With the rise of visual entertainment media, it is no surprise that Americans are reading fewer books, especially for leisure. About a quarter of Americans say that they didn’t read any books at all in 2021, whether in print, electronic or audio form. How can leisure reading survive in an age of brighter and flashier forms of entertainment? The answer may be an unexpected one — to promote original content and increase sales, let the traditional book industry die and democratize the publication process.
There have been attempts from the book publishing industry to stay afloat in the digital age — collaboration with book reviewers on social media stands out as one innovative strategy, but the industry has still fallen far behind visual media. Entertainment media are constantly in competition for the greatest number of eyeballs, and with the boom of social media platforms and algorithms designed for sharp and snappy content, this has made books more invisible than ever.
A book is naturally a slower medium than visual entertainment and requires more time to get through a single work. Though this is one of its assets — requiring consumers to think through what they read, oftentimes improving their focus and strengthening their comprehension skills in the process — it is also its greatest weakness. In a world where attention is everything, books are losing the battle.
So, is it inevitable that books will die out, unable to keep up with the times? Not if publishers can take advantage of the unique opportunities presented by new technologies to reinvigorate their consumer base and increase engagement to subsequently profit. Yes, there are some who will never find themselves drawn to reading, in the same way that some people will never feel the urge to watch a slasher film — they simply do not find the inherent properties of the medium appealing. The answer, then, lies in targeting those who may be tempted by the right kind of content, specifically by filling existing gaps with books that break the mold. This can be addressed by giving authors the leeway to take creative risks and experiment.
Publishers must support a selection of literary content that will appeal to an audience with diverse tastes. This will require a radical shift in the industry’s role, where publishers develop partnerships with authors, rather than assume direct control over publishing rights. In short, the traditional book publishing industry may need to embrace the very phenomenon that has threatened its existence for years — self-publishing.
Book publishing is still a tightly-controlled industry. Today, five publishing houses — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster — dominate the vast majority of book production and distribution in the U.S. Called the Big Five, these publishers have owned over 80 percent of the U.S. book publishing market share for years. With an attempted merger that threatens to turn the Big Five into the Big Four, these publishers wield immense gatekeeping power, only backing books they believe are profitable and appealing to the lowest common denominator — and authors even face pressure from editors to include certain plot points or tropes to attract greater readership. While these are calculated moves intended to minimize risk, this can easily lead to a pattern of pigeon-holed content, with unofficial yet rigid content guidelines that restrict creative expression. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of diversity within publishing companies, which has contributed to the excessively white-washed book industry and made it more difficult for authors of color to break through.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, provides authors with more autonomy over their work. With the digital era, authors have now been given the tools to release their own projects and are no longer forced to rely on publishing houses. Self-publishing has undoubtedly transformed the book publishing landscape, allowing for authorial freedom and a greater selection of books for mass consumption. Removing the barriers to access also aids women, authors of color and others from marginalized communities, who may face more impediments to publication through major companies.
It is no longer assumed that publishers and agents know best when it comes to what consumers want. The democratization of the music industry through the advent of platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify demonstrates the power of online virality in defying industry standards and expectations. Music sensations like Lil Nas X found success through digital platforms like TikTok, which boosts songs published independently. Billie Eilish’s song “Ocean Eyes” went viral on SoundCloud and was rereleased commercially a year later, laying the groundwork for her boom in popularity. Digital technologies have granted artists avenues through which to reach worldwide audiences without needing a middleman.
This is not a perfect comparison — for one, it is far easier for music to spread and go viral than books. But just as Spotify allowed for more diversity and more experimentation, self-publishing offers a more varied publishing environment and gives readers a larger pool from which to choose, presenting the people with a free marketplace of ideas. If major publishing companies like the Big Five utilize their resources to make online self-published authors more visible with advertising and marketing — as they have already begun to do — they stand a real chance of breathing new life into the book industry. In a time when film and television are oversaturated with sequels, remakes and adaptations, originality may be just what the book industry needs to thrive.
Samantha Cynn is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.