Lately everyone seems to be talking about the economy (and not the pandemic). Inflation, the price of gas, supply-chain issues, a bear stock market, rent rates, health-care costs, unemployment, housing, etc. A common question within the writing community is how might this affect traditional publishing? I have a couple pennies to contribute to the conversation. (My two cents, which, due to inflation, has become a ten-buck opinion.)
The first thing is to realize that, with new book-acquisitions, publishers are deciding on books that won’t be released until 2024 and beyond. Therefore, today’s gloomy headlines have little bearing on those future books. If sales are down in 2022, that doesn’t mean they will be down in 2025.
Second, the publishing business is in the education, inspiration, or entertainment business. Books are still one of the cheapest forms of entertainment available. (When it costs more to eat at a fast-food restaurant than to buy a book, it’s hard to argue against that claim.) People still need to be educated or inspired. This means that publishers are still in the hunt for great books by great authors.
There is, however, the reality that the mid-list author (one with modest sales history) is finding it tough to switch from one publisher to a new one. Their sales history gives a new publisher pause unless their new idea or writing is superior. At the same time, some publishers are finding it hard to keep publishing their mid-list authors because the return on their investment is not very high.
For the top level authors, it will be business as usual; and even some could find a feeding frenzy for their new properties. Fourteen years ago, Leon Neyfakh, in the New York Observer, predicted, “A frost is coming to publishing. And while the much ballyhooed death of the industry this is not, the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted. … Only the most established agents will be able to convince publishers to take a chance on an unknown novelist or a historian whose chosen topic does not have the backing of a news peg. … Authors without ‘platforms’ will have a more difficult time finding agents willing to represent them.” He predicted that big publishers would spend more money for the “sure thing” and wouldn’t risk much at all for the mid-list or debut writer.
While Mr. Neyfakh was correct at some level, this wasn’t really “news.” In fact, having been doing this for some time, I can safely claim that this aspect of the industry is relatively unchanged. It’s been the way of the industry for a long time. It has always been tough to sell a book by someone without a built-in platform in nonfiction or a novelist whose last two or three books sold less than 10,000 copies.
But before anyone says I’m looking through mud-covered lenses and being too gloomy, I remember the economic “recession” of the early- to mid-80s. The mortgage rate for new homes was nearly 15%. In 2008-2009 when the economy was in another upheaval, it was a bleak outlook. When times are tough, people look to books for help, inspiration, or escape. Tough times create opportunities for great communicators.
Our agency tries to communicate a “glass half full” message to authors and publishers. A dose of reality and truth mixed with a tincture of hope. The media subjects everyone to a gloom-and-doom message. All they report is that some publisher downsized two people last month. What they don’t report is that the same publisher hired three to four new people in marketing and publicity in the same month. Or we see the flashy headline “Print Sales Down 0.2%!!!”. Rarely does one see the next month’s data “print sales up 0.2%.” All the author hears is “bad news.”
We must be reminded of Philippians 4: 6-7 where Paul writes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Also, these powerful words:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
(Matthew 6:30, 34; Jeremiah 29:11; 1 Peter 5:6-7)