Books

The State of Publishing, As Seen From the Inside: Notes from the 2024 Publishers Weekly U.S. Book Show

On Wednesday, about 1,000 publishing industry professionals—agents, editors, publicists, and marketers chief among them—gathered at NYU’s Kimmel Center for Student Life for the 2024 Publishers Weekly U.S. Book Show. Now in its fourth year, the U.S. Book Show sprang up during the pandemic after Reed International kiboshed Book Expo America (BEA) for good. Whereas BEA primarily served to provide publishers with an opportunity to make booksellers, librarians, and the media aware of their forthcoming titles, the U.S. Book Show bills itself as “a conference for publishing industry professionals” focused on professional development and continuing education. Having worked adjacent to the industry for the last 15 years, I found it to be an interesting snapshot of where publishing is, what folks are thinking about, and what the near future of books might look like.

The State of the Union

It’s a business conference cliché to declare that your industry is undergoing significant changes and navigating a period of transition, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In her welcome address, Jennifer Weltz, the president of the Association of American Literary Agents (which co-sponsored the event), celebrated an opportunity for industry pros to come together to discuss the “fast, changing publishing environment.” Lucia Rahilly of McKinsey & Company, who moderated the CEO roundtable that kicked off the day’s programming, echoed this sentiment and opened the discussion by asking panelists how they see the state of book publishing while the industry is “in the throes of rapid change and technical innovation.”

Scholastic CEO Peter Warwick responded first, stating that while sales are “in a bit of a down cycle” coming off the pandemic-era boom, the product itself is strong. Books have never been more diverse, and publishers have never been more engaged and (literally) invested in funding literacy efforts and defending freedom of expression. Baker & Taylor’s Aman Kochar affirmed that “diverse stories where children and families can see themselves” aren’t just capital-G Good, they are also good for business. “Lived, authentic stories is where we’re seeing a lot of growth.”

It’s not just diversity of content that is making a difference but increased diversity in how books are made and consumed as well. Abrams CEO Mary McAveney expressed optimism about the “real groundswell of independent publishers and independent authors finding their way through to the consumer” and what traditional publishers can learn from the trend, and Simon & Schuster’s Jonathan Karp celebrated the way that audiobooks are expanding the industry:

“Generally, the outlook is bright because more people are reading…for the half of the population that doesn’t want to buy regular books, audiobooks provide an opportunity for growth.”

And it’s a big opportunity. In a presentation titled “Spotlight on Spotify,” Owen Smith, VP of Product & Technology at the media streaming service, noted the platform’s nascent success with audiobooks and revealed that about 25% of Spotify Premium subscribers have engaged with audiobooks. That’s higher than I would have guessed—the program has only been live for six months—and leaves a whole lot of ceiling.

The AI-Generated Elephant in the Room

As the CEO roundtable progressed, Rahilly asked Karp, Kochar, McAveney, and Warwick how they expect generative AI, which she called “ the elephant in the room,” to affect the industry, and how fast. Opinions were mixed. 

Publishers have enormous amounts of data and a dearth of time and resources to analyze that data, and this is exactly the kind of thing generative AI does well and quickly.

Warwick balanced his supply-side concerns about protecting authors’ and publishers’ intellectual property with an acknowledgment that on the demand side, AI will enable publishers to find myriad new ways to reach customers and develop new readers. Karp, who likened AI not to an elephant but a cicada—“Lots of buzzing and lots of screwing,”—shared Warwick’s view that AI will allow publishers to work more efficiently and expressed hope that it will enable workers to do more interesting, creative work. He balanced this with skepticism about the long-term impact, saying, “I personally don’t think it’s going to blow up the world.”

While Karp doesn’t “think it’s worth going to DEFCON 5 yet” (I feel compelled to note that DEFCON 1 is actually the highest-level warning), McAveney likened the introduction of generative AI to “the birth of the internet” in terms of the scope of its impact. (For my money, she’s right.) McAveney noted that publishers have enormous amounts of data and a dearth of time and resources to analyze that data, and this is exactly the kind of thing generative AI does well and quickly. Keith Riegert, CEO of Ulysses Press, drove this point home later in the day when, during a presentation titled “Getting Started with AI,” he demonstrated using ChatGPT to write code to combine and analyze sales data from multiple spreadsheets. Riegert, who has been encouraging employees at his companies to utilize AI as they complete daily tasks, reported a 20% increase in efficiency. To put it another way, for every five employees using AI, you gain a sixth for the cost of an AI subscription (about $20/month). 

Repeating the now-familiar adage that “AI won’t take your job, but someone who knows how to use AI will,” Riegert exhorted industry leaders to create AI roadmaps for their companies, as the tools are only becoming more powerful and sophisticated. Anyone who’s been paying attention can tell you that LLMs are much better than they were just six months ago, and if Riegert’s sources are right, the next two years will see AI models that are a thousand times smarter than the average human. Karp and his fellow skeptics might consider taking a page from Penguin Random House’s book (Bertelsmann has wasted no time incorporating AI into workflows) and heeding Riegert’s closing warning: “Hold onto your butts.” 

What’s the Deal with Discovery? 

Outside of AI, industry leaders identified marketing as the biggest challenge facing their businesses. Abrams’s McAveney, who began her career as a marketer, summed it up: “It is the function of publishing to marry those books we’re publishing to the readers” and expressed concern that too often, publishers abdicate the responsibility to booksellers and librarians. OverDrive CEO Steve Potash, who gave a talk called “Harnessing Trusted Influencers to Boost Book Sales,” sees that not as a problem but an opportunity. The titular influencers he referred to? They’re not TikTokers or Bookstagram stars but librarians, educators, and institutional buyers in corporate and government settings who decide which titles make it into digital collections that reach hundreds of millions of readers each year. Potash shared compelling data that showed that when a library or institution features a book in a prominent place or special event, retail sales of the title also increase substantially. If you’re in a position to make selections for programs like that, brace yourself for an incoming wave of emails from marketers who want to know how they can get you to choose their books for your company- or city-wide read.

Social media influencer marketing also continues to be meaningful, and Karp said it is “galvanizing because it’s allowing word of mouth to spread in a kinetic way.” It’s a double-edged sword, though, because it also feeds into the sources of entertainment that books have to compete with for consumers’ attention. At Scholastic, Warwick explained, this means “what we have to think about is a virtual circle” between books and screens. More on that to come.

And what of the algorithms? Speakers were split on the utility and impact of algorithmic and AI-generated recommendations on book sales. During the CEO roundtable, Warwick acknowledged that AI has been powerful in facilitating personalization in other areas of content (music, news, etc) and expressed concern that personalization leads to categorization in which users are served only specific types of content, leading them down rabbit holes and into increasingly polarized positions. He isn’t worried about this happening in books, though, because of the eco-system of booksellers, librarians, and educators that continue to bring a human touch. 

In his own talk, Spotify’s Owen Smith showed compelling data that AI- and algorithmically-generated recommendations are actually good for publishers. In fact, half of audiobook discovery on the platform comes from algorithmic and editorially recommended titles. Two recent examples: after RuPaul appeared on the popular podcast Call Her Daddy, Spotify recommended his new memoir to listeners, which resulted in a 34% increase in engagement with the audiobook week-over-week; promoting Bruce Springsteen’s memoir to fans of his music led to a 170% increase in audiobook listening over the previous month. A nice bump for a title that came out in 2016! Additionally, Spotify’s data show that 20% of users who “pre-save” an audiobook (the streaming equivalent of preordering a title before its release) have never engaged with audiobooks on the platform before, indicating that the service is actually growing the market for audiobook consumption. 

Whether these results will be exceptions or the rule remains to be seen, but Smith made a strong case for the utility of recommendations tailored to listeners’ interests, habits, and even the kinds of devices and locations in which they listen. Users can expect to see audiobook-related features similar to Spotify’s personalized daylists and AI DJ coming soon. AI-generated recommendations may not have the personal touch or romantic shine we often attribute to booksellers’ and librarians’ interactions with readers, but it’s hard to argue with results like these, and it doesn’t have to be a binary. As McAneney put it, “Any way you can get people to discover books is a win.” 

It’s Not Art vs Commerce, It’s Art + Commerce.

The publishing industry runs on vocational awe, and most people in the business genuinely love books and sincerely believe in their importance and ability to change the world. This affection for the written word and appreciation for literary art is often in tension with the fact that, well, publishers are businesses that have to make money and generate value for their stakeholders. The simultaneous friction and symbiosis between art and commerce came up on every panel I attended. No one captured it better than Baker & Taylor’s Aman Kochar, who stated that publishers should invest in literacy efforts and work to make books affordable and accessible to all communities because it’s good for society and also because it helps secure the future of the business. 

“We want to develop lifelong learners so they grow up to spend their disposable income on books because they believe it’s part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Scholastic’s Peter Warwick agreed, stating that the ability to “on the one hand marry creativity…within an organization that’s healthy and can make money” is critical for young people starting out in the industry today. 

The marriage of art and commerce is perhaps most visible in the ongoing proliferation of adaptations. Warwick cited a spike in sales of Goosebumps books after a new show premiered on Disney+ as one example of the aforementioned “virtuous circle” between books and screens that is motivating many publishers to pursue series they develop into multimedia franchises. Literary agents and film/TV producers on a panel titled “Greenlighting 2.0” drove the point home, emphasizing that Hollywood has always been risk-averse, and studios and streamers are especially interested in safe bets right now as they recover from the post-pandemic comedown and last year’s writers’ and actors’ strikes. 

Agent Lucy Stille, who represents David Baldacci, Julia Alvarez, and Sandra Cisneros, explained that established IP (intellectual property) is crucial for streamers because whereas traditional networks commit only to producing a pilot episode, streamers commit to a whole season at a time, and IP allows them to see what the whole season or multi-season series could look like. While Netflix and its cohort used unique original programming to break out and make their bones, they are reverting to more predictable mainstream content—Jack ReacherJack RyanSuits, etc.—in efforts to keep audiences engaged. 

What does this mean for readers hoping to see more of their favorites brought to the big screen? According to Dorothy Vickery, director of development at Jane Startz Productions, it’s good news for rom-com fans. As we emerge from the pandemic and navigate a fraught political environment, audiences are looking for lighter fare and optimistic outcomes. Mac Hawkins, founder of the literary IP scouting firm Pragmatic, emphasized the challenge of threading the needle to find programming that is broad and generic but also stands out, what Vickery described as “a familiar story told in a completely new and exciting way.” Hawkins also noted that speculative elements can help make IP feel new and exciting, and Joe Veltre, head of books and media rights at the Gersh Agency, agreed, noting that while studios are always looking for four-quadrant hits, there’s a real appetite for “elevated genre” right now too. And don’t give up hope if your favorite backlist series is still sitting on the shelf. Stille highlighted backlist as a major opportunity; studios and streamers love backlist properties because they have established audiences and are generally cheaper to acquire and produce. As for romantasy? Don’t get your hopes up. The expenses are too high and the results too variable. Fourth Wing and ACOTARmay have started a tidal wave of romantasy books, but the panel thought it was unlikely to result in a wave of adaptations. 

Etc.

I was delighted to find that a good amount of the information from the Book Show’s professional development-focused programming was also relevant to generally interested readers who care about where the industry is going. In addition to what I’ve shared here, there were panels about the soft/interpersonal skills that lead to success and effectiveness in publishing; tools and techniques for increasing diversity and making the industry more accessible; issues in contracts and copyright; personal and professional financial literacy; agent-editor relations; auctions; and the role of sales directors in launching new titles. 

Overall, the atmosphere was one of cautious optimism—folks are excited about the possibilities and also aware of the challenges in an industry facing constant disruption. I overheard a few side conversations about PRH’s decision to dismiss prominent publishers Reagan Arthur (who was originally slated to speak at the event) and Lisa Lucas as part of a restructuring. It’s just the latest reminder of the economic precariousness that often comes with choosing a career in books, and it’s a cost that many professionals are willing to accept in order to spend their days working with stories that just might change the world. Art and commerce, man. Same as it ever was. 


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