Why the Publishing Industry is Thriving (Not Dying)

When I told friends and family that I would be pursuing a graduate degree in book publishing, I was met with varied reactions. Some people thought it sounded wonderful—the perfect niche degree for a bookworm like myself. Many others were surprised and pessimistic: “Isn’t that a dying industry?” I admit it made me question my choice at times. Was I really about to go thousands of dollars into debt to hopefully get a career in an industry that would soon cease to exist? But I’m grateful I trusted my gut and pursued my passions, because, as it turns out, the publishing industry is far from dead. In fact, more people than ever are reading. The industry has adapted with the changing world and new technology. Audiobooks and ebooks have expanded the book format, increasing accessibility. Bolstered by social media, celebrity book clubs have become popular again, as Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson join Oprah in encouraging people to read. Now is an exciting time to be in publishing.

Some have claimed that print is dead, but the 687.2 million books sold in 2017 suggest otherwise. According to Publishers Weekly, unit sales of books have risen 10.8 percent since 2013, and are up nearly 2 percent from last year. It’s not the biggest jump, but with so many forms of entertainment vying for our attention, even a small amount is a reason to celebrate. Growth is also being seen across several genres, with sales made through retail and club channels rising 3.5 percent. Literary fiction saw sales increase by 2.1 percent, hardcover sales by 3.6 percent, and paperback sales are up 1.5 percent. Juvenile nonfiction saw the biggest gain, up 7.8 percent from last year. This is especially promising because it proves children are still reading despite access to iPhones and iPads. Instilling a love of reading in children is the best way to create future adult readers. Even poetry is showing signs of life. Rupi Kaur’s collections of poems (Land of Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers) have sold over three million copies combined. You can’t argue with stats like these.

Another thing I hear is that nobody joins book clubs anymore. Oprah paved the way for celebrity book clubs when she launched hers in 1996 (persevering past the James Frey debacle), but few have ever taken advantage until recently. Instagram and the popular bookstagram hashtag may have something to do with it. There are currently 23.9 million photos associated with the hashtag. Hermoine herself (and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador), Emma Watson, launched an online book club in January 2016 called Our Shared Shelf that recently promoted Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. With nearly 48 million followers on Instagram, Watson has a wide reach and the potential to create millions of new readers. Her club already has the largest following on Goodreads, with nearly 220 thousand followers in addition to having 358 thousand followers on Instagram. Last year, actress Emma Roberts also founded an online book club called Belletrist, which features a new book as well as an independent bookstore every month. Over 188 thousand people follow Belletrist on Instagram, and Robert’s 12.3 million followers aren’t too shabby either. Reese Witherspoon’s online book club, Reese Witherspoon Book Club, has 459 thousand followers (her personal account has a following of nearly 15 million) and chooses a new book every month. Witherspoon’s recent book-to-TV adaptation, Big Little Lies, was a huge hit for HBO, with a second season underway. Another Witherspoon book club choice, Little Fires Everywhere, a New York Times bestseller, will soon be a series on Hulu, after an intense network bidding war.

Then there is the so-called digital threat. When ebooks first hit the market, people gasped and said it was the end of print, but print sales are actually outselling ebooks, and the publishing industry has instead embraced and adapted to new formats. If people don’t have time to read, they often have time to listen. Audiobooks are perfect for passing time spent stuck in traffic. Ebooks are light and easy to carry, can hold multiple titles, and can make reading a 1000-plus word book much more enjoyable. Genre fiction has become especially popular on the ebook format, with many readers devouring mystery after mystery and romance after romance on their ereading devices. The number of people checking out ebooks from the library has risen. A survey conducted by digital library checkout app Overdrive found that fifty-eight library systems across the country have each loaned out over a million ebooks and audiobooks combined. Some are even exceeding 2 or 3 million. The Multnomah County Library system reported a 28 percent growth in ebook and audiobook loans from 2016 to 2017. It makes sense that ebooks and audiobooks would be popular at libraries, as it’s hard to beat the convenience of not having to physically pick up and return books.

Overall, the book format hasn’t changed much since the invention of the printing press, but the book publishing industry has adapted to changing times and has taken advantage of new technologies. Social media provides visibility in a crowded marketplace. Oprah, Reece, and the Emmas use their celebrity as a tool for encouraging more people to read. Libraries provide access to ebook and audiobook titles for millions of readers. Print sales are on the rise, proving that print is most certainly not dead. As long as people still love books (and the numbers suggest they do), the publishing industry will continue to thrive.

The Generosity of Time: Editing at Small Presses

Editing processes at small presses often differ from those at the Big Five and their imprints. A manuscript acquired by one of the Big Five is one in an assembly line of hundreds. A manuscript acquired at a small press is like a first-born child—they’re spoiled with attention by their admiring parents.

Here at Ooligan, we only publish three books a year. Every manuscript we acquire is treated with extra special love and care, and receives developmental edits, line edits, and several rounds of copyedits. Editing at Ooligan is also a learning experience for the students who run the press, and every round not only improves our books, they also make us better editors. It’s a system that works—proven by the starred reviews and awards Ooligan books have won over the years.

Ooligan’s system is also similar to many other small presses that aren’t graduate programs. In the article “The Half-Open Door” from What Editors Do, Graywolf executive editor Jeff Shotts describes the benefits of the time and patience of the editing process at his house, which generally publishes just thirty books a year. It’s a large contrast to the Big Five publishers, which print around three thousand titles a year. Those titles may only see one or two rounds of edits before heading to the printer—not for a lack of love from the editor, but from a lack of time and resources, which are spread thin over dozens of books. “Literary editing requires a patience that most commercial publishers cannot afford,” writes Shotts. This is especially true in cases of extreme publishing—a practice many large publishers use to churn out books as quickly as possible in order to fill year-end gaps in product. “What smaller, independent, and other nonprofit publishers can’t provide in terms of high advances or expensive marketing resources, they can make up with the generosity of time.” It’s time, Shotts explains, that allows editors to work closely with authors to create a high quality book, even if it doesn’t end up being the most lucrative. He adds that a book’s success should be measured by its impact on readers, not by sales, though indie publishers aren’t immune to success.

Because many small presses only publish a few titles a year, they get to be pickier about what they publish. They aren’t driven by current trends, but instead by the quality of the content and the feelings it stirs in their editors. Editors are able to devote their time and resources to the books they feel passionate about and the authors they believe in. Authors are encouraged and praised. A relationship between an author and editor can be formed, as opposed to the “musical-chairs world of big-time publishing,” writes Graywolf founder Scott Walker in his article “Editing for a Small Press” from Editors on Editing. A world “in which an author’s book is liable to have three or four editors…between the times the book is accepted and published.” At Ooligan Press, project managers work closely with authors and take part in not just editing, but all other aspects of the publishing process, including marketing and design. Ooligan’s staff changes when new students enter and when they graduate, but the enthusiasm never wanes.

Editing requires loving what you do, no matter if you work for a Big Five publisher or a small press run by two people or one run by students. But the benefits of small press editing cannot be denied. It’s something for authors to consider when pitching proposals: Do you want your book to be one of three, or one of a thousand?