The Top Publishing Trends of 2021 and Beyond

2020 has been a year that’s brought unexpected changes into every sphere of our lives, and the world of writing, reading, and publishing is no exception. But one key difference is that the publishing world had already been shifting constantly for over a decade. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed so many industries to take massive, previously unthinkable leaps into the digital world. But for the publishing industry, many of these changes were far from new.

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The growth of eBooks and digital marketplaces had already taken many readers into the digital space. And with self-publishing and hybrid publishing, much of the publishing process had increasingly moved into cyberspace as well, long before the pandemic. So you might expect that the publishing industry was better prepared than others to deal with its effects—and in some ways at least, that’s been true. These impacts tell us a few things about what to expect in 2021.

But beyond the pandemic, other large-scale changes to the publishing industry are also still underway, and those shifts are expected to continue into 2021. As we discussed last year, self-publishing authors are increasingly struggling to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Along with new technologies like AI and cross-promotional marketing, collaborative approaches and platform-building are key trends for authors working to stand out.

The Ongoing Impacts of COVID-19

The publishing industry has already been facing radical changes in recent years, and in many ways, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are pushing things in the same direction they were already moving. Major publishers, after already losing much of their dominance in the market, have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Direct access to bookstores was one of the last big advantages for traditional publishers, and those already-struggling brick and mortars have now suffered from the initial lockdowns, as well as the public’s continued efforts to stay at home when possible.

It’s good news for Amazon and other online platforms, and bad for news brick and mortar bookstores. The book retail landscape was moving in this direction already, and the events of 2020 just contributed to existing pressures. Self-publishing will continue to benefit from the focus on the digital marketplace, where authors face a much more level playing field competing with traditional publishers and their distribution networks. Print sales remain key, and in fact, were higher in 2020 than during the same period of 2019. People are still reading, and now more than ever, they can get their hands on books without going to a bookstore.

It also seems the pandemic is affecting what book categories are most popular. Since 2019, nonfiction for young readers saw the most gains of all—perhaps thanks to more education happening at home. Books about social issues and social justice also became more popular in 2020. Within the junior nonfiction category, education/reference/language, and games/activities/hobbies were the most popular subcategories, as book buyers spend more time entertaining and educating their kids at home. These trends seem likely to continue, at least to some degree, into 2021—along with a number of trends unrelated to the pandemic.

Author platforms

Self-publishing authors and independent publishers are learning the same lesson traditional publishers have known for a long time. In a crowded book market, authors without an established platform don’t have a clear path to success. If readers don’t have a reason to seek out your book, the quality of your writing won’t matter, because few will see it. With so many books published, even a great book cover and conventional marketing efforts often are not enough. Traditional publishers look for authors with a following—an audience that’s already ready and waiting to hear (or read) what they have to say.

This could take a variety of forms. You might be an established academic expert writing a nonfiction book for the general public. Perhaps you’re a successful artist publishing an art book, or a respected chef publishing a cookbook. Major publishers look for authors who will be of interest to readers. This may sound discouraging for aspiring authors, but you can start small. If you want to publish a fiction book, start publishing short stories and sharing them on social media. Share your art on Instagram. Even a small following can give you your first set of readers, positive Amazon reviews, and a jumping-off point for success.

AI in publishing

Artificial intelligence technology is capable of some surprising feats these days. In publishing, AI is being used in everything from marketing to translation. But AI analysis can even help authors decide whether their book is ready to be published, and can offer insight into where it fits into the marketplace. Before investing in your book, it’s always wise to get initial feedback on whether it’s ready for the investment. AI can provide this feedback objectively, and even determine what other books are offering a similar style and tone, to help authors gain a better sense of their audience. This is especially key, since readers often gravitate toward a certain writing style instead of specific categories or content, and this can be harder for a human editor to quantify. AI analysis is quick, objective, and provides a great supplement for assessments by experienced editors.

Understanding the Competition

Authors are learning how important it is to pay attention to their competition—ideally early on in the writing and publishing process. With so many books out there, authors can learn key strategies by understanding what competing books are offering, and how other authors are successfully appealing to the same readers. Look for cues—do all competing authors in your category use a similar style for book covers? That might tell you a lot about what catches your audience’s eye on the (often digital) shelf.

How is the competition marketing books? Is social media an important element? Is there an online community for your genre that competing authors are involved in? Conversely, but perhaps even more importantly, ask yourself what your book can offer that the competition is not. It’s about finding a balance between taking cues on how authors are connecting with their audience, while also offering something unique that will help your book stand out from that competition.

Be on alert for plagiarism

More and more self-publishing authors have found their work plagiarized in recent years. There’s no question that this trend will continue into 2021. With anyone able to publish a book on platforms like Amazon, plagiarists will either copy a book word for word or tweak it just enough to make it harder to detect, and then publish it under their name—often marketing it in a particularly profitable category.

There are many steps you can take to protect your book, and in 2021, you’ll most likely want to do everything possible. Register your copyright. Use copyright notices. Look into Digital Rights Management for your eBook. Use tools like Google Alerts to get notifications of where your text is showing up online—this will also help you track down piracy. You can search for short, unique phrases from your book—try picking something from toward the end of your book, since many plagiarists will work harder making changes to the beginning portion of a book. You can also use these passages to set up your Google Alerts.

Collaborative publishing: the best of both worlds

In recent years, self-publishers have been faced with a problem. The same publishing revolution that made publishing so accessible now allows literally anyone to publish a book. With that crowded marketplace, while it’s easier than ever to publish, it’s harder than ever to succeed on your own. Traditional publishers are no longer all-powerful gatekeepers controlling who can publish a book. But their time-tested publishing procedures are still a much more direct path to success than going it alone in Amazon.

To bridge this gap, many authors are aiming for a middle ground, with the control and accessibility of self-publishing, and the same high-quality results traditional publishers are able to achieve. The market for companies offering publishing services is nearly as crowded as the book market itself these days, but authors are realizing that with access to the right networks, there’s nothing stopping them from working with the exact same professionals that major publishers have relied on for years. Those professionals bring decades of experience and deep knowledge of proven approaches to editing, design, and marketing for each genre and book category. They know their audience, they know how to stand out in a marketplace, and they know how to get results.

Authors can’t do everything. Even a perfectly written manuscript needs a second pair of eyes for an edit. A few weeks of Google research by authors can’t compare to decades of experience working on bestsellers. This outside, expert perspective is how traditional publishers consistently get results. Self-publishing authors are realizing they can walk those same well-traveled paths to success, but without jumping through hoops to have a mere chance at a traditional publishing deal.

Conclusion

In an industry facing such rapid changes, authors gain a real advantage by staying on top of trends and shifts in the market—especially after a year like 2020. If the past fifteen years saw the birth of self-publishing as we know it, the next decade will see it take shape into a mature, established alternative to the time-tested world of traditional publishing. The most successful authors will stay informed and stay ahead of the curve.

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