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Remarks on academic/scholarly publishing in a post-pandemic world

On November 3, 2023, I was privileged to be invited to be a part of a panel
discussion for the faculty of Seattle University. The topic was academic/scholarly
publishing in a post-pandemic world by Rev. Dr. Michael Trice, Director for
Seattle University’s Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement. It
was a delight to share thoughts on this topic with Al Bertrand, Director for
Georgetown University Press.

Because so many of my friends, colleagues and former colleagues are affiliated with publishing
and/or higher education, I am posting my remarks via my personal blog.


Beth A. Lewis

Principal, Getting2Transformation

Executive Director, PCPA


The pandemic didn’t fundamentally change academic publishing, but it accelerated trends that had already begun. I want to quickly mention six areas:

• Enrollments

• Technology

• Channels of distribution

• Pricing & inflation

• Downsizing

• And, a bit of crystal ball gazing.


1. Enrollments: As I’m certain you know well, there has been a 10-year decline in the number of higher education students in the US.

• Ten years ago, the total post-secondary enrollment was 20,377,000….that was the peak.

• In 2019, total post-secondary enrollment was 19,630,000

• And by this fall, it dropped further to 18,940,000. That’s a decline of nearly 1.5 million in 10 years.

That enrollment decline certainly impacts university budgets. It also puts a squeeze on the number of textbooks sold. For many publishers, textbooks have been the bread & butter of their revenue stream for decades. That revenue has underwritten their investment in specialized publishing for the academy.


2. Technology: I started in the publishing industry in 1977. I started really seeing technology reshape the industry starting in the 1990’s. And it has picked up speed ever since.

• This month is Kindle’s 16th birthday! It first launched in November 2007. It was expected that eBooks would usher ink-on-paper books out the door. That didn’t happen. eBook sales grew to about 20% of total book sales pre-pandemic, peaked during the pandemic to about 24%, but post-pandemic has declined and now stands at about 21% of sales overall. ($) Those of us in the publishing industry expect eBook sales to continue in about this range.

• The big growth of late has been in audiobooks. Over the last 5 years, audiobooks have been the fastest-growing format in the book market, as the revenue from audiobooks increased by 53+% just since 2018. But these are more likely to be fiction or biographies than academic treatises, of course.

• Technology in publishing isn’t just about how content is consumed. It is playing a bigger part in how content is created and published. Template formats for interior design have provided efficiencies inside of publishing houses. Autocorrect reviews for grammar and spelling have sped up proofreading. The ease of sharing large files from publisher to printer saves time and money. In some ways, I think one of the biggest technology impacts is with POD…print on demand technology. This allows publishers to keep specialized academic books “in print” indefinitely in the cloud. When a book is just available as POD, if you order 7 copies for an advanced seminar, the publisher has 7 copies printed and shipped without relying on warehousing to store them indefinitely.

• And, with Generative AI on the scene publishing executives, like leaders in many other industries are scrambling to figure out how to best to use this new tool.


3. Channels of Distribution: During the pandemic, channels of distribution were a big challenge for publishers (and authors) with many bookstores closed and for several months Amazon put delivery of books on the back burner focusing on deliveries of toilet paper and hand sanitizer instead. Amazon nearly destroyed the independent bookstore sales channels in the 12 years ago and even took down major chains like Borders. There are hopeful signs post-pandemic, however, as new independent stores are popping up and launched in January 2020 to compete with Amazon’s ubiquitous online presence and to provide both online parity and financial support for independent bookstores.


4. Pricing & inflation: The price of a book today is only about twice what it was in 1981 which is less than half the rate of inflation. There is great inelasticity in the pricing of books. Publishers are under immense pressure, especially post-pandemic, having to absorb the daunting cost increases from every direction including staff & benefits, paper, printing, shipping and transportation. On balance, books are one of the great bargains as compared to nearly everything else we purchase.


5. Downsizing: This financial squeeze has led to downsizing at nearly every publishing company I know. They are using technology to be more efficient. This means that the number of staff they have is decreasing. That includes editors, production managers, marketers and salespeople. If you are an author, you have probably noticed that emails and phone calls are returned less quickly. That is because your editor is not managing 10 titles per year but 20 or more. You may have seen collaborative marketing clauses show up in your recent publishing agreements. That is because where a marketing manager used to manage 20 titles per year, it is now may be the entire list including all of the backlist! So, authors are encouraged to build their own platforms for promotion of their titles. This includes your own website, your own social media presence, podcasts, blogs, back-of-the-room sales at speaking engagements and more! On the one hand, if you are wanting to build your reputation in your field, this can be good news….but it does take time and focus.


6. The next decade: I think the biggest change will come in the coming decade: The next generation of readers will be less prepared to read and engage with scholarly material than ever before. We don't quite see it in the industry yet, but future higher ed students in the US lost nearly two years of educational progress off of an already pathetic baseline.

The students heading into college over the next 10 years will be at least 2 years behind where you would expect them to be. Siri helps them spell words. . . they google math problems. . .their reading assignments are 5-10 pages a week. . . critical thinking is not being taught in many places across the country….and now we have rampant book-banning to cap it off!

If those of us who were educated in earlier decades continue to write and think like we have done for the past, we'll be completely unintelligible to the students we're about to see in our classrooms.

Publishing has always been a challenging business and it still is. But it is also a worthwhile endeavor, or I wouldn’t have spent the last 40+ years in it!

And I hate to tell you that getting academic books published by a reputable publisher is harder now than it was in the past, but that is the reality. However, there are some tips I’ll be happy to share to help you get your proposal in front of editors who will take the time to look it over and, if it is a good fit for their list, maybe offer you a contract.