Step Right Up: Publishing Predictions for 2021

Perseus CEO David Steinberger talks to SPI students.

“The first book published was the Bible,” announced David Steinberger, CEO of the Perseus Books Group. “And the second book was  ‘The Demise of Publishing.’” Laughter ensued as the NYU-SCPS Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) students listened to the final address of the 2011 six-week program. In fact, Steinberger depicted publishing as far from its demise, vibrant and alive with a spirit of adaption and improvement.

Steinberger led students through his own predictions for what publishing will look like in 2021. Despite the ephemeral nature of publishing today, Steinberger—if anyone—is in a great position to forecast future trends for the ever-evolving industry.

Listen up: the future according to Steinberger could become our reality. Here are the Perseus CEO’s predictions:

There will be print books in 2021

“Books are a gift; something to be cherished,” said Steinberger. “The understanding of a book as an object cannot be solved by digital development. Unlike [consumers in the] the music business, readers are connected to the channel through which they buy books. The physical book is both a generational and personal preference, and one that cannot be satisfied by an e-reader of any make.”

Everyone’s free to be a publisher

“The barriers of who can publish are crumbling,” said Steinberger. He reminded those in the room that even two hospital employees can now be publishers.

Desire for proximity to talent

“People continuously seek a connection to others, especially to authors and celebrities,” explained Steinberger. “Publishers will work to accommodate this need.”

Goodbye, old discovery models.

In 2021, venues of discovery will be even smaller, predicted Steinberger. Creativity is necessary to reach potential readers. Only the inspired will succeed.

The Web changes discovery

“The Web is great for hunters, not gatherers,” Steinberger noted. However, publishers can remedy this. After all, it will be the publishers who use the Web, not ignore it, who will prove successful in 2021. “Successful publishers will enable discovery,” Steinberger stressed.

Reading goes social

“Pretty soon, we’ll have a mayor for each title,” Steinberger announced of the Foursquare craze. Publishing has already moved into the social media scene, but this is only the beginning. Steinberger’s list of future social media tactics include Facebook discovery, chapters issued via Twitter, social recommendation engines, points, clubs, geotagging… anything imaginative!

Turbocharged breakouts

Steinberger presented a mini-case study of this year’s sensation Go the F*** to Sleep by Adam Mansbach to exemplify his point that bestsellers can emerge without the traditional promotional vehicles. He noted that free online versions of the book were running rampant on the internet long before the scheduled publication date of the parody of the children’s classic. “They were everywhere,” Steinberger exclaimed. “Go the F*** to Sleep was was not for sale; there were no reviews, no retailers, no talk shows. Yet, it became a bestselling book in the country.” Steinberger pointed out that even though the book was available free online, people still wanted to buy a physical copy of the book. “Again,” he noted, “digital doesn’t meet each consumer’s need.” Expect this and more in 2021.

It’s a brave new world

Steinberger introduced those in  the room to  brand new business models for 2021 including lending, renting, subscriptions, “freemium,” flash sales, bundling, and of course, more. These concepts are not new, but new to publishing.

Increasing returns to talent

Throughout his predictions for 2021, Steinberger continued to stress the importance of talent. Without talent, there’s no work to be published.

The future is Lego

Compared to the traditional model of publishing consisting of print to retail, the new model of 2021 is plug and play. “It will be important to choose what makes sense for your book in the business of publishing, finding what’s right,” Steinberger observed.

Size doesn’t matter

Over time, the size of a publishing house will be just a number. The emphasis to publish with the Big Six (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group USA, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) will decline by 2021. What is important is to find the right partner, no matter the size. Through the right partnership, success can be found.

Quality will always matter

“It actually matters if the book is good,” Steinberger said.

After finishing his predictions, the CEO concluded by telling the students: “It’s an exciting future. You guys are going to have a great time.” And the mood in the room was upbeat, even inspired. When asked what a digital book would look like in ten years, Steinberger said he had no idea. No one does. However, after listening to Steinberger, I felt that publishing is bound to be unstoppable, just like the Summer Publishing Institute class of 2011.

by Neena Cinquino


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