What Happened to the Publishing Industry in 2020?

2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year. It has invaded every facet of our lives at home and work. With so many things exploding all at once, it’s been hard to figure out what to focus on. Hopefully, this post will help you figure out what happened in the publishing industry in 2020.

Because a lot happened.

The publishing industry was not immune to the pandemic. However, the industry did come out with some key wins, but it also lost a few important battles that could have ripple effects for years to come.

As a writer, you should keep up with industry trends and news to best prepare yourself and your book for success in the future. If you haven’t been doing that, never fear! This post will take you through the highlights.

The Publishing Market Highlights:

If you want to skip ahead to a topic of interest, go ahead. Here are the highlights from 2020:

  • COVID-19
  • Book Subscriptions
  • Book and eBook Sales
  • Black Lives Matter
  • The Big 5 becomes the Big 4
  • #AudibleGate

We will take a look at these in more depth below, but before we do, I want to catch you up on what was supposed to happen, according to 2019 predictions.

2019’s Predictions for the Publishing Industry in 2020

At the end of 2019, everyone was filled with hope and optimism as we headed into a new decade. There were murmurings that something was happening in China, but we paid it no mind. We had a new year full of possibilities ahead of us.

Here’s what the experts at Written Word Media thought was going to happen this year:

  • Audiobooks will gain in popularity, and indie authors will invest.
  • Indie authors will collaborate with others on marketing, making programs such as Patreon more popular.
  • We’ll see more published works from author groups looking to pad their backlists.
  • Organic reach will decline, and running ads will become a requirement.
  • Big five publishers will start using KDP Select.
  • Scam services will continue to pop up.
  • The eBook market will grow even more in 2020.
  • Email lists will increase in value.
  • Creative indies will experiment with new ways to make money.

I must admit that they were pretty spot on about a lot of things. eBooks and audiobooks did rise in popularity, email lists have become more valuable, and organic reach has declined in 2020.

IngramSpark thought things like wide distribution and diversity would significantly impact the publishing industry narrative moving forward. They also expected many more traditionally published authors to switch over to the self-publishing market to gain control over the book publishing process. They also thought brick and mortar bookstores would continue to grow and thrive due to their acceptance of more self-published titles as long as they had similar standards to traditional publishers.

So that was last year’s predictions of what would happen in 2020. But how did it measure up in reality?

COVID-19 and the Publishing Industry in 2020

All those murmurings that we ignored going into 2020 turned out to be the game changer and narrative defining moment for the rest of the year. COVID-19 has done a lot to change how we buy, sell, and produce books.

Of course, there were some wins and some losses as the pandemic reshapes our habits as consumers and content producers. And I stand by my opinion that the pandemic would benefit writers in specific ways.

COVID-19 forced us to get creative with our marketing and distribution habits as writers and publishers. Many publishing houses developed new ways to reach their target markets, which led to an explosion of eBook and audiobook sales once the shock wore off. It also led to what might be the future of book marketing and sales: book subscriptions.

Book, audiobook, and eBook Sales

We’re going break this up into digital and non-digital options.

Physical Books

According to Submittable, “one of the most interesting—and unexpected—trends over the last decade is the resurgence of independent bookstores across the US.”

And it’s not the big book retail giants, like Barnes & Noble, that are doing well, but small ma and pa shops. This tells us two things:

  • Readers are still interested in the experience of buying and sharing new works in-store, despite the lure of lower prices and convenience that eBooks offer.
  • Chains rarely offer the experience that these consumers crave. Small shops differentiate themselves from online shopping by providing more authentic human interaction.

Besides that, novels and short stories are not as popular anymore, paving the way for poetry and nonfiction to spotlight.

Audiobooks and eBooks

As the GoodeReader puts it: eBook and audiobook usage exploded in 2020.

With many people stuck at home, they’ve had to look for digital options instead of physical copies. This includes students and teachers. According to an OverDrive Education report, 38,000 schools in 71 countries saw an 80 percent increase in digital book adoption over the last year.

But eBooks are only doing well in academia. Elsewhere, the eBook has fallen in popularity.

According to a Pew Research Center report, only 25 percent of US adults read an ebook last year. That number is down from peaks at 28 percent in 2014 and 2016. The shift seems to be tied in with other changes to how consumers find, buy, and read content, such as the audiobook market’s emergence.

ebook adoption chart for the publishing industry in 2020

Instead of eBooks, the publishing industry has been honing in on the audiobook space. According to What’s New in Publishing, many publishers are also making strategic acquisitions and investments in the audio and podcasting space.

According to The Bookseller, audiobooks are not only on the rise; they’re on their way to revolutionizing the book publishing industry. So keep your eyes on this in the coming year.


Speaking of audiobooks, we also saw the development of #AudibleGate. If you don’t know what this is, don’t worry. I have the details for you.

Audible allows users to exchange or refund their audiobooks for up to 365 days as part of their growth platform. Audible will then remove the author’s royalty upon return or exchange. Understandably, writers did not take kindly to this, especially when they found out that Audible has been doing this for almost a decade and didn’t tell anybody about it.

Many author advocate groups have taken up the good fight, and Audible has walked back its policy to seven days. It isn’t the compromise that authors were hoping for because users can still easily finish a book and return it, so the fight for a better policy is ongoing.

Due to this shady practice, The Alliance of Independent Authors has downgraded Audible to use with caution.

Book Subscriptions

On December 3, The New Publishing Standard (TNPS) published an article that discussed Warner Bro.’s decision to simultaneously release its 2021 movie titles in US theatres and HBO Max. That’s 17 movies, including the much-anticipated Wonder Woman sequel, Wonder Woman 1984.

The Hollywood Reporter sums up the bigger picture emerging:

The unprecedented move is likely to catch theater owners off guard and upsets a model that has been in place for decades. Warner Bros. stresses that these are pandemic-only rules, but once a something is broken, can you really put it back together again? This also raises serious concerns about the landscape of movie-going in 2021.

And this new development makes many people wonder if book subscription services will replace traditional book-selling models moving forward. Many are saying that this will kill bookstores once and for all. However, Sweden has adopted this model while still retaining a small but vibrant print book scene.

book subscriptions are popular in  the publishing industry in 2020
Cratejoy’s book subscription packages

The truth is book subscription services have done well in 2020. uOpen.com has released some research on the state of the market in the UK:

  • 13.85 percent of Brits are signed up to book subscription boxes, spending £56.32 (£512 million a year)
  • Men are spending a quarter more than women on monthly book subscriptions (£65.30 and £48.94 respectively, mean average)
  • Younger people (16 to 34) are the biggest fans of book subscription boxes, with more monthly subscribers than other age brackets.
  • However, older people (45 to 54) spend larger amounts per month, some as £300 or more.
  • The northeast is the biggest spenders of online book subscription boxes (£82.29 mean average)

While all of this looks promising, it’s still a relatively new service and has some growing to do, but many don’t think it is going away anytime soon.

Black Lives Matter and the Publishing Industry in 2020

IngramSpark called it on the diversity front, and the Black Lives Matter movement cemented the trend. More and more publishers are looking to pad their backlists with books from various backgrounds and cultures.

And by publishers, I mean everyone. Literary magazines, newspapers, magazines, and big publishing houses are looking for more diversity in writers. Many are actively and opening encouraging underrepresented and marginalized voices to submit their work.

We also see a rise in titles that deal with minority issues, discrimination, and racism. For example, earlier this month, I listed a publishing opportunity looking for poetry and essays from minority migrant groups in the US.

The opportunities are out there! You just need to find them.

Additionally, we’re also seeing a trend in how editors are reading book submissions. Some were ahead of the game, but many editors are now switching to blind reads to eliminate bias.

The Big 4

The last significant development to happen in the publishing industry in 2020 is also perhaps the most alarming.

Earlier this month, Penguin Random House purchased Simon & Schuster for US$2.175 billion. Our Big 5 have now become the Big 4, and that’s concerning.

I’ll let this statement by The Author’s Guild explain why:

The Authors Guild opposes the proposed sale of Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House. It would mean that the combined publishing house would account for approximately 50 percent of all trade books published, creating a huge imbalance in the US publishing industry. The number of large mainstream publishing houses would go from five to just four, further reducing competition in an already sparse, competitive environment. For authors, it would mean there would be fewer competing bidders for their manuscripts, which would inevitably drive down advances offered.

Less competition would make it even more difficult for agents and authors to negotiate for better deals or for the Authors Guild to help secure changes to standard publishing contracts—because authors, even best-selling authors, wouldn’t have many options, making it harder to walk away. The history of publishing consolidation has also taught us that authors are further hurt by such mergers due to editorial layoffs, canceling of contracts, a reduction in diversity among authors and ideas, a more conservative approach to risk-taking, and fewer imprints under which an author may publish.

The Author’s Guild is calling on the Department of Justice to stop the merger, but only time will tell if they’ll listen.

And that’s what’s been happening in the publishing industry in 2020. A lot has happened, and things are changing. Hopefully, it’s for the better.

We will be looking at what the experts think will happen in 2021, so please stay tuned for that information later this week.

In the meantime, I want to know what you think will happen next year and any trends that you noticed this year that I didn’t cover.

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


5 Responses

  1. I think society, tired of the lockdowns and isolation, are fervorous (not quite desperate) to get back to the brick and mortar bookstores, because going out to a store and walking around inside is just supposed to be normal.
    This will bring a renewed interest in published works contained in INK, printed on PAPER, sitting on a shelf for purchase.

    1. I think that definitely has been playing a role in the rise of brick and mortar bookstores again, but this has been something that’s been growing for a while now.

      Though COVID has definitely amped up their popularity. Getting a physical book is an event again and it’s great to see/experience. 😊

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