Will Consumers Continue to Buy Books in 2023?

Publishing’s Prospects in the US and UK

At the beginning of 2023, the industry faces a good deal of uncertainty. 2022 gave us the worst inflation for four decades, layoffs, cutbacks in Amazon orders, and merchandising changes at Barnes & Noble, and it would take a brave soul to predict much better for 2023. Globally, there is a steady increase in raw material costs, energy, and wages. And with the continuation of war in Eastern Europe and global supply chain constraints, further disruptions in the year ahead are likely. However, there are some bright spots to discuss. 

The pandemic leaves us with some permanent business changes that appear beneficial, but in the main we are overwhelmingly cautious, and concerned with the “here and now.” Long-term concerns like sustainability, data security and privacy protection laws in Europe are being pushed to the backburner. 

2022 was a transitional year for US Trade publishers – revenues dropped about 9% from 2021, which had been buoyed by increased reading habits during the pandemic. US Trade over the last 5 years has been flat, despite the boost from audio. In the religious sector, congregations are picking up, albeit still in a hybrid mode of on-site and virtual attendance. B2B publishers are anticipating a challenging ad market that will likely continue through 2024. 

That’s where we are today, none of which is a recipe for a boom year in prospect. Much of what publishers do in 2023 will be determined by a combination of the broader economy and its impact on channel partner behavior (i.e. Amazon), and overall, it looks like a challenging year ahead.  

Consumer Preferences 

Consumers are dedicated to their mobile devices, and we spend far more time on mobile digital media than reading books. Much of what we consume on our phones is informed by social media, and with the chaos at Twitter, there is an increase in concern about safety and validity.  

With the entry of Donald Trump into the 2024 election, there will again be an elevated demand for political books in the US and elsewhere. BookTok and Bookshop.org will continue to have influence and beleaguered small bookstores will still enjoy some of the profits. Consolidation of the Big 5 is on hold for the foreseeable future after the US Justice Department blocked the PRH/S&S merger, and we are likely to see more competition in audio from the big players. Consumers will continue to drive the public debate on “healthier” privacy and social media practices, but don’t expect the new Congress to do much about it. The real question is, will consumers continue to buy?  

As we recover from the pandemic, there is great interest in “community” on all sides. Publishers understand this and will expand their efforts to build better audiences with their readers through events, podcasts and personalization of content. Highly targeted digital content based on a subscription model will become even more prevalent. All of this will elevate the need for better use of technology. 


Sebastian Mayeres, CEO of knk Software LP says, “Technology will provide for better use of all the data that publishers collect. The problem is their data is often incompatible from department to department, and application to application. A common data layer in an integrated system is game-changing because it makes analysis simple.” As trade publishers drive to re-establish the relationship with their readers, hitherto relinquished to Amazon, the use of data becomes a competitive differentiator. 2023 will see more publishers seeking to take this relationship back by implementing Direct-To-Consumer (D2C) sales and marketing systems through their own active websites. This has been underway for some time, but 2023 will see more. Consumer cash follows ease-of-use. Website design, speed and infrastructure are at a premium for publishers as consumers expect content to load just as quickly on their mobile devices as it does on their laptops.  

Many publishers have already made the move to cloud services away from on-premise IT solutions. “This will deliver better use and security of data, better disaster recovery and more skilled resources to enhance publishers’ drive to build community with readers,” adds Thomas Bussman, Director of Sales at knk Business Software AG, in Germany. In addition, the industry is already committed to greater use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Machine Learning in publishing processes as the shift to digital publishing continues, and that technology will play a bigger role in 2023. 

For religious publishers, the nature of worship changed during the pandemic, where the smaller on-site congregations led to a reduction in the need for church supplies and other sources of income. For this sector, technology will provide an early warning system to reduce operating costs. They will be concerned about distribution and fulfillment options to bring those costs down and will be focused on aggressive cash management.  

“We see several warehouse projects and EDI and ONIX3 updates ongoing, so supply chain upgrades are in demand,” says John Lawson, UK Managing Director of knk Business Software. Discoverability is critical to all sectors in the age of the “thumbnail cover” with the continued struggles of bookstores especially in, but not limited to, the religious specialty market. So there will be an emphasis on how to get to a more rich metadata status, and how to keep it there. The Publishing sector is well ahead of other industries when it comes to metadata standards within the supply chain, but publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores still need the right systems in place to enhance their metadata status and get their products seen. 

Lawson adds that “technology will help European publishers to better engage and forge closer relationships with their supply chain partners in order to embrace sustainable business practices and comply with upcoming regulation on PII (Personal Identifiable Information) data held, for example.” 


Focus on Sustainability will continue in 2023. It is finally time for the industry to recognize real consumer demand and print only the quantities that retailers need, instead of the model we commonly use today which is built on overproduction — the false notion that manufacturing more books brings down the unit cost, regardless of whether those books have been sold. This practice is clearly unsustainable, as evidenced by the 320 million books that the US dumps in landfills annually. knk has blogged on this in the past. Publishing must reinvent itself and momentum is building.  

The adoption of “Sell-First-Print-Later” technology, as epitomized in Print-on-Demand strategies will become more attractive as publishers hesitate to convert cash into unsold finished goods, especially if the economy lapses into recession. “This change would eliminate much of the landfill waste and reduce the excessive number of “book-miles’ that we incur today,” says Mayeres. In inflationary times, cost of production is a Key Operating Statistic (KOS) and the industry would be well served by using a total cost of ownership model to include end-of-life book costs that are largely ignored today. 

Publisher Marketing

As we mentioned earlier, one of the lasting consequences of the pandemic has been recognition of our need for community. We are all suffering from Zoom fatigue. We see this in the surge in recreational travel and the enthusiasm that we are showing for live events and social interaction – the human need to gather is strong. In 2023, publishers will continue to invest in developing reader communities and events that build brand loyalty, and hence sales. As publishers collect more first-party data from their own D2C channels, they can enhance their brands by personalizing the experience for each individual reader. They are doing this with podcasts, community groups and content platforms. Sadly, for the consumer, as visits go up, so will the paywalls.  

Digital publishers will make even greater use of SEO. Social Media will continue to be important with the ascent of BookTok and LinkedIn, to the continued detriment of Facebook and Instagram as industry marketing tools.  


In summary, publishers will find ways to reinvent the supply chain to contain costs and improve sustainability, and to expand the notion of “the book” to deliver new options for content delivery to a wider audience than just readers. Spotify’s acquisition of Findaway in June 2022 is an example of companies creating new models to scale content.  

Discoverability continues to be an issue and any technology that enhances publishers’ ability to generate and maintain an enthusiastic audience through better metadata, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for instance, will be a valuable differentiating tool in 2023 and beyond.  

The need for community is a natural backlash from the pandemic and publishers will monetize this most human of motivations. If there’s anything we’ve learned from being cooped up for most of the last three years, it’s that the human connection is of paramount importance to us all. The balance between work and recreation time blurred during the pandemic, although recently the trend is for employees to  demand more recreation time and less work pressure. That may well reverse itself in the near future as businesses work overtime to get and stay ahead. 2023 will answer that question and many more. 

As for the question, “will consumers continue to buy in 2023”, our crystal ball has its good and bad days. US sales opened the year flat, and there have been recent announcements of layoffs at big tech companies, so we can say that 2023 started much like 2022 ended. Watch this space!