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Q&A: How Bad Is It Really in the Publishing Industry?

Photobucket [1]Sarah Woodbury [2] asked: I’d like to see an assessment from an agent, published author, and an editor about what happened in 2009-2010 in the publishing world. I’ve heard some amazing things (30% of employees laid off, advances down 50%, sales down a similar amount, publishing houses not buying books at all for months at a time, reprinting older books rather than buying new ones) and I’d like to know what’s true and what’s not.

This is an excellent question, but also difficult to answer definitively. For most publishing companies and agencies (and authors!), this information is considered a competitive advantage, so few are willing to outline specifics, especially when related to a decline.

The other difficulty is that you’ll get a diversity of answers based on who you ask, what their category or genre is, and how long they’ve been in the business.

For example, consider the 4 different answers given to me by 4 literary agents, earlier this year, on the topic of lower advances:

Wendy Keller [3]: “It’s horribly true that advances are down and so are the number of books publishers are buying. Dramatically.”

Paige Wheeler [4]: “Personally, I haven’t found [advances] shrinking, but for the midlist author, they certainly aren’t growing. I think publishers are being more selective, and their offers are more in line with their enthusiasm for a project. That stated, I find I’ve had to explain to my midlist authors to prepare for a decrease in advances for subsequent books if the first few books didn’t make a huge splash. We’re working harder to grow these authors and develop bigger book ideas.”

Richard Curtis [5]: “I’m blessed to represent a core group of successful authors whose advances have held steady or even increased. We also handle many genre books that traditionally are more resistant to downward pressure than ‘softer’ kinds of literature, such as general fiction. Where we definitely feel the ‘shrink’ is in the resistance to new authors. The wall is far higher than we’ve ever seen it, and sadly that means we must turn more newcomers away than we want to.”

Scott Waxman [6]: “It has made us more selective on what we will submit to publishers.”

(Read the full roundtable here, from Writer’s Digest.) [7]

I can say from personal experience, after working at a mid-size publisher that focused on special-interest media, that the percentages you’re throwing out there are pretty spot on. I acquired titles and negotiated contracts starting in 1998 for my company, and everything changed in 2009.

One piece of hard, public evidence you can easily follow is bookstore earnings and store closings. Fewer stores or weak store sales will lead to lower buys from bookstores, smaller print runs for publishers, and smaller advances for authors—and sometimes fewer books published overall.

Here are the most recent stats and articles that are revelatory.



If you’d like a narrative account of changes taking place (with predictions), this blog post by former HarperStudio publisher, Bob Miller, still carries meaning and insight after a year [16].

All that said, there’s a much bigger wild card sitting out there that impacts what’s happening: e-books. Publishing’s business model is transforming as more people switch to e-reading devices or tablets, and it will likely take years before you start to see firm or expected standards—i.e., “normalcy.”

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “E-Books Rewrite Bookselling,” [12] has an excellent overview of this dynamic; here’s a brief snippet:

Nowhere is the e-book tidal wave hitting harder than at bricks-and-mortar book retailers. The competitive advantage Barnes & Noble spent decades amassing … was already under pressure from online booksellers.

It evaporated with the recent advent of e-bookstores, where readers can access millions of titles for e-reader devices.

Even more problematic for brick-and-mortar retailers is the math if sales of physical books rapidly decrease: Because e-books don’t require paper, printing presses, storage space or delivery trucks, they typically sell for less than half the price of a hardcover book. If physical book sales decline precipitously, chain retailers won’t have enough revenue to support all their stores.

I highly recommend reading the full WSJ article [12], and then immediately subscribing to Mike Shatzkin’s blog [17]. He has the best insight into the changes underway, and while he might not always be able to give hard data to back up his statements and predictions, his 30 years of experience and insider connections make him one of the most trustworthy sources on the past, present, and future of publishing.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s 35mmDan [18]

About Jane Friedman [19]

Jane Friedman [20] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [21], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [20].