severe uphill climb.
  • E-books have upended the old world. With e-books more than 18 million titles are available at the click of the mouse. As a result older titles are taking a big share of revenue away from new titles.
  • Print on demand changes the need for large print runs. Print-on-demand also means that older titles that might have gone out of print under the 1990s model can in concept remain in print forever.
  • Today, a news event can trigger immediate marketing and sales from the backlist. The emphasis here is on backlist. Such sales undercut the sales of new releases.

Let me add a few of my own thoughts:

  • Bookclubs – remember the book of the month club? – are much less significant than in the past.
  • Between the 1990s and now, several book chains and many small bookstores have disappeared.
  • With the proliferation of cheap books, either through services like BookBub or self-published authors or tools like Amazon Prime, libraries do not have the prominence with readers that they did in the past.
  • Big Box stores sell books at discounted prices. They are one distribution channel Amazon uses to sell print copies of their authors.
  • Through its own pricing strategies, Amazon is training readers to expect cheap books.

According to Mike Shatzkin, all of this means that the notion of ‘general trade publishing’ is almost an anachronism.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Insights from Penguin Random House CEO

Recently, the New York Times featured Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House. Wondering what such an influential member of the publishing industry had to say, I read the article twice.

Some  takeaways for me:

  • “The big [publishing] houses aren’t competing just against one another; they’re vying for the public’s attention against TikTok, Netflix, and Facebook.
  • “The company has grown even more dominant in recent months in part because Ms. McIntosh … foresaw a future in online book sales would vastly outstrip physical retail, but print books would continue to be a popular and lucrative format.”
  • The company invested in warehouses and distribution centres and ships seven days a week, which enables them to react to “upticks in demand for particular titles” – in other words, more of a just in time distribution model, which also cuts down on returns
  • “Penguin Random House has built what is probably the most sophisticated direct-to-consumer online marketing and data operation in the industry.” “This spring, the company upgraded its ability to sell directly from its own website.” Decisions are based on data, not hunches.
  • Alexandra Alter, author of the article, says that the industry has become “more profit focused, consolidated, undifferentiated, and averse to risk”. All of these factors have shifted dollars away from mid-list and debut authors and toward what publishers believe are ‘sure things’ like already proven authors of best sellers and proven topics like WWII. Expect more homogenization of what books are offered.
  • Publishing has “become increasingly reliant on blockbusters.”
  • Publishers have “less control over what readers see online”. Algorithms dominate the market. I wrote about the dominance of Amazon’s own imprints in that online retailer’s top sellers lists. You can check out those articles here and here.
  • Data and marketing control publishing houses, not editors. I encountered the same sentiment when working with senior editorial staff at Lake Union, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints.
  • Digital audiobooks are the fastest growing format in books.
  • “People are buying so many books, that the two biggest printers in the United States can’t produce enough copies.”
  • “The company’s best-selling novel of 2020 is Where the Crawdads Sing — which came out in 2018.” Other top 2020 sellers for Penguin Random House include Little Fires Everywhere (2017) and Becoming (2018). “Every dollar plowed into printing and marketing  older titles comes at the expense of discovering and promoting new writers.”

The turmoil and concentration within the publishing industry is a daunting challenge for authors hoping to break into the market. In some ways, it makes self-publishing seem like the best way to go.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Because Reading is Better With Friends

Mark Watkins is a serial entrepreneur, passionate reader, and creator of the Bookship app, recently shortlisted by The Bookseller for BookTech Company of the Year. As creator of a social reading app, Mark knows more than a thing of two about the topic, so I invited him to add his perspective today on the blog.

Because Reading is Better with Friends by Mark Watkins

Books have always been social. Whether it’s discussing a book in your book club, or just chatting about the latest bestseller at a cocktail party, people love to talk about books. But reading has rarely been social — the experience of reading is typically solitary.

Mobile phones and social media have made most every other activity of life social. Social media is awash in book-related content, from Goodreads reviews to Instagram book cover snapshots and #fridayreads on Twitter. But while that content may inspire you to read a particular book, it usually doesn’t enhance either your relationships or the reading experience itself.

Increasingly people hunger for authentic engagement and meaningful interactions with their friends, family and co-workers. Books provide a natural context for deepening relationships.

I recently read Dune with my son, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City with my daughter, and Wind, Sand and Stars with a dear friend. I read books I wouldn’t have otherwise read, got more from the books I would have read anyway, and deepened my relationships with people I care about.

With those experiences in mind, I created Bookship, a social reading app, so you can share your reading experiences with your family, friends and co-workers, and build deeper relationships through books.

I define Social Reading as the act of collaboratively reading a book with other people, sharing thoughts and experiences along the way. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, traditional book clubs. While writing reviews on a site such as Goodreads is a social act, it’s not what I have in mind here.

A Social Reading experience provides benefits that solo reading does not:

  • It creates and enriches relationships through a shared reading experience
  • It increases knowledge and perspective — other readers will bring knowledge to a book I may not have (especially true for historical fiction!)
  • Gentle peer pressure helps you finish (& start!) hard books

Book clubs have traditionally filled this need. By some estimates 2% of England and 5 million Americans have belonged to a book club. But book clubs have shortcomings. They often devolve into “wine clubs” — books being the pretext for getting together, but only a fraction of the meeting devoted to discussing the book. Many of the thoughts, emotions and reactions are lost between the time the book is read and when the meeting occurs. Often some people cannot attend, and friends separated by distance can’t participate. Because of time limits, not everyone can share their viewpoint to their satisfaction.

Existing solutions

Readers of A Writer of History may have seen these previous posts describing past social reading solutions.

A new generation of services are providing for variants of social reading, with varying degrees of success. Wattpad is a wildly successful social reading & storytelling website/app, with a community of 45 million people. Readers comment “inline” on the text of short stories posted there; authors compete for popularity and feedback. But while engagement is quite high, the content is mostly short stories proprietary to Wattpad; books per se aren’t available, so sharing your experience reading All The Light We Cannot See isn’t possible. Glose is a social eReader app where readers can highlight their favorite passages from books and share with friends. But it requires a proprietary eReader — one has to buy one’s books from Glose — and it is eBook-only. In both cases, comments are typically publicly available, not confined to a private chat area. Book Club by Book Movement (an app for book clubs) is focused more on logistics (scheduling meetings, voting on books) than on discussion, and is only available on iOS, leaving more than half of us unable to participate.

Some common themes emerge: an insistence on a digital / eBook format, proprietary readers and content, and public commentary.

This isn’t how we read. What of the 60% of us who read physical books? Those who get their books from the library? The growing number of us listening to audio books? Those who want a private conversation? We are left out.

We developed Bookship to address these needs. Recognizing the ubiquity of mobile phones and current social media trends, we designed Bookship to be mobile-first, camera friendly, and emoji ready, and available for all major platforms — iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire devices — yet accessible for those reading physical books.

Bookship acts like a virtual book club. Invite people by email and start reading together — it doesn’t matter whether they’re reading the eBook, a physical book or an audiobook. Share thoughts, photos, quotes, and links, and reply to your friends’ posts. You’ll get notifications when your friends post and reminders to keep up with your reading.

We make inventive use of the camera on mobile phones to bridge the gap between the physical world of books and the digital world of social media. For example, you can extract quotes or create virtual highlights from a physical book just by taking a picture of the page.

Bookship can be downloaded at https://www.bookshipapp.com (it’s free), and if you’re interested in more, there’s a short video here: https://youtu.be/1fg20AgXI5U.

Reading is better with friends. Books and social reading have the chance to bring people together in new and interesting ways. We hope Bookship can be a part of that.

Many thanks, Mark, for sharing your passion for reading and your thoughts on social reading. I hope Bookship has great success. By the way, when I asked Mark about the name, he said Bookship, as in “relationship” or “friendship”, but for books :)”

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.