Discover more from Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish
Special Edition: London Book Fair, Part 1 (Publishing Trends & The Writing Life)
I’ve returned from a fascinating week in London in which I stayed in Shepherds Bush, a dynamic area west of Kensington I’d never really visited except to go to meetings at the BBC.
My hotel was oddly fascinating. My room triggered an unfortunate muscle memory of Super 8 Motels from US road trips; the breakfast area was filled with publishing types and in the evenings hordes of men speaking Russian, often sporting loud gold jewellery, occupied the main floor lounge and bar.
It was a delegate hotel for the London Book Fair, which I attended and which turned out to be a masterclass in the world of books.
I’ve spent a couple decades adjacent to publishing as writer, magazine publisher, literary programmer and cultural convenor. I thought I knew a fair amount about how it all worked. But publishing is a complex sector subject to the headwinds of consumer whims, financial pressures and technological advances, where change is the one constant.
Publishers I ran into asked me why I was at an industry fair. The question surprised me – and it didn’t. Though a writer’s creative projects are the foundation stone for the publishing world, the granular details about its inner workings are kept deliberately opaque. This makes writers dependent on the gatekeepers of the industry – publishers, agents and publicists (yes, the marketing team has central input on whether or not your book is extended a publishing deal).
You’re meant to keep your head down and write and leave important business decisions to the professionals.
Some authors are fine with that (even if they privately grumble). I’m not one of them. I want to understand what’s at stake, where the choices are, and what I can do to best help the stories I write find their audience. Also, wearing my hat as president of Diaspora Dialogues, I need to understand what opportunities and pitfalls lay ahead for the alumni of our mentoring programs.
I founded DD in 2005 to help emerging writers develop both their craft and their career. In 2019, an anguished DD alumni told me she wasn’t sure she’d write another book. She’d loved our program and publishing her first novel. But the process of trying to wrangle any media or bookstore attention was disheartening. If the process had been more transparent so she knew better what to expect, would her experience of publishing have been so negative, she wondered?
The conversation haunted me. Afterward, we more than doubled DD’s professional development seminars we hold to demystify the industry, make professional connections and build community.
I believe it’s incumbent on any writing program, and certainly those who charge a fee such as an MFA in Writing Program, to accurately detail the world of publishing to those who have entrusted their creative future (and scarce dollars) to them.
Thus, wearing the two hats, I took myself off to London. And what an enormously valuable decision that turned out to be. For three days I’d walk ten minutes from the hotel to Olympia London, the 140-year-old exhibition hall, and line up with tens of thousands other delegates to enter. Each day supplied back-to-back seminars and workshops on multiple stages including the Main Stage, the Authors HQ, the Tech Theatre, Literary Translations Stage, English Pen Literary Salon, Sustainability Lounge and more. I also attended the Writers Summit at Chelsea Old Town Hall.
I’ve decided to share what I learned in a special issue of Letterbox: Bookish & Filmish this week (Publishing Trends and The Writing Life) and next (Social Media and Indie Publishing). They will be of interest to writers, and those readers keen on a behind-the-pages look at the world of writing and publishing. For everyone else, I’ll see you for a regular version of Letterbox in May!
Like politics, publishing has become a story of extremes. On the one hand, a small number of authors score a six or seven figure advance from one of big 5 publishing houses often through an auction that’s designed to drive hype. This in turn generates media buzz, the promise of a bigger marketing spend (publishers looking to recoup their investment), better bookstore placement, and a greater chance at TV/film adaptations.
At the other end of the spectrum are the majority of writers. They publish with independent presses, receive $5,000 advances (or lower), and often struggle to generate sales in an over-crowded market amidst the manufactured buzz of ‘big’ books.
There used to be a middle path, where writers received advances of $15-25k, mostly from the larger independent publishers, or smaller imprints of the big 5. But the channel to that scenario has narrowed so dramatically, as one agent described it, that it’s almost nonexistent.
Why is this? Expenses (cost of paper, freight and labour) have increased faster than revenues. The price of books changed little in the past decade, even while the cost of other entertainment items such as music or film or streaming services has gone up. Thus, the relative value of books is high, but how does one increase the jacket price at a time when people are struggling to pay their rent or feed their kids due to inflation?
Although book sales were mostly flat in 2022, and the same is true so far for 2023, there were lots of bright spots discussed at the fair. Libraries have led a surge in new readers. New bookstores, in particular local ones, are opening as readers re-discover the wonderous serendipity of browsing in person. Barnes and Noble in the US banished the tchotchkes in favour of books (are you listening, Indigo?) and for the first time in twenty years, are expanding.
And finally, there seems to be a collective sense that books have made their way past the peak challenge of competition from streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. Streamers found their churn rate of shows to be too high – everyone consumed everything during the pandemic – and thus their costs. They’ve returned to the old model of dropping episodes once a week in order to trim expenses while increasing their subscription rates.
(Like many, I have a binge hangover from the past three years of the pandemic, and am entirely happy to watch less, savour more and turn back to reading.)
A final note on those big advances all writers dream off. Turns out that, like lottery ticket winners, scoring a major advance is not a guarantee of long-term success. In fact, too often it’s the opposite, and some writers find themselves a decade later dropped by their publisher after their books didn’t earn out, or with dramatically reduced amounts for subsequent contracts. There’s been a lot of Twitter traffic on the subject the past couple weeks. Many agents argue it’s better to start with a low advance and have publishers think they are building you up.
And a final, final note on the utility of Twitter. Although the general feeling seems to be it’s a platform of the past (more next week), Book Twitter’s greatest strength is the presence of writers, editors and agents who candidly share information about the industry. Managing realistic expectations should be to everyone’s benefit.
I follow many agents, publishers and booksellers, well as related hashtags. There is also lots of good insights to be had here on Substack. Some industry-related newsletters I follow include SHuSH, Agents & Books, and Pine State Publicity.
On the first day of the fair, I sat in on a fascinating conversation about current trends for TV/film including Literary Adaptations. The panel conversation included a top British agent, three British producers and an American studio exec.
It got a little prickly when one of the Brits protested all the Americans buying up UK production companies and with it writing talent that had been nurtured over the years by BBC and others. But Universal Studio’s Sophie Kaplan wasn’t daunted. It was a marriage made in heaven, she said, each bringing to the table their strength: American money and UK talent. (It’s really tough economic times in a post-Brexit UK, especially outside of London.)
A summary of the convo: There’s a strong appetite from studios and production companies to adapt books versus create new content. But the focus has narrowed on the range of projects that buyers are looking for.
Yes to fun, feel-good and romance; everyone wants the next Emily in Paris. No to science fiction/fantasy, dystopia or anything too dark. Yes to returning series and procedural crime (case-a-week Law & Order type stories), no to episodic limited-run series where the plot runs across one season. Lessening interest in true-crime, although always a market. Common wisdom says it’s now hard to pitch historical projects but in the UK they are happening, and the audience is there. And everyone wants a strong female protagonist.
I’ve just finished watching Night Agent on Netflix, which is a limited run, ten-part series with dark subject matter (my favourite kind). Season One was the third highest watch show ever on Netflix and the streamer immediately greenlit the series for a second season, thus breaking all the rules in the above paragraph. Predicting the appetites of tv buyer seems to be a moving target, but they’re all trying.
The panel’s advice for writers? There is a definite, on-going interest in literary adaptations. It’s seen as shortcut since the world of the story has already been created and a book brings with it an existing audience.
Studios also now strongly prefer the author to be involved in production, either as a writer and/or executive producer. Who knows the existing world better than the author? But pitches must go through agents or book scouts. Commercial titles have a better shot than literary ones and of course, bestsellers the best chance of all. They’re paying attention to the publishing industry news, and large advance deals gets their attention.
For authors whose books don’t fit that mold or who are interested in screenwriting generally, they suggest creating a strong writing sample as the best calling card. Be very specific about your voice in the writing sample, they say, because that’s where you’ll be pegged for consideration on other projects.
A final thought: US buyers now have a greater eye towards the global audience (and the flushest budgets). They’re looking for stories set in a defined locale and that feel authentically rooted in place, but with a universal message and appeal.
One of the things I found most refreshing in the speakers across all panels at LBF 23 was a straight-forward acknowledgement that writing is a career, not just a calling, and that talking about money and strategy is not only advisable, it’s the responsible thing to do.
The London Book Fair is very much an industry event. There is no consumer facing element: the books on display in the publishers’ booths are props, small tables are set up for pre-established meetings in 30-minute increments and access to the booths or the agent area is strictly controlled.
But still, there are writers present who give talks. Big names who are the writers of the day like Ann Cleeves, Colson Whitehead or Robin Stevens. Authors appearing in events designed to raise profile of specific regions, genres or in translation. And writers giving advice to writer delegates (which seemed to number a few hundred) on the Authors HQ stage or during the writers summit. These were so overpacked that each one had 50-75 attendees forced to stand or sit on the ground when the chairs ran out.
The following is culled from the many panels I attended:
👉 Have a sense of self and a game-plan for your writing career.
👉 Be strategic. You are CEO of your own business. Take care of yourself and find your balance.
👉 Be realistic that your ability to write full-time and support yourself is highly unlikely. You’ll need to generate income (or support) elsewhere.
👉 In pitching agents, the most critical thing is to personalize the approach. Look at their manuscript wish-list, their favourite books, clients they represent, etc. There is no end of good advice online with specifics about writing pitches and queries, but agents say that the most important you can do is know you’ve targeted them for a specific reason and not as part of scattershot approach.
👉 With a pitch, build curiosity. Don’t be verbose. Make use of the title with pride. Make clear the target audience and use language in the pitch that is evocative of the thematic flavour of the book. Use book comparators but do them well.
👉 It’s really critical to get the right fit with an agent, especially if you wish to write across genres, given that the market likes simplicity and for writers to stay in their box.
👉 In the UK and US, agents and publishers seem to pay attention to emerging writers who have taken writing courses with Curtis Brown Creative or the Faber Academy. (Though every writer I met who did was critical of their utility.)
👉 Shamelessly use personal contacts because it’s so hard right now to get an agent (many estimate 90% of queries are not read unless they come through a referral) and a publishing deal.
👉 Technical advances and reduced barriers to legitimacy make indie or hybrid publishing a viable option (and possibly a better paid one) for those willing to invest effort and money. (More in next week’s newsletter.)
👉 And finally, remember it can take a very long time for anything to happen but when it does, it can all happen very quickly. It’s one part luck, one-part hard work, and you can’t guarantee the luck. So define what success means for you (Your book published? Seeing it on a shelf in a bookshop? Getting invited to a literary festival? Making a bestseller list?). And the first, last and most important advice:
👉 Just keep going.
Writing and publishing is a difficult path, but presumably you chose it (or it chose you) because there’s no other choice. You have stories to tell, and you want those stories to have readers. It takes a village, but ultimately the central decision maker should be you. Tune in next week for a detailed look at social (in particular IG, Twitter and TikTok) and indie publishing.
With you in community. 👊