The production of books has never been a straightforward business, but it has always been an exciting one. Concepts and stories can be held in your hands, their ideas expanding your knowledge and imagination. Printed texts have actually been around for centuries. The Diamond Sūtra is considered the oldest book in existence, dated back to 11 May 868. Its dedication states that the contained Buddhist wisdom was intended for ‘universal distribution’ and therein lies the beauty of books, as well as the trends of the publishing industry.
They’re a vessel for thoughts that can then be carried to others all over the world. However much that purpose is being pushed to its limits today, the value of publishing is still immense, if complicated. Let’s take a closer look at where the publishing industry and its trends actually stand.
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According to The Publishers Association Yearbook 2018:
- Overall UK book sales dropped by 4% to £3603 million
- As physical books sold 5% less
- But digital book sales increased by 5%
- Another positive point of interest lies in the 8% rise in total book sales since 2014[i]
What this says about the publishing industry is that, while it has definitely grown over the years, the landscape is now troubled. Is it that people are reading less? Or buying less?
The evolution of digital technology has added several more options alongside traditional paper books. The popularity of ebooks and audiobooks is always on the rise, but so are online retailers, like AbeBooks and Amazon, that offer cheaper copies of physical publications. Consumers seeking cheaper or even free options have many reasons to turn to the internet and not a local bookstore.
The environmental impact is another major concern of the publishing industry and consumer public. According to a 2016 Publishers Weekly report, paper manufacturers noted a decline in publishers’ use of recycled paper, from 22% in 2012 down to only 12% in 2014. The problem comes down to the availability and cost of such paper, whether recycled or certified.
Big book publishers – Penguin, Hachette, Faber and Faber – are known for implementing a degree of sustainable printing standards, but the volatile industry as a whole is still struggling to meet its goals. Complicating the matter even further are publishers and paper manufacturers less concerned with being eco-friendly and more with making a profit.
And so, many readers who do care about the environment rely on eBooks as the relatively greener and simpler choice. They, of course, have a footprint of their own, depending on user habits. At the end of the day, the solution seems to lie in establishing – and enforcing – a balance, even if it means sacrificing some luxuries. This last part is what the industry and a portion of its public are struggling with the most.
Putting the doom and gloom aside, it’s worth noting what parts of the publishing industry have in fact been doing well. The PA Yearbook highlights that:
- Fiction’s most popular genres in 2018 were Crime (43%), Thriller (38%) and Bestsellers (25%), the last not exactly a genre but a good indicator of how public opinion can direct book sales. [ii]
- In terms of non-fiction, it was Biography (32%), History (27%) and Food & Drink (25%) that dominated the market.[iii]
- Another fascinating development is how audiobook sales skyrocketed by 42.8% since 2017 to a total revenue of £69 million. [iv]
While hardly the only interesting facts, these are enough to discern a few things about readership trends of UK publications.
Firstly, the convenience of simply listening to a book, instead of holding and squinting at a page or screen, is picking up heat. If this pattern continues, the printing and eBook business will be squeezed even further.
Secondly, readers crave the mystery and suspense of whodunits more than anything else. But they also enjoy learning about the lives of real people and past cultures. It seems people are eager for thrills and knowledge, which would, of course, build up an appetite, some extra flavour and colour in their lives.
Finally, readers like to be a part of the whole, sharing good literary experiences and trying out what everybody else is raving about. The book industry isn’t just a business. It’s a community.
What to make of all this? Literature plays an integral part in society, both as a way for people to escape from their reality and to see the collective desires and mentalities of their communities, whether domestic or global. The publishing industry remains a powerhouse, but is having a hard time hefting the digital and ecological weight on its shoulders, among other things. If it’s to triumph, it has to keep adapting to the changing world and trends around it. Fortunately, it still has a massive, if demanding, loyal audience pleading for it not to give up the search for viable solutions. Yes, books are life.
- [i] (PA Publishing Yearbook 2018, 8)
- [ii] (PA Publishing Yearbook 2018, 25)
- [iii] (PA Publishing Yearbook 2018, 25)
- [iv] (PA Publishing Yearbook 2018, 14)
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