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Publishing's Next Decade: A Digital Book World

The decade of the 2010's was an up-and-down one. The rise of ebooks was met by a decline of ebooks. Amazon has grown, opening opportunities for publishers, but also forcing monopoly-like conditions on many. Booksellers struggled to find their way. Libraries continue to innovate and provide leadership for their respective communities. M&A activity remained high with plenty of consolidation taking place across the industry. Digital Book World changed hands.

What will happen in the decade of the 2020's? Ten years is a long time. Here's five predictions on what we think we'll see across the wide world of publishing over the next 3650 days, give or take a couple...

1) Evolving business models: libraries will begin selling books, while bookstores will embrace subscription models.

Libraries will continue to find themselves in hyperpolitical environments that will put their existence at risk. Aside from being aggressively apolitical, the only hedge against that is to create new revenue streams for themselves. I think no matter whether Trump is re-elected or the Democratic nominee wins the White House, we'll see more degradation of the political discourse and libraries will often be targeted for political gain. Libraries have an untapped ability to sell both new and used books to patrons who cherish their local library and would buy books and potentially other forms of merchandise from them to support it. Libraries are likely going to need to explore these types of opportunities over the decade to come.

Independent booksellers, on the other hand, continue to live on borrowed time and will need to take lessons learned from other retail models in order to survive. Movie theaters, wine stores, clothing stores, and more have experimented with subscription models, with varying degrees of success. Independent booksellers have such strong customer affinity that they would be able to sell subscriptions more easily than other types of businesses, and they're going to need to try in order to stick around. A bookseller's subscription could involve library-like lending models, but as indie booksellers carry a remarkable amount of trust with their customers, the model more likely to work would be a monthly fee-based subscription where for, say, $99/month, bookstore customers receive a couple of titles curated by the bookstore itself, and perhaps a bonus of access to a special in-person VIP event each month to boot.

2) We'll see a swing back toward a consumer preference for digital books over print.

Driven partially by evolution in devices to support better digital books, and driven partially by an inevitable politically-oriented desire to reduce environmental impact of book publishing, ebooks will surge with younger audiences and consumer preference overall will shift decidedly in favor of digital. This will carry with it numerous repercussions, from greater investment in evolved forms of ebooks (think interactive ebooks all over again) to deep integration of digital books into existing booksellers / retail.

3) Voice tech will drive a sea change for publishers.

In 2020, we'll see the shift in voice assistants from merely reactive in nature, answering one-off questions from users, to much more proactive. Voice assistants will volunteer books that users should read, based on buying patterns, internet search, podcast consumption, reading patterns, and more.

This will set the stage for the rest of the decade as voice assistants replace traditional search. For publishers who want their books to be discovered, they'll need marketing teams working closely with Amazon, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Apple to ensure the mainstream voice assistants link the right customers to the right books at the right time and drive completion of purchases.

It also opens the door for startups and young, hungry companies wanting to impact the publishing world to create their own publishing-centric voice assistant / IoT ecosystems. We'll see many try.

4) We'll see the first meaningful integration of digital technology into the printed word.

By the time this next decade closes, we will have print books which contain embedded micro-technology including digital dictionaries, voice assistants, audio playback / audiobook included, and dynamic page-viewing capabilities all built-in. This will rapidly progress from a fun, brand new feature set to something that comes standard with print books moving forward.

Also involved here will be analytics-generating tools that help the publishing industry better understand reader patterns and consumption habits. Imagine being able to have a focus group of book readers that read a new book and computers being able to analyze how the reader reacts to what's being read, if they skip over words or entire passages, if a book's language needs to be adjusted one way or another, or what types of people are more inclined to find a title worth buying/reading than other types of people. In the 2020's, the convergence of print and digital publishing will mean the genesis of all new data that savvy publishers will be able to use to generate more revenue.

5) The return of Apple to being a meaningful player.

The price-fixing lawsuit at the beginning of the 2010's soured Apple on the publishing world. From that point on, Apple willingly turned its attention elsewhere while its bookstore decayed, iBooks Author stagnated, and the innovation stopped.

No one has de-prioritized publishing and books more than Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, and his departure can't come soon enough for a company overly reliant on mobile phones for revenue. Once a new CEO takes over, he or she will likely view books as a major opportunity to build another services-oriented revenue stream.

Apple needs reasons for people to continue to buy expensive mobile phones at a regular clip. Their approach lately has been iteration of the camera, but as that reaches a point of diminishing marginal return, turning iPhones into better devices for book-lovers (whether ebooks or audiobooks) would be a strong counter-punch to Amazon wanting to route all book-buying through Alexa in the foreseeable future.

Digital Book World 2020 takes place September 14-15 on the campus of Vanderbilt University, in the heart of downtown Nashville. Register here.

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