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Publishing in 2019--What to Expect

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

The sales data in traditional publishing for 2018 pointed to some surprising trends. If you want to know what the industry is looking for in 2019, last year’s data is an indicator. I gathered this information from and Publishers Weekly.

I’m not going to bore you with numbers and percentages—well, I don’t know if you’ll be bored, but I know I will be—so here’s a quick roundup of the meaning behind the 2018 sales data:

  • Paperback books are still the most popular format.

  • Audiobooks are the fastest-growth category.

  • Adult nonfiction is the highest-growth category.

  • Adult fiction took a dip, but only 1.2%.

  • Children and YA fiction saw slow but steady growth.

What were the biggest selling subjects of 2018?

  • Partisan politics

  • Politically-related memoirs

  • Diversity initiatives

  • “Rise and resist” canon

  • LGBTQ-oriented fiction and nonfiction

  • Children’s books focusing on diversity

Kids Rule

Publishers are hungry for warm, joyful fiction in children’s books. A book published by Roaring Brook Press called Be Kind did very well. It’s a simple book about, well, being kind, geared to ages 3–6. Another big seller in children’s books was about cultural diversity, All Are Welcome, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. The success of both books came as a surprise to their publishers. And hence, a trend is born.

Hulu and Netflix and Amazon, Oh My!

In a country with a population of approximately 328 million, 45 million people read 11 or more books in 2018, while 90 million read one to 11 books, and the rest didn’t read any.

How do the Big 5 choose what they publish? Some point a finger of blame at streaming services. Author Margaret Atwood was so jazzed by the success of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, she has decided to write a sequel to the 1985 novel. Cha-ching.

The Big 5 publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—are looking for the possible TV adaptation with every book they publish. But at the smaller publishing houses, it’s a different story.

“TV has no bearing on anything we’re doing,” says Mieke Chew, New Directions Press co-director of publicity. According to Chew, New Directions’ authors don’t expect to hit the New York Times bestseller list because the publisher doesn’t print enough books to qualify. Chew says her company is “built for a completely different long game. The whole back list was built around this idea that each book will become a classic. We don’t think about films, we want the Nobel.”

Where Have All the Critics Gone?

Another challenge to the industry is the slow but steady disappearance of credible book critics and the rise of listicles—a piece of writing consisting wholly or mostly of a list. Many critics have turned to blogs where they drop listicles and best-of roundups that “lack robust conversation around books,” says Chew.

The future of any publishing company is dependent on making audiences aware of its books. In a noisy world populated by people who are bombarded with images and sounds, bringing attention to a book is tricky and time-consuming.

Hey, Where’s My Money?

In traditional publishing, there is limited time and money. How has the industry dealt with these limitations? By publishing fewer books across all categories, publishers can give more attention to the authors and books they promote. And what’s wrong with that? Really fine manuscripts and talented writers get passed over. Midlist authors—those who write the books that are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication—don’t get contracts that provide them with enough money to earn a living.

More money for authors would be nice, like better royalties on hardcover and digital sales. Says Stonesong literary agent Melissa Edwards, “The author and the publisher should be partners in the process… and should be making similar amounts of money on every book.”

That sounds reasonable.

What’s the Plan for 2019?

You might be surprised by the trends for 2019. Will publishers be appealing to avid readers? No. Small publishers want to focus their efforts on those readers who only read one to 11 books a year. They hope to entice them by offering books with broader diversity and appeal.

Atria Books editor Daniella Wexler hopes for increased emphasis on integrity and principle throughout the publishing industry. Wexler boils it down to these areas that require improvement: “How we publish, why we choose the things we do… how we treat our employees, who we hire, how we interact.”

If traditional book publishing is to thrive in this country, publishing houses must diversify in both the content of the books and the faces of the authors they promote. The silver lining—I sense that these changes could be an advantage to a clever and talented author. Like you. Follow publishing trends. Track what the smaller publishers are looking for. This could be your year.

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1 Comment

Very interesting! It's a tough business. Makes editors even more important!

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