Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing

Johanna Vondeling Posted by Johanna Vondeling, President and Publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Johanna Vondeling, Berrett-Koehler's President and Publisher, joined the company in 2004.  Previously, she served as BK's Vice President for International Sales and Business Development.


Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing

Berrett-Koehler is currently engaged in a strategic planning process—“BK Makes the Future”—designed to help the company achieve growth and long-term sustainability. As part of that process, I composed this list to capture the many tumultuous forces now affecting authors and the publishing industry as a whole. BK and I gratefully welcome your feedback on this list. Is it complete? Which trends are most important? What are the implications of these trends for BK and other publishers? What steps should BK take to adapt to these trends—or to “leapfrog” them? Please feel free to comment on this blog or email [email protected]. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts and insights!

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 leapt into the business of creating and distributing digital content (often coupled with print-on-demand options).[i] [ii] The near-elimination of barriers to entry into the publishing marketplace has produced an ever-increasing flood of information and entertainment options for consumers.[iii]

Moreover, publishers’ primary competition today isn’t other books, but rather other forms of media, such as social media platforms, games, and streaming media. As the presence and relevance of physical retail 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. [iv]

2. Content First

All content producers now need to approach format as a secondary consideration. The innovators are designing work-flows that prioritize the development and (pre-publication) tagging of content irrespective of format, knowing that the eventual outputs could be infinite: Print book? E-book? Online course? Webinar? App? Blog? Tweet? Tagging must be “semantic” (tagged for meaning, not just coincidence of terms), to facilitate discoverability. Content producers must make it as easy as possible for content to be re-purposed by its curators and leveraged and shared by its marketers and distribution partners.

3. Content Marketing

Content is still king. And content marketing (defined as “marketing without marketing, or building soft power and social gravity for a brand through shared values and interests”) is edging out traditional "push marketing" practices. By disseminating great quality and immersive content through social platforms, content producers can market themselves without interrupting consumers with more explicit advertising.[v]

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, nor do most organizations 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

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 increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, and the rise of multimedia and social media, have all been fueling exponential growth in data.[vi] As a result, businesses 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 this 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.[vii] While the growing importance of data analysts should not be under-estimated, 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

The number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2013.[viii] In 2012, mobile subscriptions in China surpassed 1 billion and mobile Web users overtook PC access to the web.[ix] Millions of people in developing countries may never own a book or a computer, but they do own a mobile phone.

To move forward in “mobile optimization” means content must be conceived of and designed 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 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.[x]

6. Disruptions in 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.[xi] We’re witnessing the proliferation of “massive open online courses (“MOOCs”).[xii] Education start-up’s are creating and offering online study groups, flashcards, 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.[xiii] 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 head-first into the growing business of online education.[xiv]

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 “life-long learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.[xv]

7. Strange Bedfellows

Legacy industries, like book publishing, are realizing that they can’t go it alone if they hope to survive and thrive. Many are forming unlikely alliances or funding start-up’s 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 have 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 start-up’s.[xvi] 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.[xvii] Wiley is distributing material from (former competitor) OpenStax College, an open-source platform that makes introductory college textbooks available as free downloads.[xviii]

8. High-Value Networks

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 assistants networks like Task Rabbit. And Amazon successfully launched Audiobook Creation Exchange, a platform that connects freelance narrators of audio books with the owners of content who are looking to publish audio books. 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 like 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 boom in self-publishing, this trend means more opportunities for cultural producers 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.[xix]

10. The Means of Production Goes Hyper-local

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 3-D 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 machines facilitate the printing of out-of-stock and self-published books in physical bookstores and libraries.[xx] 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.


[ii]Ecco, MLB Team Up for E-book Series.” Publishers Weekly. March 20, 2013.

[iii]The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Steve Piersanti. March 6, 2012.

[xi]The Rise of For-Profit Universities and Colleges.” University World News. July 15, 2012.

[xiii]The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

[xv]The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

[xvi] Publishers Lunch. March 7, 2013.

[xvii] Publishers Lunch. March 7. 2013.

[xviii]Wiley, OpenStax Team on College Biology Textbook.” InformationWeek.com. March 11, 2013.

[xx]Just Press Print.” The Economist. February 12, 2010.