In Pandemic, Dystopian Fiction Loses Its Luster for Editors

From Publishers Weekly:

The big adult fiction title of this past fall was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. The sequel to the author’s 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale was unveiled with a 500,000-copy first printing. At the time, The Handmaid’s Tale was benefitting from a surge of interest in its wildly popular TV adaptation on Hulu, and from a renewed interest in dystopian tales following the election of Donald Trump. Now, with the globe seized by a pandemic and millions of Americans hunkered down because of shelter-at-home orders, editors say they are interested in lighter fare—mostly.

So what are publishers interested in buying during a pandemic? According to a number of editors and agents who specialize in adult commercial fiction, escapism is on the rise, to an extent.

“This is the question I think we’re all dealing with right now,” said Harper editor Sara Nelson, when asked if she’s looking for different kinds of books since the Covid-19 outbreak. “On the one hand, we’re so obsessed with our current moment that it’s hard to know what we, let alone most readers, will want to read a year, or a year and a half, from now. I don’t generally buy dystopian fiction anyway, but I am pretty sure I won’t find dystopian novels appealing for the near future.”

Nelson, who has always loved historical fiction (among her notable acquisitions in the genre is Heather Morris’s bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz), added that she is taking even more comfort in these types of books now as “reading about the past becomes even more appealing as we slide into the murky future.”

Peter Steinberg, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media, said, “When there’s an unexpected shift in society, I think it has an almost real-time effect on editors’ buying habits. Because of the overwhelming nature of Covid-19, escapism is one of the better ways to elicit those intense emotions.”

But many agents and editors warned that escapism is an incredibly broad term—one that makes room for everything from romantic comedies to dark thrillers.

. . . .

When asked what she’s looking to buy right now, Jennifer Enderlin, executive v-p and publisher of St. Martin’s Press, said, “In terms of fiction, I wouldn’t say editors want more uplifting books over thrillers or tear-jerkers.” But, she added, “bad-news books, not so much.”

For Enderlin, the term escapism is problematic, insofar as it confers a certain levity. That, she explained, is not necessarily what she wants now. “Escapism doesn’t have to mean fluffy or light. It can be searing, devastating, romantic, suspenseful, hilarious, or transporting.” She noted that she is seeing a huge uptick in sales of her author Kristin Hannah’s 2015 bestseller The Nightingale, which Enderlin described as a “box-of-tissues read.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From “A Way with Words“:

The job of a network executive has never been easy. Picking a hit is a tall order even for someone with what the industry likes to call a “golden gut”—a knack for sniffing out what’s likely to sell.» —“NBC Seeks Vision of TV’s Future” by Ronald Grover BusinessWeek May 1, 2009.

PG suggests that the golden gut approach to product design and selection is one that is fraught with the potential for serious mistakes. Particularly when acquisition editors at traditional publishers are making decisions about books that are unlikely to appear before a couple of years from now, the view of someone living in a relatively-fashionable part of New York City about what readers will want may be wrong.

Given the social and educational uniformity among New York City publishing executives and editors, their ignorance of serious readers more than 50 miles west of NYC is often profound. For example, what do the editors quoted in the OP know about the tastes of readers in:

  • Ithaca, New York
  • Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
  • Ames, Iowa
  • Watertown-Fort Drum, New York

These were The Five Most Well-Read Cities in the United States according to a 24/7 Wall Street study published in 2018. (For the benefit of visitors to TPV who are a little vague about Ithaca and Watertown-Fort Drum, Ithaca is about 230 miles from NYC and Watertown-Fort Drum is about 310 miles from NYC. Both cities are closer to Canada than they are to NYC. (Since PG has never visited either Ithaca or Watertown-Ford Drum, he can’t say for certain, but he would bet good money that each place is very unlike NYC.)

A few quotes from the study:

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 1 in 4 Americans read a book in the last year. That statistic includes e-books and audiobooks, not just the printed word.

. . . .

24/7 Wall St. reviewed a number of measures associated with literacy to determine which American metropolitan areas are most likely to read books on a regular basis. These include the presence of public libraries in a city, residents’ education level, and the presence of higher learning institutions. The best-read cities range from small cities like Ithaca, New York to major metropolitan centers like New York CIty and Boston.

According to Pew’s research, households with higher incomes are significantly more likely to read books on a regular basis. In most of the metropolitan areas to make this list, the typical household income well exceeds the national median household income.

According to the same Pew study, approximately 1 in 5 Americans have never visited a library. And slightly less than half of all Americans have been to one in the past year.

Educational attainment has a significant impact on how likely Americans are to read on a regular basis. Almost 60% of those with a college education visited a library within the last 12 months, but that figure drops to less than 40% for those with no more than a high school diploma.

To determine the most well-read cities in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed a number of measures associated with literacy to determine which American metropolitan areas are most likely to read on a regular basis. Our estimate for the number of public libraries per 100,000 people is based on library listings in the American Library Directory, population estimates are the most recent available, and are from the U.S. Census Bureau. We also looked at education levels and income figures, from the Census Bureau’s 2016 one-year American Community Survey. The number of college and universities in the surrounding county of each city came from the U.S. Department of Education. All age estimates are just that — estimates.

So, where did New York City, center of American trade publishing rank as a well-read city?


Manhattan (Kansas) ranked #6. (The better-read Manhattan is over 1,300 miles from the laggard.)

Once again, PG has ranted for longer than he should have, so he will conclude with his contention that indie authors as a group understand the tastes of readers in the United States far better than Manhattan editors do.

From a his dealings with several of them, PG believes that top-selling indie authors understand their genres and what readers of their genre will look for in a book far, far better than anyone sitting in a tall building in New York City does.

24 thoughts on “In Pandemic, Dystopian Fiction Loses Its Luster for Editors”

  1. Civilization ends at the Hudson. The real problem is that the narcissistic barbarians are on the eastern shore (thereby dragging in Boston, too!) — but define “civilization” to mean “just like us, and those of us who are connected to the arts in any real fashion are overwhelmingly dependent upon trust funds or other family money and have no clue about actually ‘earning a living’ in the arts.”

    That said, NYC-based commercial publishing is no different from — and has virtually the same blind spots as — its counterparts in Paris, in London, in Frankfurt, and in Tokyo. Those are just the ones for which I have pretty solid documentation; I’m sure it holds elsewhere, too.

    • To be fair, the Manhattan mafia has no way to avoid the blind spots of Paris, London, and Frankfurt, since they are owned by those folks who have no interest in what “plays in Peoria”.

      They are hardly the types to tell their bosses they are disconnected from the realities of the market on this side of tbe Atlantic and that what flies in fixed-price Paris or Frankfurt, with single digit ebook adoption, is slow suicide in North America, with consumer-oriented antitrust and a third (or more) of the market committed to ebooks, both sale and rental.

      Which, come to think of it, is just fine for Indie, Inc.

      • Felix, the Manhattan mafia is owned by Paris, London, and Frankfurt (I think you might have been referring to this but it’s unclear to me). Hachette is a subsidiary of a Paris/Geneva-based arms dealer, and the less said about the English and German connections the happier publicists everywhere will be. (Especially the publicists who continue to claim that there’s only single-digit e-book adoption in Germany… by including noncomparable items like controlled-circulation journals in the denominator. <sarcasm> But nobody in publishing ever uses deceptive statistics. Especially not the AAP. </sarcasm>)

        And the “people” are the same.

        • Right, that was my point.
          None of those folks are going to risk their paychecks by speaking up.

          Back during the Agency conspiracy then-independent stayed out of Agency and made hay (and saved themselves the fines the others paid out) but after two months Bertelsmann told them to go agency or else. They knew it was…unwise, said so and proved it, but they made the others look bad so the head office put their foot down.

          The head office knows best.
          Especially when they don’t.

          (As for ebook adoption rates, Indies and Amazon don’t count. That is the same on both sides of tbe pond. Don’t want to undercut screen fatigue, now, would we? 😉 )

        • Having worked for a (fortunately) few years for LexisNexis, I had dealings with some of the executives of its European owners, Reed Elsevier, now RELX (a name which manifests marketing genius in action), I will attest to your observations, C.E.

          Zero innovation. Zero understanding about how to expand markets other than to buy competitors. Infinite certainty of the immortality of the current business model.

    • Agreed, C.E.

      One of publishing’s greatest weaknesses and vulnerabilities is its institutional parochialism.

  2. I guess I would ask who are the people who would do a better job? We hear a lot about what shouldn’t be done, and all the mistakes of the past, and what the better people wouldn’t have done.

    OK, beyond the aspirational, what would the folks do who are better at this? Not the objectives they hope to reach, but the steps they would take to reach the objectives

    For example, “We have to do better at getting consumers what they really want.” OK. That’s a result of action. And that’s easy to formulate. What action?

    • There’s the folks running BAEN, APub, and dozens of mid- and small publishers.
      (Pretty much any tradpub not stuck with bosses on the far size of the pond.)

      There’s dozens of execs running other content businesses in video, audio, and gaming. And the gaming folks are legion. They are all dealing with shifts from B&M to online digital to subscription rentals. And prospering.

      There’s no magic to dealing with tech disruption; just one rule, “Don’t pretend it ain’t real.”
      A corollary: the faster you move, the better you do.

      • OK. So what do people reporting to North Americans do so well? We hear all kinds of things people should not do. OK. Fine. While they are not doing those things, what actions do they take, and how do those actions differ from what they do under European managers?

        Lots of what I hear about publishers sounds like Underpants Gnomes.
        Phase 1: Collect underpants
        Phase 2: ?
        Phase 3: Profit

        • What do they do well?
          They sell direct to consumers; they fight to get into libraries, not fight against them; they offer free ebook copies of series-starting books. They run online communities to engage with readers. They price ebooks below their print equivalents. They sell their ebooks DRM-free in multiple formats, even ancient ones. They sell affordable bundles fronted by top sellers to get exposure and sales for newer authors, some of whom are now top sellers themselves.

          Above all, they market, market, market.
          Their online site is clean, useful, and doesn’t crash when you try a search.
          And they’ve been doing this for 20 years, before Kindle, before Agency, before ebooks went mainstream. They saw the future coming and positioned themselves for it.

          All this, by a single small publisher with modest budgets. Now imagine a *big* publisher doing this. As late as 2010 the BPHs moved two thirds of ebooks at Kindle. More in the stores they killed with Agency. They used to be 100% of library books, print and digital. The game was theirs to lose and they did.

          As I said, it pays to move early.
          Adapting is more productive than fighting the future.

          Similar stories are playing out on video right now.
          Warner has been buying up movie and TV archives since the 80’s. Warner’s HBO started selling video subscriptions in the 1970’s.
          Netflix and Prime started subscriptions early this decade.
          Today, Netflix, HBO, and Prime lead the way.
          Disney jumped late but with *everything* and they’re growing like weeds.
          Universal? Late to the Party. Apple has a heavily hyped belated effort…with 27 shows. Against tens of thousands of hours from the pioneers who studied the market and understood the need to get away from middlemen, go direct to consumers.

          First movers prosper.
          Even close followers succeed; that was Apple’s model for 40 years, waiting for Altair, Xerox, Diamond, Microsoft, and others to pioneer a market before jumping in with lots of “cool” and ad money. eBooks they waited too long, tried to ctch up with price fixing. Not so successful. Digital assistants? Fail. Home automation, lagging.

          The race to the future is accelerating; go slow is slow death.

          Look at all the big tech companies; most are american, most were pioneers, not “me too” latecomers clinging to old products, old processes, old channels.

          Post-industrial civilization is driven by tech and by information and analysis and cold calculated reads of the future. Clinging to the old ways and actively fighting the new is a surefire way to die.

          • Want to see how breakneck the 21st century is getting?
            Look to SpaceX: ten years from zero to industry leader.
            They are half the cost of the one-time leader, Ariane.
            They have been flying reusable rockets for five years; Ariane is starting a *study* to figure out how to do it.
            And over in Texas, SpaceX is intentionally blowing up prototypes every other week, developing tbeir next generation of reusables that might cut operational cost by a factor of ten, and in parallel figuring out how to build them a hundred a year.
            They are also building and launching satellites every other week, sixty at a time, to offer internet everywhere on the planet.
            Amazon is working on it, Project Kuiper, but haven’t launched a thing.
            Ariane invested in a british startup, OneWeb. They just declared bankruptcy; their launch costs were too high.
            The future isn’t hard to visualize.
            The hard part is remembering that if you don’t obsolete your products somebody else will do it for you.
            Coasting is not conducent to survival.

            • Sounds like a renaissance of brilliant and inspired American publishing management.

              However, we might ask if reducing eBook fiction prices is in the best interests of large publishers.

              • Depends on which management you talk about.
                The Manhattan mafia?
                I doubt it. Their overhead is too big and their focus on ever scarcer blockbusters too ingrained. They’re too obsessed with reader spend to change.

                Indies, micropresses, and small houses.
                Quite possible. They don’t need blockbusters just to stay afloat, just a steady stream of decent sellers. Do remember that the succesful tradpubs aren’t selling $0.99 ebooks or even Indie-priced $2.99 ones. But neither do the cbarge $13-17. Most live in the $5-10 range, much like APub. Trafitional mass market prices but without the burden of dead tree pulp. They still do print but don’t cripple digital to do so.

                American publishing before the 80’s was diversified and vibrant. Those 3000 imprints of, say, the randy Penguin? They used to be small independent houses, competing against each other. As Indie, Inc spreads, we may see a return of partnership publishing, coops, and agile tradpubs.
                So guarantees but Darwinian times lead to evolution.

                Look at the auto industry where Tesla is the acknowledged global leader. Ford’s electric quasi-Mustang meets Tesla specs on paper. If they meet them on the ground we’ll have a race. There’s already rumors of Tesla dropping prices. GM’s electrics have been underwhelming but tbeir new battery tech looks promising. Neither is looking to government regulation or price fixing to save them; they’re taking on the challenge to compete on equal terms.

                In publishing it can be done’ just not with three martini lunches, fighting with distributors, skipping marketing, and above all, not throwing out 30,000 random titles a year, to see what sticks to the wall.

                Note that the two largest media companies ditched publishing years ago and the last american BPH is belatedly looking to do the same. They see no future in doing publishing the old way.

                Whatever future traditional publishing is to have is more likely to be small, laser-focused on niches, and very, very agile.

                • Depends on which management you talk about.
                  I’m referring to whomever you are praising. The folks who sell direct to consumers, fight to get into libraries, and offer free ebook copies of series-starting books.”

                  The American publishers.

                • They’re examples of things anybody else can do but tbe BPHs aren’t allowed.
                  There actually was a time when MacMillan’s TOR tried to imitate BAEN in selling ebooks through the BAEN WEBSCRIPTIONS ebookstore (other publishers were and are welcome there). The TOR books were listed in tbe same formats as tbe BAEN titles. With a week the word came down from Germany to TOR. The books were gone right away.

                  There’s nothing magical about marketing books and customer focused publishing. Amazon isn’t the only one doing these things and neither is BAEN. Other small presses do most of those things.

                  It’s the BPHs thst choose not to do them because they diverge from european publishing practices.

                  It isn’t seemly, apparently, to listen to consumers.

                • What are consumers saying that is ignored by big publishing arms of European firms?

                  Is it possible they hear and understand, but choose to follow what they define as their interests rather than what bystanders want to define for them?

                  I see many claims by authors that publishers don’t know, are ignorant, don’t understand, and refuse to see things. These claims are often supported by citing publisher action that the authors don’t like. If the publishers just knew what the authors know, then they would do what the authors want.

                  OK. Think they might know, understand, and see, yet disagree with the outspoken authors about what is in the best interests of the publishers??

                • Oh, not getting fired by the “german person” with the pink slips** is in their best interest. It’s the reason they ignore what they do see and spout things they know to be false. Doing a good job isn’t in tbeir best interest. Kissing booty is.

                  Back in April 2010 the Random House CEO explained he was staying out of the Agency conspitacy because “retailers understand price best”. By June, he’d heard from Bertlesmann and suddenly, he was rah-rahing Agency. Even though RH was more profitable before Agency than after.

                  Yeah, best interests, indeed.
                  Great excuse. Toe the line until the golden parachute vests. Let the company sither and the next guy deal with it.

                  **Seen this oldie but goodie?

                  “New York is a company town with several mostly non-overlapping companies. If you’re in publishing, you don’t meet that many people from finance, and if you’re in the art world, you don’t meet that many white-shoe lawyers unless they’re buying art. In fact, the worlds are even more segregated than that—writers don’t know that many artists, bankers don’t know that many lawyers. Each of the circles is large enough on its own and has neither need nor time for any of the others.

                  Our circle was publishing and academia. We knew a lot of magazine and book editors, grad students, literary agents, and writers. (These were all print writers. Internet writers and entrepreneurs had their own circle.) The agents were gloomy about the state of publishing, and the editors were gloomier. There were, as they explained it, several forces at work. The first was Barnes & Noble, which since the early 1990s had managed to open more than 700 “superstores” across the United States. The stores were gigantic. No one had ever sold so many books. Barnes & Noble became bigger than any individual publisher, a lot bigger, and started dictating its terms—greater discounts, more flexibility on returning merchandise. For small publishers, these policies could be ruinous. Meanwhile, over the years, as the book business had become more profitable, and more cutthroat, the publishers were swallowed one by one by large multi-national conglomerates. Periodically a German person would arrive in town and fire everyone. It made the editors uneasy.”

                  More at the source.
                  It’s an education.

                • We might remember it’s the German person who determines what is in the firm’s best interest, not the American author.

                • The German owner may be the one who has the right and responsibility to determine what is in the company’s best interests, but that doesn’t mean that the determinations they make are the best ones possible.

                • The best are the ones that meet the owners’ objectives. On may dispute the effectiveness of a given strategy to meet a chosen objective. But, without knowing the objective, it’s hard to evaluate the strategy.

                  I think we have lots of cases where the objectives of the publishers are different from the objectives the author would choose for the publisher. In those cases, what the author thinks doesn’t matter.

                  For example, an author may choose an objective for a publisher of moving fiction into eBooks and out of paper. But the publisher may have an objective of making as much cash as possible by managing paper decline and eventually exiting fiction.

                  With the German person, it gets more interesting because he represents a private company where one family has a controlling interest.

                  Think they care what objectives an American author picks for them?

                • They obviously don’t care.
                  Distant overlords rarely do.
                  The objectives are invariant: buy property, collect rent. Just milk the natives while the getting is good. Local staff are figureheads, good for keeping the “estate” presentable and delivering the rents. Not to be trusted with much else.

                  Their ways have lost them power, relevance, and half their market share. Leaving them stagnant in a growing market. They didn’t care as lobg as the checks arrived on time.
                  So what if they were flat or worse?
                  The rents were flat at home, too.

                  That was all before the pandemic.
                  It’s a new game. The staff have plenty of things to blame their losses on so they won’t have to be creative there, anymore.
                  Pinks slips may come come they won’t matter anymore.

                • The objectives are invariant: buy property, collect rent. Just milk the natives while the getting is good.

                  Could be. It’s the German Person’s money, and his objectives. He then decides if he is meeting them.

                  Authors don’t like it? OK. Hit the Amazon upload button. The German Person doesn’t owe the authors what they want.

      • Be somewhat careful in extolling the virtues of Baen. Like know a little bit more about how Jim Baen came to go off on his own, and at least acknowledge that there’s Other Baggage. Just… be… careful, especially when getting one’s information from only one source or faction of sources (for example, look into why the longest-running speculative fiction review source — Locus — continues to avoid reviewing Baen books, years after both of the playground-feuding principals died, and don’t rely just on the fannish legends related to their respective hissy fits).

        Of course, there’s Other Baggage with almost all distributors in any segment of the entertainment industry; publishing is not unique. I have to work extensively with, around, and most often against both H’wood and N’ville, and to a slightly lesser extent the even-snootier-and-more-arrogant-if-that-is-even-possible self-described “legit” stage. They’re usually much worse (e.g., Harvey Weinstein wasn’t just a serial sex criminal, he was an IP thief).

        • I’ve been buying BAEN ebooks since they started doing ebooks.
          Their authors seem happy, their readers are happy. They seem to be making enough to survive long after Baen died.

          Publishing politics I couldn’t care less about but I wouldn’t expect the establishment to particularly like a company with room for libertarians and communists among their authors. Nor one with a history of exploiting combat SF and comedy fantasy as well as gun nut action thrillers. A lot of the “scandalous” ones I’ve seen are more tongue in cheek and whimsical than offensive, especially compared to each day’s news.

          My main interest is their customer facing business practices and marketing.
          Especially the fact they actually do marketing.
          Their prices are fair, their user policies are friendly, their website is stable, and, oh yeah, the books are more often than not entertaining. Some are even exemplars of their subgenre.

          If they kick cats and roast babies on the side or annoy Locus (are tbey still charging indies for reviews?) isn’t much of a concern to me.

          FWIW: I found PALADIN OF SHADOWS a hysterical writer’s exercise in intentionally offensive tough guy action. Enough to see him push the boundaries to 13 and then back down into DOC SAVAGE territory when he ran out of over the top crimes for his protagonist. Labeling him an anti-hero doesn’t do him justice. 😀

          But then I understand it’s just a story.
          Besides, the series kept on selling long after Ringo got tired of the gag. Says more about the readers than the author.

          (I still chuckle at the scene where a drug kinpin is trying to get information by torture from an extreme masochist. And she critiques his poor form.)

          If anything, I think it speaks oodles about the Baen’s staff business accumen that they went ahead and published such a politically incorrect book. Or for that matter, the Bond-ish CALIPHATE. If the market wants to give you money, take it.

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