The Business of Books: Long Live the Book!

For the inaugural Business of Books blog post, GrubStreet’s Founder and Executive Director Eve Bridburg talks to publishing expert Kristen McLean about the fate of physical books, the future of audiobooks and podcasts, and most importantly what this all means for writers like you.   

When I returned to GrubStreet in 2010 after five years of working as a literary agent at the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Agency (now Aevitas), the conversation in publishing swirled around the fate of the physical book. Would it survive? Many predicted that physical books would go the way of horses and carriages. In fact, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab, predicted in August of that year that the physical book would be dead within five years.  At GrubStreet, we hedged our bets, being the print book lovers that we are, and created a tote bag that read: “The book is dead. Long live the book."  

As we enter a new decade, I thought I’d check in on the health of the physical book with one of the smartest publishing experts I know: Kristen McLean. Currently the Executive Director of Business Development at The NPD Group, a global research and data company, a big part of her job involves thinking deeply about the publishing industry and where it’s heading. Over twenty-five years, in a career spanning bookselling, publicity, trade association management and now research and analysis, Kristen has experienced the publishing landscape from almost every angle, which gives her a unique perspective. 

Happily, the dire predictions about the demise of the print book haven’t panned out.  

The Kindle, released in 2007, did indeed fuel early and rapid e-book market growth which reached almost fifty percent of the total market in certain areas of fiction — like Romance and Mystery — between 2012 and 2013, but after that ebook shares started to drop again.  E-books are currently about forty-two percent of the fiction market, and seventeen percent of the overall market, down from twenty-eight percent of the overall market in 2013.  

According to Kristen, this decline has everything to do with the rise of smartphones. The first iPhone was released the same year as the Kindle, but it took a few years to truly gain traction. Once it did, the Kindle started to become less relevant. Old Kindles didn’t get replaced, and today there’s an overall decline in the sale of new Kindles. The digital content that’s winning right now is content that plays well on smartphones: short-form narrative and audiobooks.  “Audiobooks are a way better digital format for books than e-books. They compete better on the smartphone,” Kristen said. 

The good news for us book nerds is that print books still rule. It should be noted, however, that overall the book market itself has been flat for the last decade.  According to Kristen: “It’s a big mature market with a four hundred year old technology at its heart! Turns out the print book works really well with our brains.”  Any changes within it have to do with the way people are reading and what they’re reading rather than overall growth in the number of books being sold. 

As for reading trends, Kristen reports that nonfiction is currently outselling fiction, and graphic novels especially for young adults are really hot. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series has sold twenty million copies.  Manga, Japanese comics, are on the rise as well, driven by girls, young women, and readers who become interested after watching their Anime counterpart on streaming services like Hulu.  

Where Kristen sees the potential of expanding the market and reaching new audiences is in audiobooks, where she predicts sales will outpace e-books within three years. There’s also new audience growth in podcasts (these listeners are also picking up audiobooks).

At GrubStreet, we’re excited to be leaning into this future by building a podcast studio in our new space where our students will be able to create podcasts or record their books.  (If you’re interested in getting started sooner, we’re already offering podcast classes at GrubStreet regularly.) 

Of course, we’re also excited to be partnering with Porter Square Books.  As print books have thrived, so have Boston’s independent bookstores. They’ve become important gathering places for convening and conversation, and we look forward to all the ways in which including a bookstore in our next chapter of life will deepen our programming, connect writers and readers, and add dimension and joy to everything we do.  

In the meantime, this is all good news for writers. We get to keep our beloved physical books while making our writing available to potential new audiences in the form of audiobooks and podcasts. In short, whatever format you're writing for, there's an audience of readers and listeners waiting for your words.

 In the coming months of 2020,  I’ll be checking back in with Kristen to discuss more publishing trends as well as nerding out on book production and sales. Upcoming topics include:

  • Celebrity BookClubs 2.0. The Rise of the celebrity influencer. Who is really moving the needle on book sales and why?  

  • The evolution of entertainment behaviors. Kristen ran a study on how people are spending their time and money. How does reading and listening to stories fit in?

  • Books to market. The complicated story of how a book gets from the author’s desk to a reader’s hands and why that’s an important journey for writers to understand. 

  • How does a book’s success in the marketplace get tracked? And importantly: what isn’t getting tracked, and what does that mean for writers thinking about different publishing options? 

Please do let me know if there’s a related topic you’re interested in hearing more about.  I’d be happy to talk it over with Kristen.   

For more from Eve or to recommend topics for this blog series, follow her or reach out on Twitter at @evebridburg.

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About the Author

Under Eve’s (she/her/hers) leadership, GrubStreet has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. Eve was recently awarded the 2023 WNBA Award by the Woman's National Book Association, an award given every two years to a living American woman who has made exceptional contributions to the book industry beyond the scope of her profession. She is a 2019 Barr Fellow, and having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts and on the Advisory Board of Getting to We, a nonprofit dedicated to civic rights and social action. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (now Aevitas Creatve Management) for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.

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