A Look Ahead at Book Publishing in 2024

Cautiously Optimistic

For most sections of the industry, 2024 seems like a cautiously optimistic year, based on the data that we see. In the general economy, it appears that the Fed is done tightening and interest rates are stabilizing. The October ‘23 forecast for global growth from the IMF and World Bank show an expected growth rate of 3.0% for both 23 and 24, moderating slightly from their forecast of 3.5% for the same years, published in July ‘23. Most metrics for the US publishing industry in ‘24 show a continued slight decline in overall sales from $29.3bn in ‘21, the peak of the pandemic’s publishing glow. The dollar comparison of 23 to 22 was adversely affected by a significant burst of extraordinary sellers in 22 (like Colleen Hoover’s It Starts With Us for example. A 6% growth in digital sales, and in certain genres (such as romance novels) were clear exceptions. When one considers that US industry sales were roughly the same as these numbers in 2000, it does not indicate an industry that is going gangbusters.  

In retail, those independent bookstores that survived the pandemic are making a comeback from their misery as buyers return and are hankering for local and personal service. 

Other trends are continuing in the raw materials industries. The core problem in print production remains the critical issue of staffing. Skilled workers are retiring (older boomers are now 77) and their replacements are hard to find. Paper mills are at capacity and still mainly focused on more profitable lines like packaging materials. As a result, raw material prices to publishers are still rising, especially for sustainably produced papers and inks, which publishers are under pressure to use. In ’24, publishers will continue to seek printing alternatives to China in places like India, Mexico, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, but replacing the skills of the industry’s partners in Asia will not be easy and it will not be quick. 

Political Books and Social Media 

Front list sales got battered in 2023, however there is little doubt that we can expect a strong rebound at the very least in political books in the upcoming election year. Social Media continues to play a significant role in sales, especially with Gen Z (and to a lesser extent with Millennials), with major platforms like BookTok, BookTube, Bookstagram, Goodreads and Bookshop.org all expecting continued growth and influence. Gen Z and young readers in general represent the future of the industry, and most publishers watch them closely. With this group, there is a preference for digital delivery, although, like elsewhere, print is still the linchpin for the immediate future. 

New Technology Required

Stock markets are struggling with a 10% correction since the summer and the S&P is yet to make an all-time high in 2023, which usually presages stronger-than-average growth in the following 12 months. Along with the calming of interest rates, this may encourage some businesses to invest in modern technology – a longstanding requirement for many trade and religious publishers.  

Improvements in technology that are top-of-mind for ‘24 for many CIOs include data security and privacy of personal data, improvements in subscription and paywall processing, integration of both direct-to-consumer e-commerce and print-on-demand systems into the core ERP operating system, as shorter print runs become more common. In addition, enhanced tracking of sustainably sourced raw materials is required. All these improvements may begin to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in the appropriate applications. This, in turn, may drive more publishers to convert their IT operations to run in the cloud, where that software is more readily available and more easily implemented – and supported! 

In book manufacturing, a longer-term trend to a “hybrid” model – a mixture of both offset and print-on-demand (POD) printing is strengthening. As POD becomes more cost effective at larger run quantities, it is now a viable alternative for most titles (excluding the blockbusters), and an even better alternative as POD print quality and capabilities steadily improve in the future. In the pandemic and later in 2023, publishers adopted this hybrid strategy in greater numbers to deal with supply chain issues and surges in demand. This will continue in 2024, and as we will note in our study of the industry’s prospects beyond 2024, may well be the cornerstone of a needed restructuring of the book manufacturing and distribution model for the future, in which publishers print in quantities that are closer to real consumer demand.  

Now that we are mostly over the pandemic, publishing, like other industries, can begin to approach the long-term issues and innovate to grow. By embracing new technologies that allow the industry to fully embrace the digital delivery that is increasingly demanded by today’s consumers, publishers can, at the same time, engage in more sustainable manufacturing models that produce less waste at lower cost to all. 


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