Publishing is a term that is more elastic than one might expect and there are large blind spots that the industry misses, resulting in a miscalculation of estimated industry sales, argued Austrian publishing consultant Ruediger Wischenbart in his presentation to the Readmagine publishing conference in Madrid earlier this month. The industry now consists not only of publishing houses that produce traditional print books and digital products, but publishing communities, like Rebel Girls, digital platforms like Wattpad, and interactive audiobook platforms, such as Tonibox, which are preferred by teenagers and twenty-somethings.

Focusing on the Korean platform Webtoon, which earned $577 million in revenue in 2019, Wischenbart pointed to the success of Lore Olympus, a series of 180 episodic webtoons that has attracted 5.3 million readers. Webtoon has also been boosted by collaborations with Netflix, which has adapted several stories into series, including All of Us Are Dead, which became a virtuous circle by generating more views and new users on Webtoons of the original story and others.

Wischenbart produces an annual report on the world's top 50 largest publishing houses, which is co-sponsored by PW. One of the major blind spots when measuring publishing sales, he said, was the absence of numerous companies that operate in tandem with traditional print publishing. He pointed to such companies as Wattpad and Webtoon, as well as hybrid companies such as Amazon. which operates its own publishing group and its own self-publishing division, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Storytel, which offers audiobook streaming and sales in more than two dozen countries and purchased several legacy publishing houses in the Nordic countries, including Norstedts in Sweden and Gummerus in Finland.

This ultimately distorts the size of global publishing, as these companies are having a tangible impact on book sales, likely shifting consumption patterns in a way that is not yet obvious, but is nonetheless meaningful. For example, Storytel has been extremely influential in Sweden, where revenue for e-books, digital audiobooks and streaming is now higher than for print; Germany, too, has seen a steady decline in traditional print book sales; in France, one in four books sold is now a comic or manga title, and in 2022 the format accounted for 85 million copies sold, representing revenue of 921 million euros.

In the U.S., revenue from e-book sales from traditional publishers has slid, while Amazon has been raising the amount of bonus revenue paid to those who self-publish on its platform, suggesting that the growth in digital self-publishing is outpacing that from traditional publishers.

Ultimately, he concluded, the book has morphed into a variety of “shapes and forms and functionalities,” that are available on a number of cross media platforms, from streaming and snackable short-form services like TikTok, to serialized works and content that appears on multiple-platforms at once. The change, asserted Wischenbart, means publishing has transformed from an industry that primarily produces and sells books to one that services authors and audiences.