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.”

3 thoughts on “Is Traditional Fiction Publishing Broken?”

  1. Another take on the brokenness of tradpublishing:

    American Fiction. It’s about a guy who pulls a variant of the Sokal hoax on his publishers.

    The trailer made me laugh several times, so I’ll likely go see the movie in theaters.

    • Oh, yeah.
      That one bears watching.
      (Looks bit like THE PRODUCERS; a runaway scam.)
      I’ll add it to SNOW WHITE AND THE EVIL QUEEN as a possible cultural milestone.

  2. Traditional fiction publishing has been broken since long enough before September 1957, when Ted Sturgeon stated the initial formulation of Sturgeon’s Law, for there to be enough data to formulate Sturgeon’s Law without it seeming like, well, science fiction.

    There isn’t a truly canonical form, because Sturgeon himself had stated the law prior to its appearance in print, and then continued to refine it. Roughly: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then, ninety percent of everything is crud.” (This follows from a George Orwell essay in 1946 — the earliest specification as 90% that I know about, and Orwell himself was just distilling the common knowledge among the literati.)

    So if you’re publishing 90% crud, you’re broken; and it’s been known as such for at least eighty years or so. Heck, if you really need proof: Sit down and actually read any of the material put out by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and that’s going back well over a century.

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