How playing the long game now will save you headaches in the future
As we progress further along the course of the Coronavirus, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of its effect on writers and publishing.
Admittedly, we’re not at a point of ultra-HD clarity yet, but it’s obvious that this industry and the people — authors, editors, agents, and publishers — it comprises are searching for ways to stay productive and creative and to maintain some sort of momentum as the “new normal” takes hold.
Writers, you may be concerned about the track your project is on, and what adjustments you need to make to your plan for getting published. I covered some of this briefly in my last letter, but I wanted to share some more in-depth insight on the state of publishing and what that means for writers.
Writing an article like this is inherently tough because we’re trying to predict the course of a situation that’s changing every single day. There’s a lot that we don’t know still, and there will be consequences for our actions today that we won’t fully come to terms with for some time. What we do know is that as more cities lift restrictions, we’ll see a resurgence of the virus, and we will be dealing with this for a while.
If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be this: the best thing you can do for your career as a writer in 2020 is to play the long game alongside publishing, and be prepared to adapt to new trends and a quickly shifting industry climate.
To make sure you get all the answers you’re looking for, I’ll be hosting a free online Q&A this Thursday, May 14 at 2 PM EST where you’ll be able to ask me any questions you have about publishing and being a writer right now. Sign up here and I’ll see you then!
Writers navigating these uncharted waters fall into two camps. In the first are those whose projects are still under construction and have some distance to go before they’re finished and ready for submitting. I strongly encourage these writers to maintain that creative headspace for as long as they can, because for the most part, there should be no, none, nada rush right now to submit.
Broadly speaking, the pandemic has sapped much of the urgency from publishing new work as professionals’ lives and workflows have been thrown out of whack; there just isn’t that frenzy to find the next big thing because, well, money is tight and the industry is still working on figuring out how to reorient all the authors and books that were already in the pipeline to accommodate for the changes the pandemic has brought about. With publishers looking to tighten purse strings, nurturing new books isn’t necessarily the main focus right now unless the new thing is something really groundbreaking.
There’s also the human element. Submissions are reviewed by agents, a.k.a. Real People, who on a normal day will assess your work with a considerable degree of subjectivity. And while there are agents out there still taking on authors, given the disruptions to their professional and personal lives, for many agents this may be a less-than-ideal time for them to receive work -- which means it’s a less-than-ideal time for you to send your work to them.
Instead of stressing about submitting, take this time to tweak, adjust, and polish your manuscript. Fine-tune your plot, bring your characters into better focus, strengthen your voice. Take comfort in spending quality time with this world you’ve made; there’s never been a better time.
For writers who have their submission packages ready to go and feel strongly that now is the time to move forward, please proceed with caution. The fact that your package is signed, sealed, and just waiting to be delivered is a logistical plus, but for all the same reasons the folks still writing should try to stay in that zone for the time being, now may not be the best time for you to submit either.
The trick here is to make sure that you’re sending your book out when it’s ready, and also when the world is ready to give it the attention it deserves. Trust your intuition and be realistic about how suited your book is to this unstable climate. Keep in mind that while, yes, books are still being acquired and sold, the bar is going to be very high when agents are choosing which projects to take on. If you think you could use this time instead to revisit your manuscript and submission package to make them stronger, then do that. The last thing you want is for your story to get lost in the shuffle or passed over because now isn’t the right time for it.
As always, there are exceptions to the rules. If you’ve got a children’s book or a book connected to the pandemic literally or thematically, this might be just the time for you. And if you’re self-publishing an e-book, you’re in an excellent position; that publishing process can happen at your discretion and entirely from the comfort of your own home, and from the homes of those you bring on to help you publish. Not to mention, e-book sales are booming.
Even in this age of social distancing, writing doesn’t have to be a solitary venture. If you want to bring your project to life in a team-based way, there are people -- myself and my team included -- who are able to support you. There’s a ton of creative energy to be tapped into and capitalized on, and we’re ready to help you make the most of it, wherever you are and whatever step of the journey you’re on.
Whatever you do, wherever you are, don’t rush the process. The real world is more or less on hold, so let your writing process be your priority while you can.
There's more to publishing's situation right now beyond what writers are going through. Click below to read about how books, booksellers, publishers, and industry events have been impacted by the Coronavirus. (An informed writer is a prepared writer!)
With people spending more time at home, some genres are selling better than others during the pandemic. Travel, business, and foreign language books aren’t doing so hot. Cookbooks, craft and DIY, homemaking, educational, and children’s books are all trending positively, as many readers are seeking activities to keep busy during the quarantine and homeschooling their children due to school closures. Novels are also seeing an uptick, particularly those that show up regularly on must-read lists and offer a longer story.
A number of book releases have been postponed, with publishers and authors conflicted about when to release postponed books: during an overcrowded fall season (and election time), or in 2021 -- equally uncertain options.
Our picture of the pandemic’s impact on the book manufacturing supply chain is unfolding slowly. In addition to delayed first printings, reprint orders have fallen, and scheduled press time has been upended as sales of digital formats (e-books and audiobooks) continue to increase.
LSC Communications, the largest book printer in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy in April, citing a “sudden, dramatic, and unforeseen drop in business related to the COVID-19 crisis.” Quad, another printing service, halted book printing operations at the end of March. Still, Publishers Weekly reports that “[o]verall, most printers are printing, although on different schedules as they adjust to state policies, staffing, and types of books.”
Book distribution seems to be stable at the moment, with the exception of comic books; Diamond Comics Distribution, which services the entire retail comic book industry, ceased shipments on April 1 with a hopeful restart date of May 20.
Concerns over warehouses’ ability to ensure safe working conditions were heightened after two workers at a Barnes & Noble warehouse passed away from the virus. The warehouse was also the site of a five-person outbreak in early April. Barnes & Noble spokesperson Alex Ortolani said that the warehouse has reduced its staff, implemented social distancing, and distributed masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes to workers, as well as closed for multiple deep cleanings over the past month.
After enjoying an initial spike in sales before mandatory closures started rolling out, many independent bookstores are struggling to stay afloat in the shadow of the pandemic -- and of Amazon, which accounts for 50% of U.S. book sales and is no longer deprioritizing the shipment of books.
Bookshop.org, which returns 25% of sales back to the affiliated bookstore, reported a 400% increase in sales in mid-March. Libro.fm, an audiobook seller that also collaborates with independent bookstores, saw a big boost in sales around the same time.
Physical shops across the country have made layoffs to mitigate losses in revenue; notably, Powell’s Books in Portland, OR and McNally Jackson in NYC laid off a collective 400 employees. Many independent bookstores have had to make the switch to online sales, curbside pickup, and deliveries to account for lost foot traffic, and have started to host online author events with varying degrees of success.
As restrictions start to ease up around the country, big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million will be the first to bounce back from temporary closure. Smaller independent bookstores, on the other hand, may struggle to reopen as many lack the infrastructure and funds to make the operational changes necessary to adhere to social distancing policies. Some booksellers are concerned that they won’t be able to reopen at all, and others have closed their doors for good already. The greatest detriment to many bookstores right now is that they’re no longer able to serve as community centers where readers can come together and connect.
Print sales were up 10.9% on May 1 from the previous week, and up 4.7% from the same week in 2019. The Big Five publishers all reported an increase in e-book sales this quarter; Simon & Schuster reports their e-book sales are up 13%.
Publishers saw good numbers in the first quarter of the year but are preparing for an uphill battle for the rest of 2020. So far, McMillan is the only of the U.S. Big Five to make any staff cuts or to institute temporary pay reductions, though several large U.K. publishers have already made those moves. Meanwhile, small publishers and presses are turning to donations and crowdfunding to stay afloat. Educational publishers are expecting a steep downturn in the second quarter, but are hopeful that they’ll bounce back once schools reopen.
McGraw-Hill and Cengage, the two largest educational publishers, recently called off their planned merger due to antitrust concerns from the Department of Justice. Both publishers had already made hundreds of layoffs in anticipation of the merger; now they have furloughed even more staff and trimmed spending further to weather the virus.
With the uncertainty of the scale of the pandemic and when it will begin to ease, publishers have begun directing more attention to digital marketing efforts with a focus on opportunities for virtual engagement with readers. Penguin Random House in particular has embraced the online shift with virtual book clubs, streamed phone conversations with authors, a lunch-and-learn series hosted on Instagram, and even a virtual book convention.
Literary events held during the early weeks of the pandemic, like the March 4-7 AWP Conference, suffered from dramatically reduced turnout from both attendees and panelists. Learning from that lesson, most events originally scheduled for the summer have made the decision to reschedule to fall dates, go virtual, or cancel entirely. BookExpo and BookCon are two of the first large events to go online and will be held via Facebook at the end of May.
So there you have it, a snapshot of publishing in the midst of the Coronavirus.
While some of the numbers may seem bleak, I hope you can find comfort in knowing that people are still reading, and stories are what will get us through this tough time, just like they always have. Though it may seem trivial right now compared to the immensity of a pandemic, what you are writing is important. And for the sake of your professional and personal wellbeing, it’s important that you take control of this situation and remain informed wherever you can. I have no doubt that the industry will recover, just as it’s recovered from plenty of disturbances and turmoil in the past, and your continuing to write and create will be a contributing factor to that comeback.