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Is Print the Problem?

I love the smell of a new book—the sandpapery feel of the paper between my fingers, the gentle rustle of the pages turning. I take pride in the number of spines of various heights, colors, and thicknesses littering my bookshelves. However, I have a confession. Despite twelve years working in print publishing as a writer and editor, I have not read a print book for pleasure in the past year. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a voracious consumer of content. I read online articles daily. I listen to podcast episodes and new music on Spotify. I watch whatever new shows the algorithms of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime tell me I will like. I read my two small kids their favorite picture books at bedtime. But I can’t remember the last time I cozied up with a good paper book and a cup of tea to read for fun.

I’m in good company. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 27 percent of adult Americans have not read a book in the past year.1 The data for kids is not much more encouraging. According to the 2019 Scholastic Reading Report, 20 percent of kids aged 6 to 17 reported reading a whopping zero books over the summer. The breakdown takes place along distressingly predictable demographics. If you are from a lower-income family, are educated with a high school diploma or lower, or are BIPOC, you’re less likely to read for pleasure.2 For kids, a major sticking point seems to be access to books. If you are fortunate enough to be from a family that makes more than $100,0003 per year, you will have twice as many books in the home as your classmate from a family who makes less than $35,0004 per year.

Enough stats. What does this mean for publishers?

It’s tempting to blame this decline (and it is a decline, according to previous studies on both child and adult reading) on smartphones, Fortnite, TikTok, kids today, millennials, etc. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves, as publishers, if our nostalgia for print books is alienating potential readers. Print is not as accessible as online content. It’s expensive to produce. It’s risky. If your print books don’t sell, they are often destroyed at a loss. The world changes quickly, and print doesn’t always age well. Moreover, getting a book in print typically involves a litany of gatekeepers (agents, editors, marketing, sales, etc.) whose job it is to mitigate as much risk as possible to ensure books DO sell, and do so without drawing the ire of a reviewer or the internet in general. These gatekeepers tend to have a similar profile. You know who I mean. A straight white woman with an English degree and quirky glasses who lives and breathes CMS and worked various unpaid internships before finally breaking into the industry.5 We mean well—I know, I’m one of them! But our relative homogeneity makes it difficult if not impossible for new voices and diverse experiences to be authentically shared, no matter how “woke” we may think we are. Content creation is in the hands of a privileged few with the education, time, and means to generate the kinds of content that resonate with these gatekeepers and their vision for the world.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Self-publishing has finally lost some of its stigma and is at an all-time high.6 Print-on-demand has made it possible to print just a few copies of a book at a time. And the rise of audiobooks and ebooks has made once print-exclusive content more accessible than ever before. But we can go further. We can do more.

Publishing is not about print, nor should it be. It’s about storytelling, generating and sharing ideas and experiences with one another. It’s more than a sound bite or a snappy headline. Publishing is a long conversation. I would encourage anyone who reads this to imagine a future where there are no more print books, not with denial or fear, but with excitement. What does that look like? What opportunities does it afford? What new format could take publishing into the future in a way that’s inclusive, imaginative, and accessible? Publishing has never exactly been a driver of change. But maybe now is the time to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and make sure we don’t get left behind in the content wars in progress and to come.

Here are two final, encouraging stats: when asked what they wanted from books, 40 percent of kids wanted books that let them explore new places and worlds, and 25 percent wanted books that allowed them to imagine and understand other people’s lives.7 That’s what books have always done, better than video games, television, movies, music, and magazines. I think this can be chalked up to the fact that publishers care. We are passionate about producing quality content that changes the world for the better. We’re in it for the long haul, not to get rich quick or seek our 15 seconds of fame. So, we must adapt to the times. We must make more voices heard. We can’t afford not to—our livelihoods depend on it.

Lauren Kukla is the former president of MBPR and a current board member at large. She is the publishing director of Mighty Media, Inc. The views expressed in this post are her opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of MBPR or Mighty Media, Inc.

1 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/26/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

2 https://bookriot.com/book-and-reading-statistics/

3 https://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/access-matters.html

4 https://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/access-matters.html

5 https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/

6 http://www.bowker.com/news/2019/Self-Publishing-Grew-40-Percent-in-2018-New-Report–Reveals.html

7 https://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/navigate-the-world.html

Recap of September 2020 Event: Improving Publishing’s Diversity Problem, One Mentorship, Internship, and Fellowship at a Time

Many publishing companies have been looking for ways to improve diversity within the industry. Our September webinar featured a panel of three publishing professionals discussing how they have created internships, mentorships, or fellowships for people from marginalized communities who are looking to enter the industry. Our panelists were Helen Maimaris, the managing editor of F(r)iction and the COO of its parent nonprofit, Brink Literacy Project; Yasmin A. McClinton, freelance editor at Tessera Editorial; and Sarah Park Dahlen, Associate Professor in the MLIS Program at St. Catherine University and the community liaison for the Mirrors and Windows Fellowship. They spoke about how their organizations started, challenges they’ve met along the way, and the impact they hope to make on the industry as a whole. They also provided ideas for how companies can connect with more diverse applicants for their open positions.

Remember that the process for accessing recordings has changed. If you are a member and have not yet created your individual account for our new website, follow the directions on the Member Resources page to create one and get access to the recordings. If you have questions, please contact us at information@publishersroundable.org.

To listen on soundcloud click link below:

Welcome to the all-new Minnesota Book Publishers Roundtable website

Welcome to the all-new Minnesota Book Publishers Roundtable website! It seems a fitting start to the 2020–21 season, which brings many changes.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, MBPR events will take place online at least through the end of 2020. These events are free for MBPR members, $10 for nonmembers, and $5 for students with a current student ID. Video as well as audio recordings will be available afterward in the members-only section. When in-person gatherings can safely resume, we plan to simulcast events for those who cannot attend due to health concerns or distance. Board meetings will take place the Thursday following online events; please email the president if you have business for the board.

This blog is now open for MBPR members to post on topics of interest to those in the book publishing field. Do you have news, technology updates, professional development opportunities, or event information of interest to your fellow members? Email us to submit posts.

Many thanks are due to our website committee, David Farr and Carla Valadez, as well as Scott Anderson of Room 34 Creative Services, for bringing this site from idea to reality. Thanks also to Alison Brueggemann of Storied Creative for thoughtful and responsive work in creating our new logo, and to directors Andy Belmas, Laura Drew, and Melissa York for shepherding the website through the final stages to release. If you spot a problem or have a question or suggestion, please email the website team.

Finally, we bid a fond farewell to the MBPR apostrophe. With our gratitude and the full support of many style guides, dictionaries, and usage references, it has moved on to new endeavors, and we wish it well.

We will no doubt face new obstacles in the coming season, both as an organization and in our field. Whatever comes, MBPR remains committed to supporting book publishing by promoting the exchange of ideas and experience, good fellowship, and friendly cooperation among members; the highest standards of craftsmanship and integrity in book publishing; and greater understanding between all professions and trades concerned with the publishing industry.

Watch your inboxes for the opening of our membership drive in mid-August. We look forward to seeing you in the coming season!

Kellie M. Hultgren, Board President, and the 2020–21 MBPR Board of Directors