‘Transitioning’ to Digital Distribution

From Publishing Perspectives:

This month’s column describes Mensch Publishing’s transition from a mixture of traditional print and distribution to a wholly digitally driven model.

The Downsides

Change is hard and frequently expensive.

The files I’d created for the traditional route and held by my publishing partner were, it turned out, formatted to the first, normally hardback edition. This master file was used to hold any corrections or changes.

In moving to a print-on-demand solution, paperback is the preferred format for reasons of cost and author and customer pressure. I only discovered the problem when proofs, and in a couple of cases of finished book, were reformatted with illustrations in the wrong place and new pagination. We had to re-typeset most of the titles.

I was grateful that I’d taken an early decision that Mensch titles wouldn’t have indexes. If anyone really wanted help in finding a name or whatever, they could buy the ebook and search to their heart’s content, which would have entailed even more work and cost.

Even where there was no change in format, the paper used in on-demand printing is likely to be of a different thickness,  meaning that cover artwork had to be revised to take account of a changed spine width.

The next downside is the reluctance of retailers, both traditional and on the Internet, to stock print-on-demand titles because of perceived, although not actual, non-immediate availability; limited returnability; and typically lower discounts, lower retailer margins—all valid reasons from the retailers’ point of view: They’ve enjoyed increased discounts; increased stock security; and improved delivery schedules over the last few decades. They were obliged to resist, even at the expense of reducing the range available to their customers.

Of course there’s nothing about print-on-demand requiring a firm sale or lower discounts to retailers—these are publisher choices but my choices were and are driven by a commitment to reducing waste; maximizing author income; and focusing on marketing to drive sales rather than positioning in terrestrial bookshops.

The corollary of this lack of retail support has been a certain amount of author discomfort at not finding his or her books where they’d like to see them. My riposte that the proportion of new titles prominently displayed at traditional independent and chain bookshops is very small. Ask even the major publishers how many copies of non-automatic best sellers are subscribed into brick-and-mortar stores.

However, there are always exceptions, and launch parties in bookshops can happen if strict discount and returns policies are temporarily waived. The downside of this is that these special arrangements need to be separately accounted, thus undermining the overall pure simplicity of the new model by adding accounting complexity.

And of course right now, print-on-demand books cost more per copy to print, but the savings elsewhere in the supply chain are significant.


Every book is available in every market simultaneously without the need for special shipments or inter-warehouse arrangements. In a world of international media, this is, in my view, an essential service to authors. What would an author think of a great review in, say, the Guardian in the United Kingdom, a review downloaded hugely in the United States—but Americans couldn’t purchase the book because the US publication date was later than the UK’s?

With print-on-demand, there are no are no out-of-stock issues. Every book is constantly available. No need to cogitate on the size or practicality of a reprint. No need for the inevitability of the last reprint of a book never selling out (by definition). No stock wastage as there is no stock except where held and made available by retailers and wholesalers. Fewer trees need to be cut down.

Printing takes place mainly in the country of purchase: There are no shipments by sea or by air between continents; no unnecessary handling costs.

Most importantly perhaps, there are no unnecessary CO2 emissions. Production quality is superior to traditional litho. This came as a surprise to many of our authors but a pleasant surprise.

As part of this, I’ve signed up to automated advertising for the books in order to drive sales, rather than rely on retail displays.

Daily access to sales performance is a boon. Daily changes to metadata are feasible.

Most important of all to me is that I now have control and transparency, and this allows me to communicate with authors without having to adapt to any other organization’s time frame.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

SPD Client Presses Race to Claim Books as Ingram Drops a Tight Deadline

From Publishers Weekly:

An email sent by Ingram Publisher Services to former clients of the shuttered SPD Press Distribution is causing more panic in the independent publishing community. The email directs publishers to fill out a form by April 17, providing Ingram with instructions about where to send their titles—at the presses’ own cost. But what has publishers most anxious is Ingram’s plan to “recycle” any inventory remaining at the Ingram warehouse after 60 days.

Given the current state of confusion and uncertainty about future distribution arrangements, some publishers worry that two months isn’t nearly enough time to complete the process of finding a new home for their titles. Others on social media pointed out that some of the 300,000 books that were at the SPD warehouse likely belong to publishers that are no longer operating, and, without anyone around to claim them, will simply be destroyed.

The email also notified publishers that with the closure of SPD, Ingram’s warehouse and fulfillment agreement with the distributor has ended and that Ingram has stopped fulfilling orders. This puts publishers in a lose-lose situation: on the one hand, filling orders with no clear path for retailers to pay suppliers is a losing proposition; on the other, no new orders coming in means no cash flow.

The IPS email also says that Ingram will continue to process returns from the Ingram wholesale business for all titles associated with SPD for six months. After that point, all returns will be recycled “unless agreed otherwise.”

Responding to the urgency of the distribution question, Independent Publishers Group will participate in a webinar hosted by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses on April 8 at 3:00 p.m. EDT, in order to provide information about its different services. CLMP is inviting all presses with at least $10,000 in annual sales and an ongoing publishing program to attend. On April 9, IPG will host its own online open house at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Small Press Distribution Shuts Down

From Publishers Weekly:

Small Press Distribution, one of the last remaining independent book distributors in the United States, has closed. In an announcement made March 28, SPD executive director Kent Watson said that the closure is effective immediately, and that the staff is in the process of winding down the business.

Watson cited a decline in sales and a loss of institutional support as the reasons forcing the distributor, founded in 1969, to close. “Despite the heroic efforts of a tireless staff to raise new funds, find new sales channels for our presses, and move from our outdated Berkeley warehouse, we are simply no longer able to make ends meet,” said Watson in a statement. In February, SPD completed moving more than 300,000 titles from its Berkeley facility to warehouses owned by the Ingram Content Group and Publishers Storage and Shipping.

The transfer was part of Watson’s plan to keep the nonprofit distributor a viable option for small publishers by cutting operating costs while simultaneously increasing services such as access to print-on-demand facilities, e-book and audiobook distribution, and more extensive distribution in the U.S and worldwide.

The move from the Berkeley warehouse was facilitated by a GoFundMe campaign that raised $100,000. Watson launched a second effort last month in an attempt to raise another $75,000 to roll out the new services to publishers, but the campaign was having trouble gaining traction. In announcing the closing, Watson said that the warehouse shift took longer and cost more than SPD had planned for, while systems integration delays further strained SPD’s financial resources. Part of that strain, Watson elaborated, was due to a loss of $125,000 in annual grants SPD had previously received, a loss Watson attributed to “funders [moving] away from supporting the arts.”

At the moment, all SPD inventory remains at the Ingram and PSSC warehouses. In a post on its website, SPD said publishers will need to contact Ingram or PSSC to discuss distribution options and the return or disposition of their books.

The demise of SPD is another blow to independent publishers looking for distribution options to reach retail accounts.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says a lot of many small presses are operated by very conscious people who love books and will publish authors who can’t get a New York publishing contract. These authors are left out in the publishing cold because they write for a group of faithful readers that is too small to move any New York profit needle.

It’s not unusual for small businesses of all sorts to be thinly capitalized without any financial backup plan to weather a storm like that described in the OP.

Authors publishing through small presses provide writing is attractive, at times very attractive, to a small group of ardent book lovers. Again, unless such readers manage to gather hundreds of thousands of like-minded book lovers, big publishers are unlikely to fill a gap that has kept some small publishers in business.

Ingram may want to help, but they operate in large-volume printing and distribution that is designed to sell at least thousands of copies of a given book. PG notes that Ingram Lightning Source does provide print-on-demand service. PG understands that Ingram charges an annual Market Access Fee of $12 for each title a publisher places in the Lightning Source system.

He doesn’t know enough about Ingram’s real-world per-page fees and shipping fees to speculate if it can provide a profitable safety net for small independent publishers. However, he suspects that Small Press Distribution, the last distributor services small publishers that has closed its doors as described in the OP, must have had some significant benefits to small publishers that Ingram does not offer.

AAP StatShot: In 2023, US Revenues Were $12.6 Billion

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its release today (March 26) of its December 2023 StatShot report, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) the year-to-date figures cover last year, with total revenues across all categories in December 2023 down 2.5 percent as compared to December 2022, at US$970.7 million.
Year-to-date revenues, the AAP reports, for the overall industry were up 0.4 percent at US$12.6 billion.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the AAP’s numbers reflect reported revenue for tracked categories including trade (consumer books); higher education course materials; and professional publishing.

Trade Revenues

Calendar Year 2023

Trade revenues were down 0.3 percent at $8.9 billion for the calendar year.

In print formats:

  • Hardback revenues were up 0.4 percent, coming in at $3.3 billion
  • Paperbacks were down 2.0 percent, with $3.1 billion in revenue
  • Mass market was down 22.9 percent to $140.0 million
  • Special bindings were up 2.2 percent, with $210.0 million in revenue

In digital formats:

  • Ebook revenues were up 0.6 percent for the year as compared to the year 2022 for a total of $1.0 billion
  • The closely watched digital audio format was 14.9 percent for 2023, coming in at $864.0 million in revenue
  • Physical audio was down 16.2 percent, coming in at $12.9 million

December 2023
In December, the industry’s trade revenues were down  1.2 percent, at $719.0 million.

In print formats:

  • Hardback revenues were down 8.6 percent, coming in at $245.3 million
  • Paperbacks were down 7.2 percent, with $244.0 million in revenue
  • Mass market was up 5.4 percent to $11.0 million
  • Special bindings were down 14.2 percent, with $18.1 million in revenue

In digital formats:

  • Ebook revenues were up 16.3 percent as compared to December 2022, for a total $90.3 million
  • The digital audio format was up 24.5 percent for December, at $81.9 million in revenue
  • Physical audio was down 7.8 percent, coming in at $1.1 million

. . . .

AAP StatShot reports the monthly and yearly net revenue of publishing houses from US sales to bookstores, wholesalers, direct to consumer, online retailers, and other channels. StatShot draws revenue data from approximately 1,240 publishers, although participation may fluctuate slightly from report to report.

“StatShot reports are designed to give ongoing revenue snapshots across publishing sectors using the best data currently available. The reports reflect participants’ most recent reported revenue for current and previous periods, enabling readers to compare revenue on both a month-to-month and year-to-year basis within a given StatShot report.

“Monthly and yearly StatShot reports may not align completely across reporting periods, because:

  • “The pool of StatShot participants may fluctuate from report to report
  • “As in any business, it’s common accounting practice for publishing houses to update and restate their previously reported revenue data

“If, for example, a business learns that its revenues were greater in a given year than its reports first indicated, it will restate the revenues in subsequent reports to AAP, permitting AAP in turn to report information that is more accurate than previously reported.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG is happy to be corrected by visitors to The Passive Voice who are more statistically literate than he is, but it appears that sales of digital books – ebooks and digital audio – are growing briskly while sales of physical books in all forms are in decline.

PG notes that this is only a snapshot of recent sales, but he doubts that sellers of physical books in any form have been dancing in the streets in recent weeks and months.

From the standpoint of a vendor, sales of digital books and digital audio have to be inherently more profitable because there are no expenses associated with physical stores to pay directly or indirectly.

Organized groups of electrons can be moved from place to place at an extremely low cost.

Small Name Writers…

From Dean Wesley Smith:

Readers buy book by not only what their front brain thinks of the sales copy and the cover, but more than that, readers (all of us) buy books because of subconscious clues.

Clues like:
—Cover art not professional
— Cover art not to genre or book title impossible to read
— Book sales copy dull and passive and gives too much plot away.
— Book interior so poorly formatted as to be impossible to read.
There are others, but one major clue that helps readers trust that the book is done by a professional and it will be entertaining is the size of the author name on the cover.

Yes, size does matter.

Traditional publishing ground one simple concept into readers minds for 50 years.

The bigger the author name on the cover, the better the book will be.

That is where the term “big name author” came from.

A beginning writer with a first book would always have a small name on the book. Roberts, Cussler, Koontz names fill the top third of the book cover.

So suddenly here comes indie publishing and authors, full of fear, put their name down on the bottom of their books in small print. And then wonder why they get no sales.


Your author name should fill from side to side over the top third of every book you write. You should be shouting that you are a big name author to your readers. (There are a few genre common things that tell readers of that genre you are a big name, but mostly it is size.)

So if you want more sales, believe your books are worth reading, then start acting like it and put your name on the top of your books in large form.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve done some shameful things to sell my books. But there’s a line even I can’t cross.

From The Guardian:

Some days I would rather get my bikini line waxed in the window of Dunelm than walk into another bookshop.

Not that bookshops aren’t wonderful places. Of course they are. Bookshops are seething with joy and knowledge and comfort and diversion. They are hideously beautiful to look at, full of like-minded people and ripe with the excitement of discovery. But that, you see, is the problem. Like a stranger holding your childhood toy in one hand and a claw hammer in the other, bookshops have the power to break your heart into tiny shards and then throw the splinters in your eyes.

This week, I watched American Fiction at my local independent cinema. I was with my friend Miranda – also an author – and as well as an audible gasp at the scene where Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright, is offered a $750,000 (£600,000) advance for a book he has written under a pseudonym (I’d classify a $750,000 book advance as science fiction rather than comedy), we also shared a wincing moment of delight at the sight of Monk storming around a bookshop, looking for his own books, complaining about how they had been classified, moving an armload of them to the front of the store and haranguing a shop assistant.

How many times have I, shamefaced, slid up to a twentysomething salesperson in cargo trousers and asked, trying to keep my voice level, if they have any books by, ah, Nell Frizzell? How often have I tried to wrestle my face into something like neutral calm as they click through page after page after page on their computer, as though searching for a hagfish deep in the trenches of the Pacific Ocean? How many times have I shuffled, burning with despair, behind a shop manager as we weave through everything from gender studies to biography, fiction and some section called “new thinking” as they occasionally drop to their knees muttering “Frizzle, Frizzle, hmmmm, Michael Frayn … Stephen Fry … ummmm. Not here, sorry … let’s try floor three”?

To my unending ignominy, how many times have I picked my way through a chain outlet, pushing my books to the front of the display table, or turning them to face out on the shelf, while silently praying that I’m not being caught on CCTV? I’ve done it on holiday, and on my birthday; I’ve even asked a family of tourists to take my photo, beside my book, with my camera, in the Trafalgar Square branch of Waterstones. Worst of all are the days when I don’t dare to walk into a bookshop at all, because the crushing disappointment if it didn’t have a single copy of any of my books would be too much for my withered little ego to handle.

And yet, the very day after watching American Fiction, I found myself behind the counter of a small, independent bookshop, being asked if I could recommend a book for a new mother, the owner having popped out for a minute and left me to stand guard. I could see my most recent book on the shelf behind the customer – full of reassuring stories and written with just this sort of reader in mind. But somehow the idea of recommending my own book, out loud, while posing as a shop assistant, made me cringe inwardly. I took her over to the shelf and sort of passed my hand past the book, like a magician trying to direct your gaze at a rabbit, while chatting about insomnia and breastfeeding and fungal nail infections.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.

Into the Unknown: Stuck in a Writing Rut? It Might Be Time to Expand Your Comfort Zone

From Writers Unboxed:

Like many writers, I’m an introvert. I’m perfectly content sitting in my office alone, in complete silence, for hours on end doing nothing but reading and writing. Crowds make me anxious. Having to make small talk with strangers at parties and business events exhausts me beyond words. If given a choice between talking to someone on the phone and sending them an email, I always choose the latter.

For the most part, this isn’t a problem. Or at least I didn’t think it was until recently.

At the end of December, my publisher emailed me a report detailing my book sales for the previous quarter. I noticed that every time I attended an in-person event or did an author talk, there was a bump in sales. This is great news, and very useful information. The only problem is that I’d rather get a cavity filled than speak in front of group of people. I don’t do it nearly as often as I should.

About a week after I received the report from my publisher, I was thumbing through a self-help book while waiting for my husband to check out at a local book store. Opening the book to a random page, I stumbled upon this: If you want to grow personally and/or professionally you first have to expand your comfort zone.

The author went on to say that our comfort zones are often cozy traps that prevent us from challenging ourselves in ways that allow us to learn new skills, expand our social circles, and grow our careers.

According to the book, the best way to increase the number and variety of things you feel confident about is to do things that make you feel prickly and awkward—like public speaking—often enough that they begin to feel normal. If you keep it up, the thinking goes, activities that make you anxious will eventually become part of a new, more inclusive comfort zone.

This makes sense if you think about things you’ve likely done in the past, such as learning how to ride a bike or drive a car. With repetition and practice, even the most intimidating activities begin to feel like second nature. Your worldview expands, making it possible to see situations and people from different perspectives. Having an expanded view of the world, or at least a small part of it, can also help foster creativity, help make your writing more engaging, and perhaps even motivate you to give other difficult things a try.

Link to the rest at Writers Unboxed

PG says, it’s the old, old, old story.

Most writers are introverts. That’s one of the reasons they enjoy spending a day — writing.

A spouse or children are usually not terribly stressful so long as they give the author her space, her time, which is not to be violated unless someone is bleeding or the fire alarm sounds.

While not true for all writers, a great many get rejuvenated when they’re writing

The nightmare before Christmas

From The Bookseller:

Last week I spoke at a local secondary school about bookselling and running a small business. One of the questions asked was “What’s the hardest part of owning a business?” “Fear of failure,” I said. What I didn’t say was that, at the moment, things are scary.

We’ve led a fairly charmed life for the five years we’ve been in operation. Even the period during Covid-19 proved successful, once we made it through the first lockdown with sanity just about intact. When our children could go back to nursery in June of 2020, and we could open the shop doors for click and collect, takings rocketed. Everyone who could was working from home, which gave our residential location a huge advantage, and Waterstones was closed. It was this period that gave us the capital to move and expand our Bristol shop and open a second store in Portishead.

Last autumn these moves were paying off. This autumn has been another story. Costs are up, takings are down and the Christmas sales uptick only arrived in December, six weeks later than normal. For the first time since we opened in 2018, nerves are, if not frayed, feeling a little worn.

The cold comfort is that we’re not the only ones. Seeing the stories on Facebook from other bookshops, and hearing reports from the various sales reps that visit us, times are tough for everyone. Other sectors are also feeling the pinch. I met a friend yesterday whose restaurant has grown and grown for the past decade (both in size and profit). As we had lunch he told me his takings are 28% down year-on-year!

As the interest rate hikes bite on people’s mortgage renewals, as food prices stay stubbornly high, as the cost of every activity and product has to increase to cover costs (or gauge prices in the case of some of the big brands), shopping habits are changing. People are buying less. Last year our customers may have bought a hardback as a gift, this year it’s a paperback. Last year they may have bought two or three books for one person, this year it’s just one.

. . . .

The increased prices of books haven’t helped. Non-fiction paperbacks have broken the £10 barrier. Big title fiction hardbacks are now £25, up from £20. I will happily argue that this is exceptional value for the lifetime of joy you’re getting, especially in comparison to the £4 coffee that lasts 30 minutes. But to those buying presents while watching their budgets, these price increases, even if just psychologically, are putting people off.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Burden and Necessity of Genre

From The Millions:

When you write a book, there are certain questions you can expect: How long did it take you? Will you write a sequel? And—the inevitable—what is it?

What it is: thousands of hours tapping away on a keyboard between swiping student IDs at the Sarah Lawrence gym, months of crippling doubt, dozens of rewrites, maddening rounds of edits, the culmination of years of dreaming and plotting condensed into a 300-page manuscript with which I’ve imbued the emotional vulnerability of a pubescent diary.

No, they will persist. What is it?

I rehearsed this answer in my query letter, tweaked depending on the interest and need of the agent addressed: Complete at 80,000 words, this

Sometimes it was a literary novel. Sometimes a literary commercial novel. Sometimes a literary novel with commercial appeal. Once, upmarket women’s fiction.

It’s adult literary fiction, I tell people. I think of the many times I’ve been prompted to make such unambiguous designations, usually without issue: I am Female. I am White. But something doesn’t feel right about defining my novel, about giving it a genre (a word that has always conjured for me cover images of bursting corsets and rippled abdominals). Something doesn’t feel right about defining novels at all.

As a bookseller, I compartmentalize novels everyday. If it’s not Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance, then it falls under the catch-all umbrella of Literature. I watch our erudite Upper West Side clientele squint warily at the shelves. The other day, a man held up a novel with a beach on the cover—a cartoon woman sunning herself on a striped towel pictured—and sniffed distastefully. As though a thought bubble appeared above his head, he tossed the novel back on its stack of identical copies in a way that said, You call this literature?

If prompted, I couldn’t say with any tact what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction. Literary fiction values prose over plot, I might say. Commercial fiction is about the story, whereas literary fiction is about the characters. Like an indie flick verses a Hollywood blockbuster, one novel wears a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and the other mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators. A literary agent I once interned for cut to the chase: “We’re looking for new literary voices,” she told me. “Try to find submissions with a mention of an MFA.”

As reluctant as I am to call my novel commercial, to call it “literary” can feel snobbish in its insistence. Who am I to say that I am more Mary Gaitskill than Mary Kay Andrews? Who am I to say what my novel is at all?

That’s the thing I’ve learned: once you release a novel into the world, you relinquish your control over how it is defined. What my “adult literary fiction” novel has become: Coming of Age. Contemporary Women. Romance. Suspense. Genre Fiction. My novel is amorphous, ready to be whatever it needs to be given the audience. What I can’t decide is whether this ability to sit on many different shelves is a benefit or a hindrance.

Claiming multiple genres feels akin to presenting a business card with the title Artist/Writer/Dancer/Freelance DJ—a worse offense, perhaps, than asserting literary value. But in working in a bookstore, in placing books onto their various shelves and thinking, This doesn’t belong here, I’ve come to appreciate what a misnomer and a crutch a genre can be. When I pressed a copy of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan into a customer’s hand and told her, “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction.

Few books are what they initially appear. I almost didn’t pick up Ben Dolick’s The Ghost Notebooks, put off by the word “supernatural” on its back cover and its placement on the Sci-Fi shelf. When a friend gave me the ARC of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature that the bookstore had received, he said, “You read thrillers, right? This sounds like a thriller,” and I almost felt insulted. I put off reading the copy of Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman that my coworker lent me, its promise of a “historical romance “ enough to raise my skepticism. “I promise, it has literary merit,” she told me. It took me a while to admit what I always knew: that to me, “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”

. . . .

The question is whether genres need to be abandoned, or if our definitions of genres need to be expanded. Few novels fit snuggly into one category, though there are no doubt novels that do: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance. It was Octavia Butler and Junot Díaz who allowed me to start to question those classifications in college with Kindred and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, respectively. I hadn’t known that literary novels could have time travel and magic and, knowing this, it didn’t seem fair or even possible that Kindred and Keith Roberts’s The Furies could occupy the same shelf. It only occurred to me then that I’d always thought “literary” also meant taking place in the real world. The Furies is science fiction. Kindred is more complicated than that.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says genre is a marketing tool. If prospective customers don’t understand what the title of a genre means, it’s a less effective marketing tool than it could be.

Genre in a physical bookstore is more difficult because if a book is placed in the wrong genre section, customers who would otherwise be interested in reading it may never see it.

PG doesn’t want to be too geeky, but compared with a search engine, discovery in a bookstore is bronze-age.

Is Traditional Fiction Publishing Broken?

From Writer Unboxed:

Today’s post was inspired by a novelist friend of mine who has been having a hard time of it lately, and in their struggle to regain footing in the fiction market, suggested that I address the question of how to keep the faith in today’s challenging publishing environment. What follows are my thoughts and observations about what’s going on and why, and what can be done, and whether there’s any cause for hope. I welcome your thoughts and observations, too.

Times are tough these days for novelists who are not long-established perennial bestsellers, literary luminaries, or aren’t named (for example) Colleen Hoover, Bonnie Garmus, Rebecca Yarros, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hannah Grace, or Ana Huang.

Fiction sales to consumers over the past three years have been robust in comparison to pre-pandemic years. Yet, across genres, published and aspiring authors alike are finding it especially difficult to get read, whether that be by editors or agents or the reading public. Authors who’ve been in the business for a while (sometimes for decades) can’t get new book deals. Agents are rejecting new authors at even higher rates than usual. What gives?

I should note that publishing always has a component of what I call “eight-year-olds chasing the soccer ball”—wherever the ball is going at any given time, the herd is running after it. Which is to say that when a given genre or sub-genre starts trending, a significant proportion of the publishing ecosystem, from writer to bookseller and all points between, wants in. In years past, this wasn’t especially problematic for those who exist outside of the trend(s); there was demand for and space for all kinds of books. So what’s changed?

Let’s look, first, at space. National media book coverage has shrunk to almost nothing, and where it exists, coverage has in many cases become so clotted with titles that it’s practically meaningless (take for example, EW’s recent list of “The 42 fall books we’re most excited to read”). Bookstore space is also tighter, due to rising rents, the proliferation of eBooks, and online book-buying. What’s more, many physical bookstores, wanting to capitalize on the biggest trending books, are prioritizing that handful of titles by placing even larger orders and creating big, obvious, exclusive displays. Publishing space—meaning the number of publishing imprints as well as the number of books being acquired—has contracted, too.

Now, demand. Demand is a wibbly concept. Seen one way, it’s demonstrated concretely by what readers are buying en mass. The books they’re buying, though, are less a reflection of what, independent of influence, they may desire than of what they see the most of (this is the principle behind advertising; create demand). By the same token, if we don’t know a book exists because we haven’t seen or heard about it wherever we spend our time, we aren’t going to seek it out—and this creates a perception that there was no demand for it. (This is the all-too-common Kiss of Death for authors’ careers.)

These days, the primary, most effective book-discovery resource is TikTok—where nearly 75% of users are younger than 45, and 44% are under 25. During the early phase of the pandemic, lightning struck Colleen Hoover there. Her blaze was astonishing. If I’m recalling correctly, I think that at one point her books held nine of the fifteen spots on the NYT trade paperback list. Nine! This is, to use an overused word, unprecedented. In 2022, she sold more than 14 million books. Let that sink in for a minute. One author, in one year, sold more than 14 MILLION books. Consider what that says about readers’ book-buying behaviors (the book industry certainly is doing so).

But here’s the thing about phenomenons: they don’t last. The brushfire burns hot for a while, but eventually it uses up its fuel and burns out. The problem, though, is that while it’s burning, the herd runs in the direction of the blaze in the hope of catching fire, and this blaze is possibly the biggest publishing has ever seen.

Another component of the problem is occurring on the bookselling side. The competition among publishers for bookseller notice and support, both pre- and post-publication, is fierce. Influential booksellers are besieged with bound manuscripts and advance copies. They sincerely want to help everyone they can, and this puts pressure on them to read and review as many books as they can, which naturally results in them reading much more quickly than they ordinarily would, which creates unintended bias toward high-concept and/or shorter and/or fast-paced, easily digestible stories, and against authors who write denser, more layered work (unless of course those authors are already “names,” cf. Amor Towles, Abraham Verghese, Barbara Kingsolver).

The same is true for those on social media (IG in particular) who are considered to be book-influencers and who are over-relied upon by marketing teams to “build buzz.” Only, unlike booksellers, they are primarily young (under 35) with reading tastes that already skew toward books that, whether “light” or “dark,” move fast and give them what critic Laura Miller, when writing about Colleen Hoover’s books, described as “all the feels.” Though they sometimes gush about a particular book, often they post lovely but largely ineffectual photos of book stacks. Not only are they trying to influence their followers’ tastes, they’re competing with one another—for followers, for publisher favor, for having read the largest number of books. The FOMO factor here is significant. While there are some really wonderful book-folk in this space, thoughtful engagement with and meaningful feature of a book is more the exception than the rule.

We all know that while writing novels is an art and craft, publishing novels is a business, and staying in business requires lots and lots and lots of books to be sold. Risk is discouraged. So although there are still many agents and editors whose tastes and preferences remain outside the blaze, the current reality is that if a given book isn’t likely to be selected by a celebrity or isn’t BookTok Hot, it’s going to be a harder sell at every stage. Readers who are over the age of 45 and/or don’t prioritize social media are difficult for publishers to reach, and no one seems to have fresh ideas let alone answers for addressing that.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG’s answer to the question in the article’s title: “Yes. And it’s been broken for some time, but it took a while for most readers to discover that traditional publishing is circling the drain and not coming back.”

As someone once said, “How did I go broke? Gradually, then suddenly.”