Some Thoughts on the Publishing Crisis, Part I
Since the beginning of 2023, I’ve been reading nonstop “doom and gloom” stories related to publishing. Now, I’ve read doom and gloom stories related to publishing for decades, ever since I was a restless graduate student in history with dreams of writing the Great American Novel.
Yet these stories feel a little different from many of those in the past. After a couple of years of rising sales due to pandemic lockdowns and people having less to do besides read books, bookstore and online sales are down. Way down. Early this year, YA was a lagging category, prompting some YA authors to point the finger at other YA authors who they felt weren’t writing the kinds of books kids wanted to read. Many of these criticisms centered on the more mature YA titles that adult readers had snapped up in the past, but there’s little evidence that adults are reading YA less than they used to before or during the height of the pandemic. (No matter what, they’re still not the primary audience, and the point that we need more YA of interest to younger teens — those now reading books in the upper middle grade category — is well taken.)
Then YA numbers popped back up, and middle grade started to take a hit. People agonized about the “death of middle grade” as a result of post-2008 (remember Great Recession?) demographic decline, school budget cutbacks, and the rise in book banning. More on that in an upcoming post. Now, numbers for adult books are down.
Along with lagging sales come staffing cutbacks, the closing of imprints at Big 5 publishers, and the sale of one of the Big 5 publishers, Simon & Schuster, to private equity giant KKR. Agents on social media report that it’s harder to get editors to read submissions. Decisions take longer, and a larger percentage of manuscripts that go to acquisitions fail to cross that hurdle. Years ago, I read that 80% of manuscripts that went to acquisitions then were ultimately acquired. From anecdotes I’ve heard lately, I’d be surprised if the percentage is even half, unless it’s become significantly harder to get to that stage in the first place.
Like most other authors, I have opinions, which I plan to share in the next few weeks. Opinions on why this is happening. Opinions on how writers can survive and thrive, whether they’re trying to break into the industry for the first time, or stay in publishing after their first, second, or nth book. (I know about the difficulties of staying in, as I went through a 7-year publishing drought between 2015 and 2022.) Opinions on what writers and publishers can do to protect and grow the market for children’s and YA books. I look forward to reading your opinions as well.
Next up in the series: Reasons for declining sales and the impact of book bans.