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2019 Publishing Predictions from Agent Laurie McLean

31 December 2018

From Anne Allen’s Blog:

By Laurie McLean, Founding Partner of Fuse Literary Agency

. . . .

Diversity Continues its Dominance

One of the unforeseen yet marvelous results of the democratization of publishing is the emergence of #ownvoices authors and the increasing desire for marginalized voices to be heard and read. Top Ten and Best Books of the Year lists are crammed with nearly unpronounceable author names and stories about people and places foreign to most readers.

Publishing is slowly becoming more reflective of our society as a whole and that is a very good thing. We Need Diverse Books. In 2017 only 9% of children’s books featured African or African-America characters. We obviously have a large upside to explore.

Editors and agents are hungry for well-written books written by non-Caucasian authors. And I think that trend will accelerate in 2019.

Resurgence of Indie Bookstores as Destinations

When Borders Books went bankrupt and consumers began buying more and more of their books (and everything) from Amazon, things looked bleak for publishing’s beloved retail channel.

But something wonderful has happened. Indie bookstores, whose demise has often been predicted but has not happened, began to flourish. They added complementary items to their stores. They added cafes or partnered with good ones. Some added the capability to print books instantly through technology.

But the heart of indie bookstores was what really saved them. They are filled with book lovers as staff who can help you find the exact book you want for yourself or as a gift. Bookstores, with their bestselling author visits, workshops and conferences, classes, parties and other events, have finally become the destination book lovers craved.

Through smart expense management, good solid marketing, and really knowing their customers, indie bookstores are thriving across America. Let’s hope this trend continues (and it will if you buy books there!)

. . . .

Audiobooks and Podcasts are More Popular Than Ever

The sales numbers continue to accelerate. More people are listening to podcasts and books in commute traffic, at home while relaxing, pretty much anywhere they have a mobile phone or mp3 audio system. And it doesn’t look like they’re going to put the brakes on anytime soon.

Because they’re so popular (and profitable) audiobooks have joined ebooks and print books as “must have” rights traditional publishers won’t do a deal without. Audible continues to innovate in this space with subscription-based services, original audio stories, and “all you can absorb” genre titles (romance for now) for a monthly fee.

Podcasts are getting more and more professional and interesting. If you haven’t listened to a podcast ever, there’s a new year’s resolution you’ll be happy you made.

Link to the rest at Anne Allen’s Blog

With due respect to the author of the OP, if Barnes & Noble goes under during 2019 (PG says that’s a 90% certainty), indie bookstores will experience increased sales from people who formerly shopped at BN and Amazon will experience increased book sales from the same source.

However, after this false economic dawn, indie bookstores will continue their long decline.

For one thing, with BN gone, big publishers will not order printed books in quantities that allow book printers to put their presses on cruise control whenever a big new book is released. Printing costs will increase. Some printers will get out of the book business to focus on more profitable printing markets.

Will traditional publishers eat the increased production costs of printed books to help keep sales up?

As PG has mentioned here before, in a former life, he had extensive business dealings with large European publishers (which own all but one of the big US trade publishers). Based upon that and some other experiences, PG predicts the European publishers will increase prices for printed books in order to maintain profitability. There is also a possibility that large publishers will squeeze advances and author royalties to help make ends meet.

If PG is correct, Big Publishing will bestow yet another growth stimulus upon Amazon.

Amazon can afford to cut book prices to maintain or increase sales volume and gross revenues much, much more easily than any indie bookstore can. Amazon will need to be careful about violating U.S. antitrust laws because of its increasing market power, but, in another of PG’s personal experiences, Amazon employs some very smart and savvy lawyers. So long as management listens to legal counsel, Amazon should be able to avoid any encounters with the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Is smart money going into the bookstore business any more? Is a big investment in a chain of bookstores going to generate a better return than buying and holding yet more Amazon stock or buying Facebook or Apple stock on the dip?

Agents, Big Publishing

28 Comments to “2019 Publishing Predictions from Agent Laurie McLean”

  1. And again, the establishment types cling to the false equivalence between independent bookstores and B&M big box stores.

    They gloss over that average B&M bookstore catalog size keeps dropping significantly year after year. Two or even three small stores can’t feature as many different books as a single B&M store. (Much less Amazon.)

    When Borders went away, they took with them 17% of total sales but 25% of the shelfspace, by most accounts. If B&N goes, a similar impact will follow.

    Lets say that each B&N store features an average of 60,000 titles and indies feature 30,000. That’s high for the independents and low for B&N but it’s in the ballpark.
    Furthermore lets say that just 15,000 titles in every B&M store are the Everywhere Books; Big name releases and the perennial sellers. Lowball estimate but again, I’m giving the non-chain stores the benefit of the doubt.

    Even if every B&N closure is replaced by two Independents it means 45,000 of the “lesser” titles they feature will be fighting for the 15,000 slots left unfilled in the replacement stores. However the space is allocated, that block is losing two thirds of the available shelf space.

    The Pattersons and Kings are must carries, not just new releases but also their backlist. If a general audience store has a SF and Fantasy section they must feature at least some Heinlein and Asimov, Rowling and Tolkien. And they will feature the same pre-annointed “Bestseller” new releases on the front shelves. Smaller stores means less space for the midlist and newcomers. It also means lower per-store sales of the Everywhere books. Everybody relying on B&M suffers.

    Well run stores will tailor their catalog to local tastes but there’s only so much they can carry so if a book doesn’t line up with their customer base, that store might as well not exist as far as that author is concerned. All stores aren’t created equal: raw numbers are meaningless.

  2. “By Laurie McLean, Founding Partner of Fuse Literary Agency”

    Clinging to the hopes and prayers that things will go back to what they once were and ‘Literary Agencies’ will again have writers beating down their doors in the search of getting a publisher to publish them – because that’s the only way to get to their readers.

    It’s doable. All we need is WWIII or a few nuke air-bursts to kill the computers and that dang internet thingy.

    Of course that means everything else that needs/uses the internet dies too. I wonder if their agency still has a landline phone – not that anyone will be able to search for the number to call it.

    Heh, without the internet those agencies would have to actually ‘work’ for any money they might make. No emails, so lots more missed calls and waiting on snail-mail. Ah, the good old days!

    MYMV and your internet stay up! 😉

    (Happy Rude Deer!)

  3. If this blog post had a facial expression, it would be “pasted on smile.”

    Let’s review, section by section…

    “We need diverse books”. – Not much to argue with there. I believe the marketplace deserves the widest possible selection. Of course, people producing diverse books shouldn’t need to arm-wrestle an acquiring editor in order to get to market, but whatever.

    “Indie bookstores are destinations”. – Eh, sure. “Greetings and Readings” a large family-run indie in Baltimore that employs 80 people is closing after 50 years, blaming Amazon. “Sixth Chamber” is a well-reviewed 60K volume used bookstore in Minneapolis, which I believe has plenty of readers, is closing after decades, also blaming Amazon. These aren’t “one guy and a pile of stuffy books”, they’re nice stores, gone.

    “The rise of smart phones as e-readers”. – A section heading with no real content.

    “Audio books are more popular than ever”. – Essentially a “no duh” section.

    “NonFiction will be King for awhile longer” – Tradpub is still able to flog Trump books. Good for them.

    “We’re in love with RomCom” – that’s what editors are buying. Good for them.

    “Financial Meltdown on the Horizon” – Perhaps Amazon will finally be pressured to adjust it’s payment structure to indie authors.

    “People are spending less time reading books” – Sad.

    “It’s an Ecosystem – support it all” – stop beating up on Tradpub and buy some books from B&N while you still can.

    Bah. Humbug.

    • ““Financial Meltdown on the Horizon” – Perhaps Amazon will finally be pressured to adjust it’s payment structure to indie authors.”

      But with ‘less’ competition would any change be in the writers’ favor?

      MYMV and Happy Nude Beer!

    • Audio keeps growing and there is good money there but audio has a noticeable barrier to entry, which is why tradpub loves it. I wonder how audio will look when growth plateaus.

      • But only until the Text-to-Speech feature evolves into a “reading app” with the choice of multiple voices and what not. I think it’s just a matter of time before e-books could be “read” by an app like radio plays.

        • Not long.
          The key tech already exists and is deployed:

          https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/cognitive-services/speech-service/speech-synthesis-markup

          Right now it requires tedious manual tagging of the text but that is a natural function for “AI” natural language processing. It’s coming.
          But there are…legal issues.

          Remember, when Amazon introduced TTS to Kindle in 2009, the BPHs made a fuss (along with the Authors Guild, naturally) contending that TTS constitutes an illegal “performance”.
          Amazon contended it was merely rendering the file into audio waveforms instead of onscreen pixel patterns but rather than fight the BPHs, they made it an option to be enabled at the publishers’ discretion, like DRM.

          https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/27/amazon-backs-off-text-to-speech-feature-in-kindle/

          It was too early in the life of Kindle to fight over but it was a sign of wars to come.

          My guess is the tech will come (and soon) but more likely from Microsoft, Google, or a startup than Amazon or Apple. Alexa devices do it but only for TTS enabled books in a single voice. There are no signs that Amazon is working on it, though AWS is constantly adding features and since Microsoft AZURE has the underpinnings…
          Competition is good.

  4. I wonder what will happen to the wasteful practice, beloved of many booksellers, under which books are basically sold on consignment. Publishers (and indie authors) eat the cost of books that don’t sell or are returned for whatever reason.

    Amazon does not have to deal with this problem with POD books (formerly via CreateSpace, now via Amazon’s own POD arm). Other POD programs vary in their practices.

    What I’m wondering is how long the major print publishers will be able to afford to continue this practice. The same for indie authors, many of whom agree to such practices with POD printers, then get stuck with large bills for unsold books such as those left over from bookstore signings.

    I can see a future in which certain indie-published books hit the big time, perhaps due to Netflix and other streaming deals based on the books, and are only available in print online because the authors aren’t willing to underwrite a bookstore’s inventory.

    Not sure how all this will play out, but I suspect it will be on the table. And, sadly, a feature that sometimes keeps bookstores afloat may contribute to their demise.

    • Good point about the returns system.
      My gut feeling is it will go when B&N goes.
      Pbooks will go where Comics are right now.

      • Return-ability is the only thing keeping the smaller indie bookstores afloat. If they had to eat their ordering losses they would all go down.

        • Or, they might learn inventory management.
          (Something Nook totally flubbed.)

          Comics shops seem to manage just fine.

          • Comics shops seem to manage just fine.
            (looks like my previous comment went to the black hole due to a URL):

            No, comic shops really aren’t doing fine. Take Zanadu Comics (Seattle, WA), which closed in Jan 2018 after 42yrs in the business.

            Publishing as a whole is in turmoil, and the comic publishers are playing as many games as TradPub in a much smaller market.

            Prices are going through the roof, quality is down, much-loved characters are being twisted and warped into unrecognizable caricatures.

            People who dearly love the old medium are staying away and re-reading the comics they already bought over the past few decades.

            There are some green shoots, but getting through the monopolistic distributor (Diamond) is beyond most newbies, unless they have the skill to go around. Even then, most comic shops are deeply wedded to “that’s the way things are,” so an aspiring artist/writer might have the next Superman and be unable to get it to the marketplace.

            I’m not as informed about online-only comics, so that might be where growth is happening.

            • That’s the big two, mostly Marvel, who seem determined to scare off any traffic the movies send their way.

              Successful comic shops use the internet, floppy pull lists, community events, collectibles, and effective inventory management to stay afloat. Weekly floppies bring in traffic but that’s not their primary cash flow.

              But the same as bookstores, not all operators have adapted.

  5. “Editors and agents are hungry for well-written books written by non-Caucasian authors.”

    The key is “well-written.”

    More and more, my definition of well-written is totally different from the one used by agents and traditional publishers.

    And for the record, I don’t care what the author has experienced or what color they are. Entertain me or educate me as the case may be, but don’t hit me over the head with what you feel I should think.

    • Sledgehammers are hard to wield.

    • Ouch, so uncultured. Thinking the messenger doesn’t matter. Not wanting to be hit over the head with what they want you to think.

      Besides staying away from big publishing companies I would strongly advise you to stay away from Hollywood. Thinking independently like that will get you in trouble in liberal arts colleges also.

  6. Resurgence of Indie Bookstores as Destinations

    I have no idea what this even means, other than that connection between “destination status” and “profitability” seems a bit, well, murky.

    We’re in Love with RomCom

    A micro-trend I see happening in 2019 is that editors are starting to buy a lot of romantic comedy titles (YA and adult).

    …And for which they’re gonna try to charge US$ 11.99 for an ebook, right?

    • Resurgence of Indie Bookstores as Destinations

      I am also puzzled, because I can think of precisely one bookstore I ever considered a “destination”: The Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, and that was only because it bragged about having 18 miles of books. Did that mean it would have any book I was looking for at that moment? Challenge accepted!

      As you’d guess, the “18 miles” was hyperbole, since it only counts if you consider that the store has several floors. But it still: it had all the books I was looking to buy that particular night. There’s a reason that Borders and B&N initially took so much business from the smaller indie bookstores. That reason isn’t going to go away even if B&N closes.

  7. PG predicts the European publishers will increase prices for printed books in order to maintain profitability.

    Thus pushing more people to ebooks and used books. I continue to be baffled by the shortsightedness of the TradPubs.

  8. According to my travel agent, Tours of the Indies is all the rage. So book your summer trip now.

    The package includes a tour guide who will explain the history of indie bookstores, attend a class on the Art of Book Sniffing, and relish a game of hide-and-seek as you try to find a store clerk. Oh yes, it will be the new destination.

  9. PG predicts the European publishers will increase prices for printed books in order to maintain profitability.

    That implies they could increase profitability right now by increasing prices. I doubt it. I also doubt they will be able to maintain profitability by increasing prices.

    “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
    Herbert Stein

    • I agree about the likelihood of success for the “increase prices” strategy, but, based upon my experience, I still think they’ll try to do so.

      One example of the type of thinking that’s rewarded by European publishers with which I’m quite familiar dates back when printed books were still a fixture in law offices.

      A new executive took over the management of a book division whose primary print product could be found in at least 80% of the law offices in the United States.

      This guy’s his first major decision was to double the price of subscriptions to the publication. He thought law offices had to keep buying this book and its updates because there was no competitor that could equal the coverage this book provided.

      The book would become outdated if law firms did not pay for regular updates. (In legal publishing, due to new laws, regulations, court decisions, etc., appearing all the time, it was typical for a law office to purchase a print publication consisting of one or more books together with a subscription which provided periodic printed updates to the original.)

      After this pricing decision, some law offices canceled their subscriptions, but overall revenues increased substantially and profits went way, way up. The executive was a giant hero in the large corporate organization that owned this particular publication.

      The next year, the executive repeated his strategy of the prior year and doubled prices again. The same response from law offices followed – some canceled but most continued to pay. Once again, profits soared.

      The executive then received a major promotion to run a much larger subsidiary of the same European publisher.

      Back at the original subsidiary, after the hero had moved on, the remaining managers learned that huge price increases could have some disadvantages. A different, well-funded legal publisher invested significant funds to launch a competitive publication that was mostly online (which was more expensive then than it would be today). The subscription prices of the newcomer were about half the price of the incumbent.

      As you might expect, when law offices learned they could receive substantially the same information for half the cost, they canceled subscriptions en masse and the very profitable business of the subsidiary in question shrank to less than 10% of its former size.

  10. As a side note, let’s look at some numbers real quick. The OP complains that only 9% of all children’s books have black characters as the protagonists, and presumably she would prefer it if the proportion of of black protagonists reflected that of modern society.
    One wonders if she knows that if this were true, around 13% of protagonists would be black.

    • 9% of children’s books have black characters does not equate to 9% of society is black. That would be 9% of characters in children’s books are black. Unless we assume that books with black characters have only black characters.

    • I wonder how they know an American character named John Smith is black?

      It took me halfway into the third book before I knew Alex Cross was black.

      Some folks tell me a whole district in Hunger Games was black. I missed that one, too.

      • Traditional names are by themselves neutral but in the real world a lot of urban blacks have adopted non-traditional names as a race identifier.

        https://www.salon.com/2008/08/25/creative_black_names/

        As a writing technique, using non-traditional names for characters you *want* to define as black is a quick and simple tag. The same is true for many ethnicities which is one reason the Onomastikon is so useful.

        “Hispanic” surnames can serve a similar purpose to an extent, with the obvious caveat that not everybody with a spanish-rooted surname is actually “hispanic”. Nor does everybody with a “hispanic” heritage carry it in their surname. The same is true for many other ethnicities that don’t go out of their way to openly wrap themselves in tribal affiliation.

        And, of course, in certain circles traditional names are seen by default as “white” which allows for other writing tricks, as you note.

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