Hold onto your pens, people…it’s going to be a wild ride.
It’s that time of year again. I present to you Predictions in Publishing: the 2021 Edition!
It’s hard to believe that last year at this time I was bemoaning the fact that the book publishing industry seemed to have stagnated and not a lot was changing. Then, WHOOSH, in March everything changed all at once. And here we are counting down the days to the final end to the Year of the Great Pause, where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel into 2021. Let’s hope it’s not a train! (It’s not a train…)
So this year’s post will be very different. I won’t go into too much detail on each prediction for this coming year, because there are so many of them! As CNN news personality Chris Cuomo says, “Let’s get after it!”
- More editors, agents and other publishing pros have moved out of the New York City metro area, and are working from homes in other cities, and even states, where the cost of living is significantly lower. If they bought or rented a house with a yard and several bedrooms/office space elsewhere, or moved in with their parents and find it delightful, the thought of moving back into a comparably-priced studio or one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn might not be strong enough to get them to return. They have gotten comfortable with working remotely. They are now Zoom or Google Meeting pros. And they see how much more work they can get done (especially editing) if they don’t have to commute or do endless in-person meetings every day. Even art departments have developed successful workarounds. This has fundamentally changed the publishing process. As we move into the future, I believe you’ll see a diaspora of publishing professionals, just like tech workers or other non-geographically-tied workers have experienced, and eventually they will either be located in a smaller building in NYC or will Zoom-in remotely when needed, only visiting the main office once a month or so. It has long been the case with agents and even the odd editor, but now it will be commonplace among the major houses. New York will be the center of publishing in name only. Virtual companies will have the edge.
- There is concern that after people are out and about again, moving freely, interest in reading will dip. People have shown they love online streaming entertainment. Disney has reorganized to make their streaming service the core of their future business model. People will crave the close contact with friends and family by next summer, not reading, which is a solitary pursuit. Yet change is the one constant in publishing. Did you know about the rise in popularity of short written works, short audio, plus poetry? Well I predict that everyone will incorporate some type of shorter reading bursts into their entertainment and education absorption. Maybe not long novels. But articles, essays, poetry, short stories and more are about to experience a Renaissance. You can read or listen to them on your phone or laptop or tablet. It wouldn’t surprise me if Instagram or Snapchat started publishing serialized or flash fiction/nonfiction on their apps. Feed the Need. Smart publishers will make this transition between devices seamless for readers. Make the platform irrelevant. Keep the story or poem or article at the center of the experience. I’m going to be bold and predict that not only will reading continue to be popular, its popularity will even grow in 2021 and beyond as experimentation with alternative distribution mechanisms occurs. Binge-watching a streamed television show is fun, but it’s passive. And I think a lot of people found that out in the early days of the pandemic. The experience of reading excites your imagination, penetrates deep into the brain to improve critical thinking skills, allowing you to grow and learn while you’re being entertained. It will always be around, although the format for its consumption may evolve.
- Everyone got used to buying all kinds of things online, and that includes ebooks. But will this trend continue once bookstores are open again? I believe so. Readers have become comfortable with reading on a screen as part of the total ecosystem of reading, just as they’ve become comfortable with shopping at their local retail stores as well as Amazon, Bookshop.org, indie bookstores, reading apps, etc. They will consume hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, ebooks, audiobooks and any new format that comes along. Publishers need to understand that and work it into their P&Ls on stories and worlds they want to license.
- And what about nonfiction pummeling fiction in sales over the past 4 years? Will this continue? Nonfiction has experienced a huge rise in popularity (it sold 35%+ more than fiction in 2020) due to the political schism in this country exacerbated by Donald Trump. But already Trump tell-alls are starting to experience a decline, so I believe that by the end of 2021, fiction will begin to make a comeback. Also, nonfiction will begin to be more issues-oriented than politically-oriented. Bookstores are already touting Bill Gates’ new 2021 book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. And the mental wellness entertainment trend just keeps growing, especially with Millennial and Gen-Z readers. Headspace, the meditation app, will have its own show on Netflix. I think these kinds of nonfiction titles will sell well in 2021 as Joe Biden steadies the ship and readers begin to ponder large longer-term issues instead of focusing on daily emergencies.
- Indie bookstores (traditional publishing’s main retail outlet) have been severely disrupted. Will they survive and thrive or collapse? Will Barnes & Noble make it? Will Amazon continue to dominate or will orgchallenge them? I think all these issues will play out in the latter half of 2021. I think indie bookstores have already pivoted successfully by being creative and community-minded. They rocked drive-by distribution and deliveries. They figured out how to do many of their promotional events and author “signings” online. It’s the larger box bookstores like Barnes & Noble, now under a new management team led by Brit James Daunt, who I see fumbling the ball and perhaps not being fiscally viable much longer. Five years and they’ll either be gone or severely smaller. That’s my prediction. Amazon is hastening their exit. Look back at prediction number 3.
- Indie authors are about to experience another resurgence. Especially if they can figure out audiobooks (maybe outside of ACX?). And alternative publishing formats. Ask me about Serial Box, Radish, and Crazy Maple Studio. There is a lot of entrepreneurial creativity going on in publishing right now. Some will rise, some will fail, but it will be very interesting to experience.
- Remote learning is going to change how children relate with online reading, and, like Apple’s rise to dominance in the 1980s and 90s by seeding schools with Apple products, these kids will be perfectly comfortable with digital books as they mature into young adult and adult readers. I’ve long said that picture books for babies and toddlers will never go digital as long as the total experience of parent’s snuggling the child and sharing heartbeats is a part of it. But if kids become acclimatized to snuggling with dad or grandma, sharing a tablet, and reading an animated fairy tale together, all bets are off. We might be heading towards the future with a fuzzy AI robot snuggling with our children and reading them stories sooner than we think! And we might see kids mature into digital readers soon.
- Virtual book promotion is here to stay. It already was not making economic sense to send an author on a multi-city tour to promote a book, when only a handful of fans would show up at the local Barnes & Noble in each city. If all bookstores, even small ones in rural locations, can get an author to do a 1-hour Zoom chat about their book with fans who’ve already ordered the pre-autographed book from said indie bookstore, it’s going to catch on. It’s affordable, easy to accomplish, and readers will like it if they can watch their author heroes while in their jammies. Also, need I say, school visits will become a lot more accessible and affordable if done virtually. This way authors can earn a few dollars and bookstores can scale up or down depending on the popularity of the authors virtually visiting their locales.
- I probably should have led with this one. It’s here. It’s not going to stop. It’s going to get stronger and bigger and more diverse as we move through 2021 and beyond. Just look at the award winning books this year. And the bestsellers. We’ve discovered a wide variety of voices and fallen in love with them. Agents want #ownvoices authors. So do editors. And most importantly, so do readers. Capturing the zeitgeist of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, these movements are here to stay. If you haven’t read books from culturally diverse voices, what the heck are you waiting for?
- And my final prediction (although there are more areas where change is going to continue) is that Amazon will finally enter the library lending game by licensing its ebooks to libraries. They’re talking now. I think it will get settled this year and you’ll see Amazon-imprint and KDP ebooks in library catalogues by next Christmas.
Okay. Those are my 10 predictions. I’d love to hear yours.