Monday, November 17, 2008

From the Desk of Nephele Tempest: It's the Economy Stupid

It seems the nation's economic difficulties are finally trickling down to affect the state of the publishing industry. On a recent trip to New York City to visit with editors, I experienced the disturbing dichotomy of people trying to sound optimistic while reciting statistics about layoffs, hiring freezes, and decreases in orders from major book distributors. Publisher A has cut their staff by ten percent across the board; Publisher B canceled a number of expensive book contracts and is only offering newbie authors single-book deals; Publisher C is hoping that the slower rate of signing new books at most of the big houses will translate to their being able to pick up projects for smaller advances.

What happens to book buying when people start to tighten their belts? On the one hand, books are still a fairly inexpensive form of entertainment, even as their prices slowly inch upward. You can get a nice thick mass market paperback for less than the cost of going to a movie, and chances are it'll keep you occupied for longer than two hours. However, you can also borrow your books from the library, a habit that does little to boost the bottom line for the publishing house or for the author. Statistically speaking, book sales did pretty well overall during the Great Depression, but back then they did not have to compete with television and the internet, and more people read regularly prior to the economic downturn. As the people in the investment business will be quick to tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

So what does this mean for you as a writer? Should you hang up your favorite writing robe and find some other way to spend your time? Of course not. But a tight economy means it is more necessary than ever to hone your skills and to keep working on your craft. Editors will be looking for books that have even bigger hooks and that are well written and highly polished. Subjects might veer toward more escapist plots, instead of gloom and doom stories that tend to remind people of their problems. And if your sales numbers are not too strong, prepare yourself for an advance that strongly resembles the last one.

We as agents are, of course, prepared to fight for our clients and to get you all the best deals possible, even in this flagging economy. Hence trips to New York to reconnect with the editors we know, and to get to know the ones who are up-and-coming. Interestingly enough, trends appear to be right where they have been, with many editors anxious for urban fantasy, paranormal, great romantic suspense, and fresh historicals. But I also heard some requests for humor -- funny paranormals, light contemporaries, historicals that have an underlying sense of amusement. The simple truth is that most people read novels to enjoy themselves, to distract themselves from the difficulties of their day. So while financially speaking, the publishing industry might find itself at the whim of the economy, it can also serve as the balm that helps to soothe people who are really feeling that economic pinch.

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Anonymous Michael said...

Subjects might veer toward more escapist plots, instead of gloom and doom stories that tend to remind people of their problems

In my opinion, the sort of reader who uses reading as a form of escapism is already choosing books for that quality, and those who, for whatever reason, prefer a different sort of book are likely to still prefer that sort even in times that are perceived as being bleak.

Publishers trying to push their offerings toward what they decide is "escapist" are offering a bigger selection to one segment of their market, while offering less variety to another segment. I'm not sure how that's supposed to increase sales, unless those who prefer escapism increase the number of books they buy at a faster rate than those who prefer other sorts of books buy less of them.

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 5:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger Amy Nathan said...

I like to know the facts, like the ones you've presented. I've read them before and will not forget the true state of the industry. BUT, I also like the glimmer of hope, the truth behind publishing which is that people love to read books. That's what keeps me going. I refuse to be discouraged, even in light of the downturn!

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 6:36:00 PM EST  
Blogger Marnie Colette a.k.a marniebelle said...

I know that I for one have spent more money on books in this sinking economy than I have in a long time. I live in NYC and I can get 2 books (depending on where I go 3) for the price it costs me to go to the movies, which I use to do alot. I find that a good book can last me hours and I can enjoy re-reading. I don't know what the publishers are thinking - walk into any B&N in NYC and its generally full.

Another thought is it because they(publishers) don't want to print the books with current costs. I have and will continue to by print copies as well as e-books (for one of my favorite authors I wouldn't even mind paying near print copy prices and in fact I have in the past.)

Isn't it possible that the profit margin could remain the same for the publisher and the author (the key being the same or greater for the author.) and the overall cost be reduce - due to not having to worry about paper and printing costs. Please note this is my thoughts not sure of all the stuff involved to find a format that is universal and controlled enough to stop unlawful spreading.

Okay I did get sidetracked but I will say this I will contine to buy even it requires me starting to take a packed lunch.

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 8:55:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate getting to read inside views like this.

It's better to learn it here than hear it later from an agent.

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 9:06:00 PM EST  
Blogger green_knight said...

I think there's already enough escapism in the world (not that it's always a bad thing), but in the end, escapism is maybe what you _least_ need in times of depression: pretending your problems don't exist doesn't make them go away.

What I want to read are uplifting stories, of people who face problems and solve them. One of my great comfort reads is Barbara Hambly's Darwath trilogy, because however dark the outlook, there is still hope, and hope not just in grand gestures but in small ones, too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 5:09:00 AM EST  
OpenID lynnrush said...

Thanks for this post.

You're right, books are an inexpensive form of entertainment. And many are looking for an "escape" from the troubles of their days.....

So, we'll just have to press on in faith.

Have a great day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 8:11:00 AM EST  
Blogger Natalie J. Damschroder said...

green_knight, "escaping" via a novel or other entertainment doesn't mean ignoring the problems and hoping they'll go away, it means taking a break from dealing with them. What you describe--reading uplifting stories with hope--is very much what they are talking about. In real life, we don't always get to see the outcome of conflicts or problems, and some are neverending, so knowing that in a book you'll get resolution can be very satisfying.

At least, that's my interpretation of the report. :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 3:15:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Leigh Court said...

I've always heard that, historically, people buy *more*
romances when times are tough, because they want something to make them feel good.

Hopefully that will hold true!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 7:43:00 PM EST  

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