The digital age
From the 1950s to the 1970s, electronics slowly changed from analog to digital technology. By the time the 1980s rolled around, computers had risen in popularity, bringing new technology to more people. Each new advancement brought changes and new possibilities that eventually altered how people bought, read, and even published books.
The internet goes mainstream
In 1991, the world wide web became available to the general public. This was a pivotal point in history: Information could now be shared instantly, and people could connect with others anywhere in the world. Fan fiction grew, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy realms, thanks to sites like FanFiction.net. This led to the launch of other sites, such as Wattpad, in the mid 2000s and the discovery of authors like Anna Todd, who, after garnering a billion reads on Wattpad, was offered a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster.
The rise of Amazon
One of the biggest advances to hit the publishing world was the launching of Amazon in 1994. Its mission and vision statement read: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” The success of the site changed consumer buying habits; as a result, more than half of book sales in the U.S. now occur online.
Print on Demand (POD) and the growth in self-publishing
Authors have been self-publishing books for centuries, including Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, and even Stephen King. The author oversees the content, editing, cover, and layout of the book. In the past, it also entailed finding both a printer to print the books and a way to distribute them. In 1998, Ingram changed that with its print on demand option, Lightning Source, making self-publishing a more feasible option for authors. Thanks to digital printing technology, books could be printed when needed instead of requiring a large print run all at once. POD also allowed smaller independent presses outside of the Big 5 to flourish since they no longer required the physical space or finances to maintain a large inventory; instead, presses could purchase a small print order of any given title and reorder based on demand.
In the mid-2000s, Amazon joined the game when it acquired the POD company BookSurge and then launched CreateSpace (which is now Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP). This allowed authors not only a place to have their books printed but also an avenue to distribute them through the Amazon online store. Other companies, like Lulu and BookBaby, joined this movement, which provided more options for authors to get their books to readers, no longer requiring a reliance on traditional presses to publish a book.
As part of Project Gutenberg, which makes public domain documents and books available to people for free, founder Michael Hart published the Declaration of Independence as the first digitized book in 1971. This helped pave the way for books in the Digital Age and broaden the possibilities of what was currently available.
By 1998, the first handheld e-reader, the Rocket eBook, was released. The following year, Simon & Schuster created a new imprint called ibooks, becoming the first trade publisher to publish some of its titles in print and eBook format simultaneously. In 2000 Stephen King released the first mass-market eBook, a novella exclusively distributed online, selling 500,000 copies in 48 hours. Random House and HarperCollins began to market digital books as well.
In 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle e-reader along with the Kindle Store, which contained more than 88,000 eBooks. The e-reader sold out in 5.5 hours. It wasn’t long before others joined this movement. Soon after Barnes & Noble released the NOOK in 2009, the Canadian-based digital book company Kobo joined the market and Apple’s made e-reading easy with their popular iPad. Today, there are reading apps that allow users to consume eBooks on most smart devices, so even e-readers are no longer necessary.
The first audiobooks were created on vinyl records in the 1930s for consumers with visual impairments. By the 1960s, they were recorded via cassette tapes and then CDs in the 1980s. As technology improved with cassettes and later CDs, the big publishing houses opened audio publishing divisions. Today, smartphones and smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home give consumers the ability to listen just about anywhere; as a result, audiobooks have become the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry. According to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), audiobook sales in 2018 totaled more than $940 million, up 24.5% over 2017, and unit sales were up 27.3%. Over 44,000 audiobooks were published in 2018. The most popular genres continue to be mystery, thriller/suspense, and sci-fi/fantasy. Similar to other areas of publishing like eBooks and POD, modern technology has made it more affordable for self-published authors to also create audiobooks and take advantage of this rising market.
We live in an exciting era where the publishing industry has evolved to become a place with many opportunities for authors to get their books out to readers, whether it’s via the traditional publishing market or self-publishing. And one thing is apparent over the course of history: There will always be a desire for the written word, regardless of whether they come in the form of a print book, eBook, or audiobook.
Interested in how COVID-19 will affect publishing’s future? Here are some early thoughts on how the publishing industry is being impacted by the pandemic.
—Kerrie Flanagan is a freelance writer from Colorado who moonlights in the world of romance with a co-author under the pen name C.K. Wiles (ckwiles.com) as well as the fantasy realm under the pen name C.G. Harris (cgharris.net). She is a writing consultant, speaker, and author of eight additional books under her label, Hot Chocolate Press, along with the Guide to Magazine Article Writing, and she is the creator of Magazine Writing Blueprint. KerrieFlanagan.com