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DBW Looks Ahead: Libraries, Bookselling, Diversity, AI, and In-Person Conferences

We thought we'd take a moment to wrap up 2020 by sharing some thoughts on what we may see as we head into 2021.

2020 Itself

2020 was a transformative year. The arrival of a global pandemic brought with it both clarity and urgency borne out of deep, almost-year-long frustration and difficulty.

2021 will be off to the races, both personally and professionally. It's entirely possible the publishing landscape becomes much more re-written after 2021 is said and done, than it is now that 2020's almost in the books. Transformative won't even come close to covering whatever world we're in 12 months from now.


I created and owned a retail business for five years. One of the axioms of retail is anything the customer touches, they buy.

The actual statistic is something like the customer is 5 times likelier to buy the item if they touch it, feel it, and have it in their hands than if they don't touch it, and just view it from afar.

Libraries provide the publishing industry with a unique, tactile marketing opportunity at scale. Library patrons have the chance to experiment with new books and new authors, which they might otherwise not do if all they had were bookstores. Libraries turn people into book-buying machines - library patrons not only buy lots of books for themselves, but also buy lots of books as gifts for other people - while fostering valuable educational accessibility on a local level.

Digital Book World had a bit of a run-in with one of the larger trade publishing companies earlier this year over the CEO's conduct and the company's inability to treat libraries with respect. Unsurprisingly, their CEO was fired a few months later.

We're on Team Library around here and that won't be changing anytime soon - libraries are a vital part of our communities and deserve support, and will need it in a rebuilding, post-pandemic world.


Booksellers in particular have enjoyed a significant bump in sales caused by Trump's political ascension. Even with Trump out of office, there won't be an immediate end to that revenue - it will end gradually. But it indeed will end. Then what?

Bookselling, to me, remains one of the singular greatest opportunities in the publishing industry. We love convening in bookstores, physically shopping the various aisles and having serendipitous moments of discovery, and leaving with a couple of new purchases in hand.

Whether at Barnes & Noble as they try to turn that business around, or with some upstart bookselling business, we have yet to see a truly "next generation" bookstore.

Such a thing would combine intelligent marketing initiatives, forward thinking and perhaps AI-driven approaches to inventory management, and an ability to upsell digital books and other content to purchasers of physical titles in a way that hasn't been conceived of yet.

Current bookstores instead march backward to more nostalgic, community-driven models to attempt to survive, which is understandable but destined to have a limited window of opportunity. We need the digital book world to extend into the bookstore, and then we'll see much more sustainable business models start to appear.


Since we acquired the Digital Book World business in 2017, two of the three DBW keynote speakers have been Black (Lisa Lucas in 2019, Jenn Baker in 2020; Walt Mossberg in 2018 being the exception), and we honored legendary editor Marie Dutton Brown as our first Publishing Hall of Fame inductee before naming the DBW Medal for Leadership in Diversity after her permanently. Diversity doesn't just happen on its own, and we're proud of some of the things we've done to support minorities in publishing.

I was asked somewhat recently what we do when publishing executives lobby us to invite their minority (or junior, or both) employees to speak at Digital Book World. The answer was simple: this has never occurred, not even once, over 3+ years. Seeing as how Digital Book World, even in that span of time, has accelerated careers of those in the publishing world and given a spotlight to rising talent that has gone on to even greater successes, this would be a good item for many companies to add to their diversity initiatives for 2021. We're always open to those suggestions and emails and hope to receive some in 2021.


The world of AI (and the world of voice as a user interface, which is an important component in bringing us "conversational AI") is on the verge of re-shaping the publishing industry.

The issue with the publishing industry is that the entire industry revolves around words. And guess what? The AI that exists today is really, really good with words.

AI probably won't replace the jobs of those who are the very best in their fields at various publishing jobs: the best copy editors, the best literary agents, the best translators and localization experts, the best supply chain managers, the best marketers, and so on.

But if you're not the best in the game? You will most certainly get replaced by AI and it will happen in a very short amount of time, possibly in the next three years.

It's a double-edged sword: the rise of AI will enable new publishers and publishing houses to come into existence that never could have without the use of AI to replace jobs...but many will lose their jobs to this AI in the process.

In-Person Conferences

Soon enough, likely in the next three months, everyone who wants the COVID vaccine will be able to get it.

Some people will go back to the office, but it won't happen in droves. We've gotten too comfortable working from home.

But what absolutely will happen in droves is the return of working professionals to in-person conferences and industry gatherings around the world.

For a professional culture where most now work from home, in-person conferences become absolutely essential and arguably way more important than ever before.

First of all, you need to keep connections with those in the field. This is your hedge against your own termination or change in job status with your employer, and helps ensure you maintain a level of visibility among your peers.

But further, many business units and teams within companies will be spread out across the globe. Some have taken the opportunity of 2020 to move to rural locations that used to be off limits. Others have spread out among various cities.

Re-convening back in an office setting makes little sense. But what makes a whole lot of sense is gathering at an in-person conference, where some education and sharpening-of-the-saw can happen, while also using that open and presumably safe environment to see each other's faces for the first time in a while as well.

I think in-person conferences, across every sector and industry, are about to boom, in addition to the travel and hospitality sectors necessary to accommodate them. But it's just as important to think about why.

Happy holidays to you and we hope the rest of 2020 is restful. Here's to getting 2021 off to a great start.

(DBW West takes place July 12-14 in Seattle, Washington, and the venue will be announced within the next couple of weeks - registration is already underway here.

Digital Book World 2021 takes place September 13-15 in Nashville, TN, and registration for that is underway here.)


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