Current Trends in Traditional Book Publishing: Fiction, Nonfiction and YA

book publishing industry
photo by Annick Press

As publisher of the The Hot Sheet newsletter, I regularly read and report on market trends that affect traditionally published and self-published writers. In today’s post, I’ve gathered some of the trend information we’ve published in 2019; while it’s most pertinent to traditionally published authors, self-published authors may recognize these trends in the market as well.

Traditional Publishing: The long-term market is flat.

According to reports from NPD Bookscan, after six years of growth, the print market for traditional publishers has started to decline. High-profile titles drove growth in 2018, while backlist gained market share, thus squeezing the midlist. Political fatigue is setting in, but lifestyle themes (e.g., Marie Kondo) remain strong.

While print sales are roughly flat, the ebook market for traditional publishers has declined every year since 2014; the market has remained stable in part because of the growth of digital audiobooks—where revenue grew 37 percent year on year through November 2018. One of the key questions moving forward is whether audio can grow the digital market without cannibalizing existing formats. Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, said during BookExpo that cannibalization is not happening from where she sits: more formats means more sales.

While nonfiction is still performing better than fiction, political book sales are down. During the first quarter of 2019, political book sales declined 28 percent compared to last year, according to NPD Bookscan. But it’s not for lack of new titles; title output is up 16 percent. Editors and agents are becoming far more critical when acquiring political titles; see more below under nonfiction trends.

The top YA growth categories in 2019 are in nonfiction—history, sports, people, and places. The biggest YA decline was in general fiction, but the top fiction category is now science fiction / magic—a rebound after a significant decline for that category in 2017. As a whole, the YA category is marginally positive.

Trends in Adult Fiction

At this year’s New York Rights Fair (held at BookExpo in late May), a panel of agents and editors discussed what they’re looking for in fiction. It included agent Melissa Flashman (Janklow & Nesbit), editor Sally Kim (GP Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Random House), editor Amy Einhorn (Flatiron/Macmillan), and agent Dorian Karchmar (William Morris Endeavor).

Psychological suspense remains popular. This genre has been trending since the publication of Gone Girl. However, Karchmar said fatigue and skepticism have started to develop around the category, and more derivative books are getting published. Still, there’s a sizable market for it.

The current reader mood: escape combined with nostalgia. Kim believes this is driven by current events, or how the world is “a little bit upside down”; people look to books for an escape. She also pointed to horror as experiencing a nice resurgence, partly due to nostalgia—readers want to recapture that time when they were a reader in high school and loved such books. Flashman added that Millennial readers are nostalgic for life before social media (the cutoff is around 2006), and so we’re starting to see novels that tap into that sentiment.

Some of the panelists expressed surprise at the success of darker narratives. One example offered was When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a story posthumously published about his metastatic lung cancer, represented and sold by Karchmar to Random House. She said, “A lot of people [in the industry] were scared about that book. There was a lot of skepticism about whether that could work.” However, she believes there is a hunger, curiosity, and sense of urgency “for readers to understand and experience POVs that are not their own—which of course is sort of the whole freaking point of fiction.” She added, “It’s quite wonderful to see this growth and profound interest that has emerged that proves some of the truisms wrong—that dark can be great as long as we’re being immersed in an experience that is being fully excavated for its meaning.” (Note that those on the panel said they group fiction and memoir together when describing qualities they look for in a story.)

High concept was once important—and can still sell a book—but that doesn’t necessarily lead to a long sales life. Kim said, “For a while it seemed everything had to have a high concept to cut through all the noise. … But those that really last are those books that have really good storytelling, good voice, books that really move you. … It has to have the deeper layers.” She later elaborated that what makes a book succeed sales-wise is word of mouth, and that is driven by writing that is “really, really good” rather than by an original or a high-concept conceit.

However, a great hook is critical to marketing. Flashman said that, regardless of how great the writing is, “It remains as important as ever to still have a pitch around it. It doesn’t have to be that extreme high-concept pitch, but looking at A Gentleman in Moscow, you can pitch it. … There’s still a way to talk about it: ‘Right after the Russian revolution, an unabashed aristocrat is sentenced to life imprisonment in the fanciest hotel in Russia.’ There’s still a hook.”

The panel expressed, with a very apologetic tone, that authors are more responsible than ever for marketing. Kim said, “We put a lot of responsibility and onus on our authors to do a lot of work. We do look to our authors to be the best [marketing] person for their book.” Karchmar agreed and said that the importance of the author promoting the work has really amplified in the last five years. She said the authors who think of themselves as public figures are well positioned to succeed. She said it’s a necessity for the writer (even the introverts) to be part of the conversation and understand the other books and writers with whom their work is in conversation, as well as what it is they care about most deeply—usually what the book has been written in service of. Karchmar added that publishers aren’t aggressive enough about promoting the author as opposed to the book, which hurts the author in the long run. “We do see people who are huge fans of a given book but don’t even remember what the author’s name is,” she said. Karchmar said the author brand-building effort falls to the author, sometimes with the agent’s help, “to be promoting him or herself through other forms of writing and engagement other than just the novel and readings that the publisher sets up for them.”

Trends in Adult Nonfiction

Adult nonfiction continues to drive sales in traditional publishing, with 5 percent growth since 2015. Again, at the New York Rights Fair, agents and editors discussed what’s happening in the category.

First, we’re entering the era of Trump fatigue in book publishing. The new Michael Wolff book has not zoomed up the charts like his first one, and people have become desensitized to the news coming out of the Trump administration. The bar is now set high for the acquisition of political nonfiction. In addition, agent Keith Urbahn from Javelin said that too many politicians’ books lack self-awareness; to work properly, you have to “take something out of their background that feels different” or find something in their experience that can speak to book buyers. (Urbahn represents Senators Ben Sasse and Tom Cotton.)

With journalist-authors, when making acquisition decisions, Paul Whitlatch at Hachette said they’re “thinking about access and freshness of story and something that hasn’t been covered to death elsewhere.” The panelists believed journalists are under contract to write some of the next and most important books in the political category. (The New York Times especially is feeling the effects of this as their staff members request leaves of absence after securing book deals.)

Regardless of category, with any big nonfiction deal, editors and agents look for what will pop in the media. Whitlatch said too many public figures want to write books for the wrong reasons and don’t understand what will get the media excited. Sagalyn agreed, saying that media drives everything. “It’s not just what will get on, it’s what won’t get on. It’s so hard to get access to media that it really influences what publishers are buying and what we are considering. … What’s going to make this stand out in the marketplace? What’s your elevator conversation?”

So what’s the media looking for? Urbahn said there’s a hunger in media to talk to diverse voices, and agents/editors must take that into account: “If you’re not responsive to it, you’re not doing your job.” Whitlatch said, however, that publishing still needs to do better in its acquisition of diverse authors. “Change doesn’t come overnight, but it’s something everybody cares about.”

While the idea of authors cultivating their tribe is not new, agents/editors still talk about seeking authors who have one. Eric Nelson of Harpercollins said, “I’m always looking for someone who has an existing tribe and is building around an existing idea. The thing I say most to authors who reach out to me … is a book is the worst way to build a tribe. It’s how you feed a tribe that you’ve already built. Get out there and do something else.” He went on to say, “My favorite author is one who is a celebrity to their tribe and no one knows who they are. Non-celebrity celebrity is my favorite kind of author.”

Trends in YA and Middle Grade

While YA fiction sales have flattened out in the past year, the entire YA category, alongside adult nonfiction, has been driving growth in traditional publishing for several years. A New York Rights Fair panel of agents and editors discussed recent trends.

One of the first topics discussed was the re-emergence of dystopian and horror genres. Stacey Barney from Penguin Random House said, “We’re in some dark days right now, so I’m not surprised if dystopian starts to come back.” David Levithan of Scholastic said acquisitions are shaped by the times and pointed out the rise of horror. “It does not take a brain surgeon to see why this is happening,” he said. “We’re seeing middle-grade horror, which I think is one of the best things for these times. … [Young readers] want to be afraid, but then they want the book to make them unafraid by the end.”

There’s also been an increase in YA and middle-grade nonfiction—not school texts, but books for fun. Levithan said Scholastic has launched a new narrative nonfiction imprint, Scholastic Focus, because “facts and truth are more important now than ever.” He said they’re looking for voices in nonfiction that will help young readers understand their own history and the history of people around them. He said readers now must navigate an era in which there is plenty of information yet no context. “We have to give them the context,” he said. Barney said that a lot of the nonfiction she’s doing is memoir and inspiration—and that kids read memoir and inspirational stories for the same reason adults do. She noted that these stories are from kids who are exposed to a lot: “These are not the 12-year-olds of my day.” With the advent of social media, young people have more information, and they’re doing extraordinary things, she said. “They are their own sources of inspiration.”

Graphic novels are exploding across all publishers. Stimola said it’s a trend that cuts across age groups and affects everything from chapter books to middle grade to YA and adults. “With all the screens and gaming they’re doing,” she said, “it’s a kind of reading that brings them to the printed page more easily, a little more comfortably.” Agent Jenny Bent agreed: “That’s exactly my daughter’s experience. She was a very reluctant reader … she experiences life so much more visually than we did. Everything is images. They are on their phones, they are watching TV, so the thing that was her gateway into reading was graphic novels.”

Agents and editors are seeing growth in TV/movie adaptations for middle grade and YA work. Bent said that it’s easier to get deals than in the past. “[Studios and producers] are open to all kinds of voices and all kinds of stories that they weren’t even two or three years ago,” she said. Stimola added that, on the film side, for a very long time the focus had been on front list—what’s new and what would work for the big screen. But now with all of the streaming options out there, adaptations are a growth area—especially for works that are better suited to episodic format. She said, “Episodically you get to keep a lot [of the book] and even expand on it. And there were things that went to the big screen that failed miserably—it just didn’t work—but now they’re begin given great new life in episodic format. They’re very hungry for content and there’s going to be a lot more happening.” According to NPD Bookscan, bestselling children’s books are often driven by content available on streaming services. However, when asked if film or TV potential affected what books they would acquire, the panel responded with an emphatic no.

Audio is also an area of growth. Levithan said that, at one time, an audiobook would be a weird outlier for Scholastic, but not anymore. “It’s a time thing. They can walk with it, they can have it in their cars. I think it is fitting in to the culture, filling in the time.” He mentioned that when Scholastic struck a deal with Audible to do the Baby-Sitters Club series, he was surprised when Audible decided to release all 131 titles on the same day. The reasoning? Binge listening. Apparently, he said, there are people who have a bad day and decide they’re just going to listen. “That has changed the game to a significant degree,” he said. For Barney at PRH, audiobook sales follow the life of the book itself—they increase if the book has won an award, for instance. “I don’t know that you see audio outpace the physical copy, but it is for sure becoming a robust market for us.” She said for a recent title, audio was a key component in the P&L and helped her get to a certain level for an offer. “I was blown away by that.” And in a comment that sparked laughter and surprise (with suggestions to take the money and run), Stimola said she recently received an audio rights offer for a wordless picture book.

The Hot SheetIn a separate session with NPD Bookscan’s Kristen McLean, she expressed concern about the midlist children’s author. Unfortunately, as there’s further sales consolidation in the top titles, the midlist suffers in children’s, just as it does in the adult market. McLean believes that the future for the midlist author—or someone not in the top 100—will be driven by finding passionate groups of people. She sees innovation coming from digital audio content and distribution—“in children’s it will be about interactivity,” she said—as well as in brand licensing, where big publishers typically have an advantage.

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