Today, is it harder to get a lot of people to buy and read a published book than it was in the past? (Are people reading books less now because they'd rather watch Netflix, or just read a pirated version of the book online, etc?)
The challenges have likely changed; but it many ways so have the success stories. You've asked a few questions, that I'd break up this way:
- Is it hard to publish?
- Is it hard to be successful?
- How does this compare to the past?
Is it Hard to Publish?
Yes and no.
Yes: It is hard to go through the standard publishing process. It involves, as far as I can tell, a lot of networking and several rounds of getting people interested in your work. These people are supremely busy. My understanding is the average Agent gets 100 works a week and only picks up two authors a year. Those are pretty bad odds. Once you have an agent, that agent needs to be able to sell the book. The odds of that happening depend on the skill and connections of the agent. If you got a good agent, you're probably done with your networking issues; but you still need to successfully navigate with your agent the finding of a publisher, the editing of your book, and anything that the sales people throw your way.
The good news for you is you're surrounded by professionals who need you to succeed and who have been doing this. Sure, failure still abounds, but you've got a team that wants you to win. If you make it, well, you made it; your book is going to be published. You're in the top 1% of all classes that are still alive today. Congrats! Keep in mind, this formula means that 99% of people who write books fail to execute and successfully publish the standard way.
No: So, you are not a traditionalist? You've heard of the internet? Great, let's self-publish. There are many, many options for this today. There are lots of systems. Systems can be gamed, but these systems are at a minimum open. You can publish whatever you want. But with that comes the risk that you'll publish something that is no good.
If you go this route, you'll be responsible for all of the business decisions the publisher would usually manage. And, you're going to have to learn how to run that business on top of managing being a writer. If you end up in a portal, the chances of someone reading your book might be low; but, hey, you're published.
Now that you're published, you need to network. You need to get your name out there. You need to get your book out there. You need to have a personality within your community that people respect and admire, or at least love to hate. The good news is, you're published? The bad news is, you need to get people to read your stuff and you may not have much of a network or team to help you here.
Look at you tube. You know that guy who's pretty handy with a screw driver; he does a bunch of videos about how to use screw drivers. But, he's one of thousands of people with screw drivers who know how to twist. You can't just be a guy who knows how to twist the screw driver. It's simply not enough.
Let's put it this way. Self-publishing is choosing to be the uncle in Napoleon Dynamite.
Is it hard to be successful?
Yes. You have to be noticed. You have to execute. You have to fill a market need. You have to be on task. You have to be responsive to others. The right people have to pick up your book. The right people have to recommend it. You have to survive any critical takes on your book. You have to come to market with your idea before the seven other people with the same idea get there.
It is always hard to be successful. But, you can also choose to define success. If you define it as "making money writing", the number of people who successfully do this is not all that high. The number of people who become rich is extremely low. If you're writing to be successful, you might be better off playing the lottery.
Every overnight success takes ten years of practice.
And by the way, most people who are published never make a profit on their book. So, congrats on being in the 1% of writers who got published. But, unless you're in the 1% of those who got published, you're probably not going to make your money back.
How does this compare to the past?
Well, the gatekeepers have changed. In some ways people are more discoverable. I don't think less people are reading. I think it's true that the serial television show is hitting its golden age; and that means people can get their fiction fix from netflix. But, watching and reading are two different experiences, and I don't think people are reading less. I at least have never seen such a statistic.
However, with the democratization and breaking down of the walls in the writing industry, there probably are more stories for sale. There are probably more people right now who believe they can do this (if only because the human population is constantly on the rise). So, distinguishing yourself and having the platform to be noticed is probably more difficult than it was in the past. And even if there isn't more for sale, there's plenty out there that's free. How many people just read the internet, perhaps deriving no pleasure, but wasting hours of their time hopping article to article, forum post to forum post? The way people spend their reading time has changed.
I have a personal point here, which is that I think the publishing and consumption platforms are pretty awful. They're all fairly dependent on the algorithms that build the lists and show things in a ranked order. The masters of the algorithm have a lot of power over what you see and might consume today. It can be difficult on an e-reader to find something of value that you might have found at a book store, if only because you don't talk to the friendly guy at the desk anymore. Certainly podcasts & forums offer some of this, all the same. Book clubs too. But there is a cost for shifting largely to electronic mediums.
One of those costs is that there's this newfangled trek-like pad people hold in their hand all day. This style of device has a small screen that causes eye-fatigue. So readers on these devices often prefer shorter fiction. They also tend to consume the material in smaller bits of time; so again short punchy fiction has a new place.
While that small screen now exists, a lot of local rags, print magazines, and other such mediums have gone out of style. Serial stories used to be a big thing in print. Now they have the opportunity to come back while other things may fade.
It's certainly a different age. There are new opportunities that come with it. Success, is still going to be difficult. It was never easy, though.
While many caveats (as mentioned in the comment to your question) apply, I think it's safe to say the answer is "yes" if you are trying to go the traditional route.
Note that in 2016 there were no breakout YA books, as there have always been in previous years.
Here's why: Trad publishers are dinosaurs failing to understand what the bright light in the sky (called the Internet) is going to do to them. (Well, has already done to them, but that spoils my metaphor.)
The ultimate decision on what gets published is made by the Marketing Depts of the Big Five. If they don't understand the book and don't know how to sell it they will simply say "no". This has nothing to do with a book's quality.
They "know" that what sells a book is the writer's name. And that's pretty much their limit.
Global surveys (see authorearnings.com) show that the Big Five rely almost exclusively on sales from authors who made a name for themselves 20+ years ago. Their new authors do not sell (for the most part).
Where you once had three-book deals for new authors they are down to two, and the publisher will dump you after the first if it doesn't sell well enough anyway. Where you might expect, as a new author, several thousand sales it's now typically down to a few hundred.
No marketing money will be put into new authors (that's reserved for the big names). And you are unlikely to get an advance.
(I have an A-lister friend - and even his advances are getting cut and he makes millions for his publishers.)
Trad publishing is imploding because they don't understand the new world of publishing. They keep ebook prices high to protect their hardback sales even though they would make money if they didn't.
There are some independent publishers (like Angry Robot) who do understand the new world, but they are few and far between.
So yes, if you are a new writer it's harder. Much harder.
I think it was Jeff Bezos (Amazon's CEO) who said that books didn't die - they just went digital.
He was right.
You say that people rather watch Netflix or maybe YouTube. And you're right.
But did you know that there's a YouTube for writers and readers? It's called Medium (created by one of Twitter's co-founders).
Never in my wildest dreams I imagined that one of my stories would get 5K views and 400 likes, and become featured on their Top Stories. But it happened.
On Medium, readers can recommend your stories, comment on them, highlight the passages they like. (Yes, social media in written work.)
Authors can post their stories, send them to publications (online user-created magazines, some even have 77K followers), and create something called Series (think of Amazon books that you can extend anytime and notify your readers immediately). If you want to earn an income you can link your Patreon account or your e-book at the end of your sample chapters or short stories you post on the site. (Be sure to have many followers before doing this.)
Truth, publishing a physical book, or writing in general, has become harder. But publishing digital work has become easier and more fun than ever.