Are Books Selling?

Ah, good ol’ book fairs

Who knew that within weeks the words “viral” and “virus” would have such polarizing connotations? The year 2020 sure is a unique beast. As authors, we’re forced gifted lots of home time to create. The longer we’re home, the more (ideally) we’re writing. Hooray for opportunity.

One of my first thoughts has been, “I better make sure my stuff is good. With everyone else home with all this free time, writing and rewriting, there is going to be more competition than ever.”

Writing Kermit GIF - Writing Kermit KermitTyping GIFs
Capture that creative energy!

My next thoughts are, “Wait…with everyone home writing, who is out there buying? Is it even worth submitting? Will it sell?”

I did some digging. Talked to friends and colleagues–authors, illustrators, agents, big publishers, small publishers. Researched a bit–the big picture international news down to smaller scope of our children’s book industry. I wanted to see for myself:

What is going on in the publishing world? What will it look like ahead?

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I’m no expert (my Econ degree and MBA play no part in this post!). I’m just a curious author that likes research and is concerned about our future. I know other authors are wondering too. Here’s what I’ve found:

For those TLDR types, lemme say this: Yes, books are still selling (but they are slowing). No, it’s not horrific (changes will come about slowly, and even if the world is magically back to normal tomorrow, we will still see small repercussions down the line in a year or two). Yes, there is a big uptick in pandemic plotlines and both agents and editors are saying KNOCK IT OFF. No, there is no reason stop writing and submitting–as long as it’s your very best work. So no panicking, OK? Keep creating. It’s what you do.

  1. Books are selling. Great! But of course numbers aren’t as high as usual. A study in Sweden shows a sharp decrease in March sales compared to last year (boo), but an uptick in online sales greatly softened the blow, and the LA Times reports the new ABA-backed online-only Bookshop.org has reported a 400% increase in sales since opening in February (*crowd cheering*). Marketwatch states overall book sales have been driven by juvenile nonfiction in particular, which are up 25% year-to-date, and up 65% for the six weeks ending April 11, according to NPD BookScan. “We definitely seeing an uptick in kids’ educational and activity book sales this week,” reports Kristen McLean, NPD books industry analyst. Sure, bookstores and libraries are temporarily closed, tradeshows (where many small publishers rely on sales) have been cancelled, and those free e-books don’t always cut it for parents and kids…yet people are still reading, and books are still selling. Publishers reiterate to me that most sales are activity books (understandably) and series (books they can rely on). Debuts–if an author/illustrator can hold a successful virtual launch–are doing OK but not as good as if they were live or on tour. [Side note: You can help your friends and indies by ordering ANYTHING from your local bookstore as they likely deliver; not only will they appreciate it but it might keep them from going under. Ask your friends to do the same.]
  2. Agents and publishers are still buying. Work-for-hire is still assigning. But…likely not as much. One reason is, due to slower sales, many books they were going to release this summer or fall have been pushed to next year or later, so they won’t need as many titles in 2021 or 2022–the timeframe the title they’d sign today would be released. And if they think sales are going to continue to drop in the near future, they might not take on as many new titles…making them pickier than ever. And they’ll have to be choosy…agents are saying their inbox is fuller than usual (one said even though she is closed to both queries and submissions and only accepts via her website anyway, ever-eager writers are blatantly subbing directly via her email regardless)(not cool!), and The Guardian reports some publishers are seeing a three-fold uptick in submissions! [Side note: It doesn’t mean the pool of writers is better, but it does mean it’s much bigger. It’s harder to get noticed. How is yours unique? Better than the others? You don’t have to submit any or every thing you’re writing right now. Just keep writing. Maybe it’ll turn into something (better) down the line.]
  3. Think you’ve got a great idea for a story that takes place during a pandemic? Well so does everyone else. Not only are publishers and editors already tired of seeing dystopian (especially pandemic) plotlines, the main issue is timing. As agent Jennifer Laughran points out, “publishing is a long game.” While the world may be changing overnight, our industry moves slowly. A book takes a good 2 to 5 years to get to market. The last thing a 12-year-old kid will want to do is relive the time their own 8-year-old self was quarantined at home. Without toilet paper.

Bottom line: like every industry in the world publishing is slowing–but all signs point to us doing okay in the long run. The future of publishing may be changed for good after this. Maybe even for the better. But it won’t change overnight. Stay positive. Keep on plugging away, giving it your best. And maybe happiest.

Seeing as we are now living in a real dystopian society, it might be time for ideal worlds to make a comeback. Let’s lighten up.

-Bitsy Kemper

Wasting Time Interviewing Wrong Agent?

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I was presenting at a workshop where they held agent pitch appointments, also called Agent Meet & Greets. Several attendees ended up disgruntled. And they shouldn’t have been.

Let me take a step back.

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What’s an “agent meet and greet,” you may ask? At this one, attendees paid a certain amount of money for 10 glorious minutes of face time with any or all of the agents that were attending the one-day conference. Writers weren’t allowed to hand over their manuscript directly, but could:

  • ask about the agent (are you editorial–do you give feedback on manuscripts or do you only submit as is? how many clients are you actively subbing right now? what kinds of stories do you like and tend to submit: humor, sci fi, YA, etc)
  • ask about the agency (how long has it been around? where is it headquartered and is that where you are located? how many are in the office? [<–technically they should have already looked up that info but I digress] are you autonomous or does the Director play a strong role?)
  • ask about the industry (do you see many historical fictions these days? are picture books selling well?)

Mostly, though, (smart) writers were there to use the 10 minutes to talk about their manuscript and ask for feedback. If we’re going to call a spade a spade, mostly people were hoping that after discussing the manuscript, the agent would say “sounds interesting, send it my way, I’ll have a look.” They were there to pitch their story to the agent in hopes of getting representation. And that’s fair–nothing wrong with that. Agents know that coming in–in fact, that’s why there are there too! They are looking for new talent/work. Win win.

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But as in every potential relationship, not all work out. Even when they were SURE this one would.

Several people lamented to me that their agent meetings “didn’t go well” because the agent didn’t like the manuscript, or didn’t ask for them to send it in. They felt they wasted their time and their money. But that’s not true!! That meeting still went well. In fact, it almost went better than if they asked for the entire manuscript to be sent in.

Almost.

Listen. If the agent wasn’t a fan of your submitted work/idea, or if you didn’t get the feels, THEN SHE ISN’T THE AGENT FOR YOU! You 100% still had a good meeting. How? You now know that agent isn’t for you. The last thing you want is someone not committed to you or work work, or a contract with someone you don’t get along with. An agent is someone you’re going to be working with for a long time–you want a good working relationship based on mutual trust and effort. If she isn’t into you or your work, it’s GREAT that she let you know (and I’m sure it was a gentle let down). It’s now a confirmed data point vs an unknown. 

This applies to interviewing almost anyone for anything–once you’ve said or heard no to/from that person, you are that much closer to saying yes to the right one. This “No thanks” was time well spent. In the case of the writing world, you aren’t getting your hopes up by emailing a proposal or query or manuscript to someone that on paper looked perfect only to wait six months to get a form rejection letter back. You already know this isn’t the agent. Seriously, that is good information. In other industries and situations, you can confidently say, “we avoided making a mistake by hiring that one.” It’s not idle effort. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself out there, seeking.

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I once had a dream agent that I found out about, read all I could about her, practically memorized the agency website as well as her bio page, and followed on her on Twitter. She was hilarious. We had the same sense of humor. I KNEW we’d be a great match. I couldn’t wait to meet her at a conference. But once I met her in person…wow. Does. Not. Equal. We were sooo not a match. While she was a great agent for others, there was no way I wanted to work with her. And I never would have known for sure had I not met her in person. It was not a waste of time. It saved me time.

Think of if this way: now you can get moving focusing on someone else to grow old with. The right someone else.

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