«Current Trends in Traditional Book Publishing: The long-term market is flat»

Jane Friedman
janefriedman.com (@JaneFriedman)

Annie Spratt @anniespratt, Unsplash.

«As publisher of the The Hot Sheet newsletter, I regularly read and report on market trends that affect traditionally published and self-published writers. In today’s post, I’ve gathered some of the trend information we’ve published in 2019; while it’s most pertinent to traditionally published authors, self-published authors may recognize these trends in the market as well.


»According to reports from NPD Bookscan, after six years of growth, the print market for traditional publishers has started to decline. High-profile titles drove growth in 2018, while backlist gained market share, thus squeezing the midlist. Political fatigue is setting in, but lifestyle themes (e.g., Marie Kondo) remain strong.

»While print sales are roughly flat, the ebook market for traditional publishers has declined every year since 2014; the market has remained stable in part because of the growth of digital audiobooks—where revenue grew 37 percent year on year through November 2018. One of the key questions moving forward is whether audio can grow the digital market without cannibalizing existing formats. Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, said during BookExpo that cannibalization is not happening from where she sits: more formats means more sales.

»While nonfiction is still performing better than fiction, political book sales are down. During the first quarter of 2019, political book sales declined 28 percent compared to last year, according to NPD Bookscan. But it’s not for lack of new titles; title output is up 16 percent. Editors and agents are becoming far more critical when acquiring political titles; see more below under nonfiction trends.

»The top YA growth categories in 2019 are in nonfiction—history, sports, people, and places. The biggest YA decline was in general fiction, but the top fiction category is now science fiction / magic—a rebound after a significant decline for that category in 2017. As a whole, the YA category is marginally positive.


»At this year’s New York Rights Fair (held at BookExpo in late May), a panel of agents and editors discussed what they’re looking for in fiction. It included agent Melissa Flashman (Janklow & Nesbit), editor Sally Kim (GP Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Random House), editor Amy Einhorn (Flatiron/Macmillan), and agent Dorian Karchmar (William Morris Endeavor).

»Psychological suspense remains popular. This genre has been trending since the publication of Gone Girl. However, Karchmar said fatigue and skepticism have started to develop around the category, and more derivative books are getting published. Still, there’s a sizable market for it.

»The current reader mood: escape combined with nostalgia. Kim believes this is driven by current events, or how the world is “a little bit upside down”; people look to books for an escape. She also pointed to horror as experiencing a nice resurgence, partly due to nostalgia—readers want to recapture that time when they were a reader in high school and loved such books. Flashman added that Millennial readers are nostalgic for life before social media (the cutoff is around 2006), and so we’re starting to see novels that tap into that sentiment.

»Some of the panelists expressed surprise at the success of darker narratives. One example offered was When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a story posthumously published about his metastatic lung cancer, represented and sold by Karchmar to Random House. She said, “A lot of people [in the industry] were scared about that book. There was a lot of skepticism about whether that could work.” However, she believes there is a hunger, curiosity, and sense of urgency “for readers to understand and experience POVs that are not their own—which of course is sort of the whole freaking point of fiction.” She added, “It’s quite wonderful to see this growth and profound interest that has emerged that proves some of the truisms wrong—that dark can be great as long as we’re being immersed in an experience that is being fully excavated for its meaning.” (Note that those on the panel said they group fiction and memoir together when describing qualities they look for in a story.)

»High concept was once important—and can still sell a book—but that doesn’t necessarily lead to a long sales life. Kim said, “For a while it seemed everything had to have a high concept to cut through all the noise. ... But those that really last are those books that have really good storytelling, good voice, books that really move you. ... It has to have the deeper layers.” She later elaborated that what makes a book succeed sales-wise is word of mouth, and that is driven by writing that is “really, really good” rather than by an original or a high-concept conceit.

»However, a great hook is critical to marketing. Flashman said that, regardless of how great the writing is, “It remains as important as ever to still have a pitch around it. It doesn’t have to be that extreme high-concept pitch, but looking at A Gentleman in Moscow, you can pitch it. ... There’s still a way to talk about it: ‘Right after the Russian revolution, an unabashed aristocrat is sentenced to life imprisonment in the fanciest hotel in Russia.’ There’s still a hook.”

»The panel expressed, with a very apologetic tone, that authors are more responsible than ever for marketing. Kim said, “We put a lot of responsibility and onus on our authors to do a lot of work. We do look to our authors to be the best [marketing] person for their book.” Karchmar agreed and said that the importance of the author promoting the work has really amplified in the last five years. She said the authors who think of themselves as public figures are well positioned to succeed. She said it’s a necessity for the writer (even the introverts) to be part of the conversation and understand the other books and writers with whom their work is in conversation, as well as what it is they care about most deeply—usually what the book has been written in service of. Karchmar added that publishers aren’t aggressive enough about promoting the author as opposed to the book, which hurts the author in the long run. “We do see people who are huge fans of a given book but don’t even remember what the author’s name is,” she said. Karchmar said the author brand-building effort falls to the author, sometimes with the agent’s help, “to be promoting him or herself through other forms of writing and engagement other than just the novel and readings that the publisher sets up for them.”


»Adult nonfiction continues to drive sales in traditional publishing, with 5 percent growth since 2015. Again, at the New York Rights Fair, agents and editors discussed what’s happening in the category.

»First, we’re entering the era of Trump fatigue in book publishing. [...]

»Regardless of category, with any big nonfiction deal, editors and agents look for what will pop in the media. [...]

»While the idea of authors cultivating their tribe is not new, agents/editors still talk about seeking authors who have one. [...]


»While YA fiction sales have flattened out in the past year, the entire YA category, alongside adult nonfiction, has been driving growth in traditional publishing for several years. A New York Rights Fair panel of agents and editors discussed recent trends.

»One of the first topics discussed was the re-emergence of dystopian and horror genres. [...]

»There’s also been an increase in YA and middle-grade nonfiction—not school texts, but books for fun. [...]

»Graphic novels are exploding across all publishers. [...]

»Agents and editors are seeing growth in TV/movie adaptations for middle grade and YA work. [...]

»Audio is also an area of growth. [...]

»In a separate session with NPD Bookscan’s Kristen McLean, she expressed concern about the midlist children’s author. [...]».

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