Is its future with independents and audiobooks?

Executive Summary

Just a few years ago, industry analysts predicted that e-books would transform the world of U.S. book publishing. The industry has indeed been upended, but the biggest change agents have turned out to be audiobooks and, especially, independent publishers. Unlike the vanity presses of previous decades that published whatever an author wanted, today’s independent publishers vet manuscripts before approving them and can produce high-quality books. Some first-time authors are able to earn higher profits by publishing through an independent than they could from a traditional publisher. Audiobooks have soared in popularity, with the number of titles increasing by one-third just in 2017. E-book readership, in contrast, has peaked and is projected to decline in the coming years.

Among the key takeaways:

  • The overall U.S. publishing industry is financially healthy; revenue is projected to grow by nearly 60 percent from 2017 to 2020.

  • One factor driving authors to independent publishers is the consolidation of the traditional publishing industry, which has limited the number of books published by the traditional outlets.

  • The rising popularity of smartphones has facilitated the growth of audiobooks and the decline of e-books.

  • Click here to listen to an interview with author Lisa Rabasca Roepe or click here for the transcript.

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Resources for Further Study



Cam, V. V., “Because Self-Publishing Works: Everything I Learned About How to Publish a Book (Vol. 1),” Jack Langedijk, 2017. An author provides tips, tools, checklists and templates for self-publishing.

Gabrielle, Gundi, “Kindle Bestseller Publishing: Write a Bestseller in 30 Days!” Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017. A successful author outlines how to write and publish a Kindle bestseller.

Greco, Albert N., Clara E. Rodriguez and Robert M. Wharton, “The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century,” Stanford Business Books, 2006. Three Fordham University professors examine issues, challenges and problems confronting the U.S. book publishing industry.

Kowis, Mike, “14 Steps to Self-Publishing a Book,” Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017. A corporate tax attorney and author provides step-by-step directions on how to self-publish a book.


Laube, Steve, “Who Owns Whom in Publishing?” The Steve Laube Agency, Sept. 9, 2014, A literary agent describes the five big U.S. publishers and who owns them.

Mance, Henry, “Books industry divided over new era of self-publishing,” Financial Times, March 18, 2018, A journalist looks at the changing marketplace for book publishing, which one editor describes as a “civil war” between traditional companies and self-publishers.

Noble, Carmen, “How Independent Bookstores Have Thrived in Spite of,” Harvard Business School, Nov. 20, 2017, An account of a report by Harvard business professor Ryan Raffaelli about the revival of independent bookstores.

Perrin, Andrew, “Nearly one-in-five Americans now listen to audiobooks,” Pew Research Center, March 8, 2018, A researcher breaks down audio, print and e-book use in the United States.

Reports and Studies

“Self-Publishing in the United States, 2011-2016,” Bowker, 2017, A report that offers a year-by-year comparison of the number of titles registered in the Bowker’s Books in Print database.

The Next Step

Barnes & Noble

Duffer, Ellen, “Barnes & Noble Revenue Decreases Again,” Forbes, March 31, 2018, The bookstore giant announced plans for five new, much smaller locations after recently released sales figures showed a drop in revenue.

Filloon, Whitney, “Can $26 Short Ribs Save Barnes & Noble?” Eater, March 30, 2018, Barnes & Noble has expanded beyond book sales and coffee shops to open full-service restaurants at a handful of its locations.

Liptak, Andrew, “Barnes and Noble’s new app makes finding your next read less overwhelming,” The Verge, March 28, 2018, The bookstore’s new app, Browsery, seeks to create an online community of readers who can recommend books to one another.

Independent Publishers

Shields, Mike, “‘Our business model has been completely jeopardized’ — these publishers say Facebook has nearly destroyed their livelihoods,” Business Insider, April 16, 2018, Creators of a new digital platform designed for publishers are hoping to recruit independents that have been severely hindered by a recent change to Facebook’s news feed algorithm.

Ulin, David, “How Small, Scrappy Local Book Presses Have Turned L.A. Into a Publishing Town,” Los Angeles Magazine, April 16, 2018, Los Angeles’ diversity has provided the catalyst for the development of a thriving independent publishing industry.

Weaver-Zercher, Valerie, “Books love the small: How indie stores and publishers fill the niches,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27, 2018, Independent publishers thrive on taking on risky projects that big publishers avoid, says an acquisitions editor at a small publisher.


Audio Publishers Association
333 Hudson St., Suite 503, New York, NY 10013
An organization that advocates for the interests of audio publishers.

4900 LaCross Road, North Charleston, SC 29406
An e-book distribution platform owned by Amazon that allows authors to publish and sell e-books for free.

Digital Book World
1140 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10001
Organization providing best practices to the publishing industry.

1290 6th Ave., New York, NY 10104
One of the “big five” publishers, owned by Hachette Livre, the largest publishing company in France.

HarperCollins Publishers
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
One of the majors, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate News Corp.

Independent Book Publishers Association
1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
A nonprofit membership organization for the independent publishing community.

Macmillan Publishing
75 Varick St., New York, NY 10013
One of the big five publishers, owned by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.

She Writes Press
1569 Solano Ave., #546, Berkeley, CA 94707
An independent press focused on publishing female authors.

Smashwords, Inc.
15951 Los Gatos Blvd., Suite 16, Los Gatos, CA 95032
An e-book distribution platform that allows authors to publish and sell e-books for free.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680415.n1