Agent Laurie McLean Gives 10 Publishing Predictions for 2021

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Hold onto your pens, people…it’s going to be a wild ride.

It’s that time of year again. I present to you Predictions in Publishing: the 2021 Edition!

It’s hard to believe that last year at this time I was bemoaning the fact that the book publishing industry seemed to have stagnated and not a lot was changing. Then, WHOOSH, in March everything changed all at once. And here we are counting down the days to the final end to the Year of the Great Pause, where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel into 2021. Let’s hope it’s not a train! (It’s not a train…)

. . . .

1) Publishing Professionals Leave New York

More editors, agents and other publishing pros have moved out of the New York City metro area, and are working from homes in other cities, and even states, where the cost of living is significantly lower. If they bought or rented a house with a yard and several bedrooms/office space elsewhere, or moved in with their parents and find it delightful, the thought of moving back into a comparably-priced studio or one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn might not be strong enough to get them to return.

They have gotten comfortable with working remotely. They are now Zoom or Google Meeting pros. And they see how much more work they can get done (especially editing) if they don’t have to commute or do endless in-person meetings every day. Even art departments have developed successful workarounds. This has fundamentally changed the publishing process.

As we move into the future, I believe you’ll see a diaspora of publishing professionals, just like tech workers or other non-geographically-tied workers have experienced, and eventually they will either be located in a smaller building in NYC or will Zoom-in remotely when needed, only visiting the main office once a month or so. It has long been the case with agents and even the odd editor, but now it will be commonplace among the major houses. New York will be the center of publishing in name only. Virtual companies will have the edge.

. . . .

3) Reading on Screens Increases

Everyone got used to buying all kinds of things online, and that includes ebooks. But will this trend continue once bookstores are open again?

I believe so. Readers have become comfortable with reading on a screen as part of the total ecosystem of reading, just as they’ve become comfortable with shopping at their local retail stores as well as Amazon, Bookshop.org, indie bookstores, reading apps, etc.

They will consume hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, ebooks, audiobooks and any new format that comes along. Publishers need to understand that and work it into their P&Ls on stories and worlds they want to license.

. . . .

5) Bookstores Adapt

Indie bookstores (traditional publishing’s main retail outlet) have been severely disrupted. Do they survive and thrive or collapse? Will Barnes & Noble make it? Will Amazon continue to dominate or will Bookshop.org challenge them? I think all these issues will play out in the latter half of 2021.

I think indie bookstores have already pivoted successfully by being creative and community-minded. They rocked drive-by distribution and deliveries. They figured out how to do many of their promotional events and author “signings” online.

It’s the larger box bookstores like Barnes & Noble, now under a new management team led by Brit James Daunt, who I see fumbling the ball and perhaps not being fiscally viable much longer. Five years and they’ll either be gone or severely smaller. That’s my prediction. Amazon is hastening their exit. Look back at prediction number 3.

. . . .

8) Online Book Promotion Becomes the Norm

Virtual book promotion is here to stay. It already was not making economic sense to send an author on a multi-city tour to promote a book, when only a handful of fans would show up at the local Barnes & Noble in each city. If all bookstores, even small ones in rural locations, can get an author to do a 1-hour Zoom chat about their book with fans who’ve already ordered the pre-autographed book from said indie bookstore, it’s going to catch on. It’s affordable, easy to accomplish, and readers will like it if they can watch their author heroes while in their jammies.

Also, need I say, school visits will become a lot more accessible and affordable if done virtually. This way authors can earn a few dollars and bookstores can scale up or down depending on the popularity of the authors virtually visiting their locales.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

It is 2021, but PG still does not always agree with everything he posts on TPV.

For one thing, Bookshop.org hasn’t a chance in hell of taking a hundredth of one-percent of Amazon’s share of the book business.

PG will note that, although more honored in the breach than in the observance, the .org extension was originally intended to be reserved for non-profit organizations.

In the case of Bookshop.org, the website is run by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) which, at least in the United States, denotes an organization that strives to earn a profit. Again, in the United States, a charitable organization is typically operated as a non-profit corporation. Corrected per CE Petit’s comment and superior knowledge of current LLC practices and law.

That said, regardless of its intent, PG suggests that Bookshop.org will have quite a bit of difficulty generating a profit of any sort and its business and commission structure is designed for traditional publishers, so it will generate teeny-tiny royalties for the authors who make books possible in the first place.

PG says that, if you or your reading friends wish to encourage and compensate authors, buying through Amazon is the only way you go.

26 thoughts on “Agent Laurie McLean Gives 10 Publishing Predictions for 2021”

  1. The problem with the bookshop.org model is it takes care of everybody’s needs except the consumer.

    Publisher, distributor, bookstore, and bookshop.org all get their regular cut and the consumer is expected to foot the bill. This might have worked in the last century when Amazon didn’t exist but today Amazon is a well-known quantity. Only the most virulent ADSers are going to pay 30% more for the privilege of “sticking it” to Amazon.

    Their potential market is limited to non-chain B&M shoppers willing to buy online, a segment that adds up to less than 5% of the market. Max. The majority of those shop at B&M for the physical experience, which Bookshop can’t offer. If anything, it might actually get some used to shopping online, at which point they’ll discover that Amazon offers the same experience for a lot less.

    They may end up transitioning shoppers from B&M to Amazon instead of taking them away.
    They might make it to 2022.
    But I doubt it.
    Even if they manage it, it won’t be off Amazon’s customers.

    • They are not a public corp, and they probably have pretty low overhead overall, so I think they’ll survive quite awhile, but not grow beyond some small limit.

  2. Indie bookstores (traditional publishing’s main retail outlet)

    What is this claim based upon? Last I heard Independent bookstores were something like five percent of the market, ten percent if you want to be optimistic. And that’s just paper books. Even big box retailers (WalMart, CostCo, Target, etc.) sell more paper books than non-chain bookstores.

    Per Mike Shatzkin (from 2017):
    The celebrated independent bookstores held their own, at a pretty paltry 6 percent of the sales.

    If there’s any more recent data out there, I’ve not seen it.

    • Independent bookstores haven’t been anybody’s main retail outlet since the ’60’s.
      First it was the mall chains, then the big box stores, then online.
      Anybody who still thinks B&M is anybody’s main outlet hasn’t left their office since last century.

      That statement says all you need to know about the credibility of the OP.

      • Here’s a test we can all safely do at home.

        Suppose I offered you $1 million to put both feet inside an independent bookstore within one hour. But no fair looking up an address on the web or consulting any other source.

        Now, suppose I gave you an alternative choice. Put your feet inside a B&N within one hour for $1 million. Same rules.

        Which challenge would you accept?

  3. If I might put in a teeny word of dissent, I’ve found that Smashwords provides an alternative to Amazon. I’ve gotten a better response to my short stories there, and the field is less crowded.
    They paid more, and more promptly than Amazon.
    So, as I add more stories/books, I will NOT be using the KU store; I want to go wide. Just don’t feel comfortable helping Amazon take ALL the marbles; the way they have changed terms on KU alone should give authors pause.
    And, should the Woke Puritans decide that I’m officially not acceptable, well, it’s nice to have alternative outlets.

    • Some people also get better results at Nook, Apple, or even google.
      Different authors have different audiences, often dependending on when they started.
      It’s not all about ebooks for everybody. Print also matters.
      Everybody’s “mileage” *will* vary; there are no magic bullets.

      That said, for somebody just starting out, concentrating on Amazon and KU is usually more effective than trying to be all things to everybody.

      BTW, KU is not a store, it is a rental service designed to enhance discoverability. Readers get risk free reads and authors get higher visibility access to a large market with reduced competition from tradpub and authors going wide. After five years, authors are earning more at KU than at all (western) non-Amazon digital channels, combined. It has its place, when properly managed. If nothing else, it is a great replacement for PermaFree.

      And the changed terms were a *good* thing to better serve the readers and minimize the scammers and three-chapter wonders.

      There is lots of variability in the Indie world. Nothing is guaranteed and nothing works for everybody but there is strong available evidence that rental services enhance sales measurably when *paired* with a digital store in ebooks (KINDLE UNLIMITED) and video games (XBOX GamePass).

      To each their own, of course.

    • the way they have changed terms on KU alone should give authors pause.<

      Exactly which changed terms, and why should they give anyone pause?

  4. Several cautions here:

    No matter what any “agent” (or Mike Shatzkin) says, the majority of the publishing industry has not a damned thing to do with the “trade stream of commerce,” so expecting bookshop.org (with its laser-like focus on trade books) to be the flea that wags the entire dog — in some less-threatening version of “for want of a nail” — is more than a bit much. In fact, I’d automatically reject anything any agent says as representative of “publishing as a whole” on precisely that basis; and I’ve dealt with enough of them in litigation to say that about even the top-end-most-knowledgeable-most-open-minded-fewest-conflicts-of-interest-and-acknowledge-them ones.

    I do have a strong quibble with one of PG’s statements. In many states — specifically including, but not limited to, California — LLCs may specifically be organized for nonprofit purposes under circumstances in which the corporate form is inappropriate. One cannot tell by looking at the basic organizational documents, or even annual returns, whether this is the case; one must look at the Operating Agreement (the equivalent of corporation bylaws and partnership agreements), together with the LLC’s minutes, to determine whether it is pursuing a profit. Many homeowners’ associations, for example, are organized as LLCs… and they’re prohibited from making a profit.

    This all reflects a basic mistake in economic theory from the nineteenth century that has been only masked by politics since. In Marxist terms, it’s not “control of the means of production,” but “control of the means of distribution,” that matters; in terms of the history of American antitrust, remember that our antitrust statutes were put in place primarily to fight railroads (archly distribution) and Big Oil (functionally distribution), and if one actually looks carefully at the major antitrust cases prior to the Chicago School takeover of antitrust doctrine in the 1970s one will find that almost all of them are about the “efficiency” versus “abuse” argument relating to distribution, not to production. The deafening silence regarding monopsony versus monopoly directly concerns authors, but has gone almost entirely unremarked upon in litigation and only peripherally remarked upon by ivory-tower academics. “Monopoly” is “extreme concentration of supplier(s) compared to the number of customers”; “monopsony” is the converse, and “extreme concentration of customer(s) compared to the number of suppliers” is the fundamental description of “commercial publishing,” whether “trade” or otherwise.

    All of which successfully masks that “bookstores” occupy both monopolist and monopsonist positions in the distribution chain, which is true for so much in modern life and thoroughly torpedoes the Chicago School “the lowest price to the consumer is the only thing that matters” meme. But that’s for another time entirely: One in which “breadth of consumer choice” and “noneconomic factors influencing consumer choice among comparably priced, nonfungible goods and services” actually get considered… which would be a darned good idea during a pandemic, because one of those “noneconomic factors” is “safety of shopping experience” (something that, umm, indie bookstores don’t manage well, by their very nature).

    • Re: “One in which “breadth of consumer choice” and “noneconomic factors influencing consumer choice among comparably priced, nonfungible goods and services” actually get considered…”

      Not that I disagree but I suspect that such consideration will be easier to take up than to effectively complete. What price competition?

      We live in a world where advanced communications and transportation are amplifying the reach of the “best in breed” in more and more activities. Where tech is improving by leaps and bounds, disrupting businesses all over. Because everybody wants to deal with the “best”, cheapest, fastest, etc. Which showers them with customets and resources to snowball into market dominance.

      Are we to mandate people deal with the second or third best to preserve tbe semblance of competition? Or tax the hell out of top performers to subsidize the lazy, inefficient also-rans?

      It *has* happened but it’s not yet the law of the land. Do we want such a world?

      Competition is great but what are we to do when one player is overwhelmingly popular for whatever reason?

      I’ve seen proposals for things like taxing robots to subsidize the obsoleted. Who chooses who to cripple and who to protect? Are we to freeze time to protect the politically connected as in the european style of legacy protectionism, masquerading as antitrust, in the name of enforcing competition?

      That school of thought gave the world Windows-N in order to allow the Fraunhofer Institute to try to charge €30 for a feature Windows has had for free since version 1.0 (and before that MS-DOS) long before MP3 existed. The predictable result: a euro-only version of Windows that nobody buys willingly, especially since full-featured Windows is still on the market. Other than shaking MS down for a half billion Euros (which they recovered by raising prices ten percent) nothing was achieved beyond billable hours and a few Press Releases.

      This is not stopping with Amazon, Facebook, and Google, today’s bad boys.
      Disruptions are coming all over, to businesses world wide. Legacy businesses all over are going to die this decade. It may be in everybody’s best interest to let them die.

      (We’re already seeing the russians grumbling about NASA “subsidizing” SPACEX by paying them to launch astronauts and cargo to the ISS for less than Roscosmos extorted. And the euros’ ARIANE is griping that charging 40% less for FALCON 9 launches on reusable boosters is unfair competition.)

      Just this week another disruption in the making exploded into public view. A couple weeks ago, HYUNDAI spent a billion dollars to buy a small Massachussets tech company. Here’s why:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fn3KWM1kuAw

      Now imagine what that kind of free roaming, precision robotics portends.

      Hint: Amazon has been dreaming of “black warehouses” for a decade-plus. Well, the tech to enable it is here. And everybody in automation has to match it or fade away. And after that, the businesses that don’t use it will die.

      How is antitrust going to deal with the consequences of that kind of excellence?
      Should it even try?

      Dunno.
      But the future is here, ready or not and I’m not sure *any* antitrust theories can cope with the speed of change headed our way.

      Bookstores? Hah!
      Bigger disruptions are coming.

      • Are we to mandate people deal with the second or third best to preserve tbe semblance of competition?

        That was essentially the position of the progressives about a hundred years back. They wanted competition curbed by government action so less competitive suppliers could survive. Their objective was a healthy group of suppliers which they believed to be impossible with free competition.

        Justice Brandeis said consumers should be willing to pay a bit more so suppliers could survive. Today’s progressives are applying the same idea to books. Franklin Foer and Scott Turrow wrote an article a few years back advocating action against Amazon. Mark Coker has been advocating for the past ten years. And Douglas Preston led his group of eight hundred of the finest writers in the English language down the same path to the DOJ.

        The network effect has produced Google, Amazon, and Facebook. There will be more.

        • Unavoidable.
          You give people freedom of choice and they’ll innevitably choose what they think is best for them instead of what their betters *know* is best. Very authoritarian of Lessig, Turow, et all. Too bad the rabble ignores them. But they’ll take care of that “come the revolution”.

    • which is true for so much in modern life and thoroughly torpedoes the Chicago School “the lowest price to the consumer is the only thing that matters” meme.

      I doubt Chicago would accept your definitions of monopoly and monopsony.

      • My concern is that both terms are too simplistic for today’s world, to say nothing of the emerging business models.

        Especially for the world of content silos, consumer licenses, and subscription services. Existing antitrust (on both sides of the Atlantic) was developed to deal with manufactured goods and supplies and their components. So far, attempts to apply it to the digital and IP world have resulted in…weird outcomes.

        A rethink is necessary but the prescriptions I’ve seen are worse than the disease, more akin to leeching and smoke blowing than actual “medicine”.

        • My concern is that both terms are too simplistic for today’s world, to say nothing of the emerging business models.

          The terms are perfectly fine. However, people are trying to apply them to things that are neither monopolies nor monopsonies.

          We have economic structures that have developed for which we need new analysis and probably new names. The same thing happened when monopolies arrived in the economy. They were analyzed, and specific “monopolistic behavior” was considered detrimental to society.

          Agree with the rethink. If one wants to identify Google or Facebook as representing structures whose behavior is detrimental to society, go for it. But don’t try to label them monopolies or monopsonies because they aren’t. They are something else.

          • …and they operate outside the sphere of usefulness of antitrust.
            It’s the wrong tool for the wrong problem. Best guess is they need to be looked at as Information Utilities, not manufacturing or communications.

            Not a problem for consumers but also outside the range of antitrust are the content silos. Those are the next “bad boys” the pundits will target, especially with the withering of the legacy theater chains in the next couple of years.

            The same people whining over KINDLE UNLIMITED are going to be majorly annoyed at the winners in video streaming and gaming subscription services, particularly because consumers will be delighted by the savings.

      • That definition is from a CLE presentation by U of C faculty (both economics and law) in 1996 or 1997, and is consistent with the other academic material on “monopsony” (e.g., Jeffrey Harrison’s work). So if “Chicago School” economists would disagree, that would be news.

        • Welcome to the world of news. The torpedoes didn’t come close to Chicago.

          Those definitions are deficient in terms of the other academic material on monopoly or monopsony. What is presented is consistent with part of the treatment in other academic material, but not sufficient to constitute a full definition or description. Necessary elements are not presented.

        • Uh, that was effectively pre-internet.
          Whatever meaning is attached to the words, it might be just a wee bit out of sync with 21st century economics. New business models and “Internet time” and all that. Trying to look at the world tbrough those glasses is going to wildly miss the mark on what is really going on. And by the time they recalibrate the world will have moved on to new business models.

          If anything, the Future Shock is getting worse all the time.
          It’s not just Marx that is irrelevant.

          • Once again, we encounter the new with only old tools. The old concepts will work for all kinds of situations, but not for others. New, additional tools are what we need. No need to jury-rig an old tool.

            However, I suspect great effort will be expended trying to fit the new challenges into old words and concepts. Heavy lifting was required developing concepts of monopoly and monopsony. The same will be required to deal with XYZ and ABC.

            Economics and law will probably diverge before they come closer together again. The econ theory will be applicable everywhere, while various legislatures confront problems with different kinds of law. An economic monopoly in the US, Canada, and Italy are the same, but law differs.

            • It doesn’t help that pretend “competitors” and lazy legacy players would rather whine to get governments to protect them than actually compete. Worse yet is how often a little “brown bagging” makes that happen.

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