Publishing year 2017 in review: trends, analysis, developments

2017-12-16

It is not business as usual in the world of digital media. Ebooks and other digital media content products are still taking their first steps in the global and local markets. Many things in book business and digital technology changed in 2017 and will change in the coming years. It is only 10 years since the launch of Amazon Kindle, but 500 years from Gutenberg’s invention.

Book as a concept has proven it has its place – independent of the format. Year 2017 didn’t challenge that, although new ways of enjoying a book became more popular. The following key development points in publishing are reviewed primarily from the digital side of book publishing.

a speaker and audience at Frankfurt book fair

Ebook markets continue to grow

One publishing industry expert claims that the ebook market is shrinking, whereas another expert says it is growing. Both experts can be right when they only look at their own data sources. Big US publishers have lost ebook market share to small publishers and self-publishers. No one knows the actual sales numbers of indie publishers and self-publishers, but one can always estimate, and it looks like a large, growing market that is eating market share from big publishers.

Data collected from other than English-language markets indicate a healthy and innovative digital market development, for instance, in Continental Europe, Spanish-language markets and China. Even France is accepting ebooks and ereaders.

Audiobook is the fastest growing format

Book lovers in English-speaking markets are familiar with Audible audiobooks, but in many others parts of the world, Swedish startup Storytel is the reason for rapid growth of audiobooks. Storytel has been so successful that it has acquired traditional books publishers in order to secure rights for as many books as possible.

A key development that will have an effect on audiobook market is computer applications that can read aloud texts. They may be individual applications running on a tablet or smartphone, or voice assistants, like Alexa or Siri. The technology is pretty good already, and as it develops, it may lower product prices.

Attempts to automate writing may be more common than we are aware of

For years, we have heard of projects that have tried to automate the reporting of sports results and simple news reports. Meanwhile, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) software has reached a level where it can be applied to simple writing tasks. The Washington Post is already using a robot writer, and clever programmers have created an algorithm that can imitate Harry Potter fiction.

Should a writer be worried? No. Someone must produce the source material for writing robots and review their output, among other things.

Ereaders are still here and still wanted by avid readers

I am the first one to admit that I expected tablets and large screen smartphones (phablets) to replace ereaders as ebook reading devices, but it hasn’t happened. In some markets, like the US and the UK, people who want an ereader already have one or two, and the market is saturated. In many other large markets, such as Germany, France, Spain and China, the market for ereaders is growing because the market for ebooks is still growing.

A key development during 2017 was the emergence of large screen ereaders. Devices from 7 to 13 inches are now available. Some of these have a stylus for making it easy to jot down notes on documents and books. A development path from one purpose device (reading ebooks) to a device that is designed for working with documents maybe going on.

Reading has moved to mobile devices

An ereader and a tablet is a mobile device, but the big hype of recent years has been reading on smartphone screens. Wattpad, a reading and writing community of young generations, says about 90% of its users read on mobile devices.

Digital reading is most popular from 5-inch smartphone screens to 10 tablet screens. It means that fixed layout ebooks still face challenges that reflowing ebooks can manage.

EPUB3 didn’t take off (and probably won’t next year, either)

Two ebook formats dominate the digital book markets: Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format and the industry standard EPUB. The advanced, multimedia-enabled EPUB3 ebook format was announced years ago, but is hasn’t made a commercial breakthrough. In February 2017, the organization behind EPUB, IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), was merged into the W3C (the organization that sets the standards for the World Wide Web). New working groups, committees and strategies have been formed, and the result is that a high level agreement for the next standard EPUB4 is in the works. EPUB4 is defined as a subset of Portal Web Publication that merges HTML and EPUB.

The euphoria of self-publishing is settling down

In large English-language markets, a small number of self-publishers have made it big. Their books have been produced into successful Hollywood movies and publishers are competing for their next manuscripts. The laws of economics haven’t changed, however, as indie authors are discovering that it is just as difficult to write a bestseller as it was before. Interest in self-publishing may be settling down in the US, but in many other large markets, such as Spanish-speaking countries, Continental Europe or in China, self-publishing is only beginning to take off.

Newspapers and magazines that have reinvented themselves are making it

Attempts to turn a newspaper or magazine web site visitors into subscribers who pay for the digital content on a web site have largely failed. Only a few strongest brands have become successful when they have started to charge readers for digital content. Newspapers and magazines, like The New York Times and The Economist deliver so much value to readers that visitors are willing to pay for news stories, and especially, long reports, analysis and background stories of major events. Some other publications have discovered their own strategies for thriving in the digital era while maintaining their valuable printed heritage.


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