April 29, 2021
April 2021 is almost over and many writers are feeling a little discombobulated. The past year has been challenging, but change is coming, and we have questions. Should we start sending out submissions? Are publishers and agents even looking? And is every area of publishing dealing with the same circumstances? Because so many people are wondering, it seemed a good time to think about it.
So, Did Books Sell in the Pandemic?
Yes, actually books did quite well. So did streaming services and sales of games. For a while, the sale of jigsaw puzzles was astonishing, but that actually died down long before the virus did. Still, trade books (in print, electronic, and even audio) did well. People wanted entertainment, and for readers, that meant books. Still, for all the book sales, writers found publishers who were normally open to direct submissions closed the doors because the companies were adjusting to having employees working completely off-site as well as dealing with issues related to printing and shipping books. With the grip of the pandemic loosening, many of these things are changing, but many houses are still not yet reopened. Some will, others may not. However, this doesn't mean writers haven’t found publishers during the pandemic. It simply means that agents have become more important than ever, and most agents were open and actively looking during the pandemic.
Right now, the biggest demand among the different types of nonfiction is narrative, books that tell a true story. This includes things like biographies, memoirs, and books recounting specific events. Expository nonfiction (the nonfiction that focuses on relating facts) is flagging a bit, and part of this is because educational publishing hasn't gotten back on its feet yet. This is not surprising with so many schools still either virtual or some sort of hybrid. While schools are still sorting out how to interact with students, it's not shocking that they cut back on buying.
So this focus on narrative nonfiction doesn’t reflect some huge change in what publishers want. Trade publishing has always favored narrative nonfiction, since so many readers love a good story, whether fiction or fact. The vast majority of expository nonfiction for kids has always come from educational publishers. This means writers with expository nonfiction ideas will probably still need to wait a bit for educational publishing to get back to normal. Once this happens, it seems likely educational publishing will come back with a roar as schools begin to make up for the pause in purchasing of new materials.
So, for now, if your primary interest is nonfiction, your best targets are magazines and trade publishers, since it will probably be sometime this summer for educational publishing to begin looking for authors again.
Genre fiction has done well through the pandemic and publishers remain interested in it. Own voices stories and books by underrepresented populations have continued to be of strong interest as publishers work to create more diverse publishing lists than in the past. Past hot trends including novels in verse and dystopian novels aren't dead but they really are no longer hot stories. As always, it's best not to chase trends, because they are nearly always quixotic, so fiction writers should write the books that they find most compelling.
Children's magazines have struggled in many of the same ways as book publishing as they try to deal with staff that isn't able to come in and with distribution issues. Some magazines closed submissions entirely for a time, only to open them, be overrun by submissions and close them again. As magazines move back to more normal status, issues with things like updating theme lists or reopening submissions should settle down. In the meanwhile, the pool of magazines open to submissions may be smaller but it's far from empty. Ultimately the key is much as it's always been: check websites, follow magazines on social media, and you'll often have the most up-to-date information to allow you to make decisions in the best possible way.
The pandemic has been an especially frustrating time for promotion. Many children's writers who depend heavily on school visits for part of their income took some hard financial hits as schooling turned virtual. Some writers switched to virtual visits, but what works for in-person visits won’t always translate well to virtual visits, so it's been a learning experience for everyone. For writers who did find a good presentation style for virtual visits, this has opened up a type of school visit that may carry over even after the pandemic, simply because it requires less travel and often less expense for the schools. Virtual visits won't replace in person visits once things settle into a new normal, but they probably won't completely die away either.
Promotional efforts that require writers interact with readers directly (such as book signings) have not really found a work-around. However, opportunities for writers to connect with writers never completely died away as many writing workshops simply moved online. Still, overall, promotional efforts have been frustrating for many writers. As the pandemic fades, no one will be more grateful than writers with books to promote.
Definitely Not All Bad
On the plus side, the extra time at home has led to more time to write and more time to spend on learning and improving for many writers. And because submissions have been slowed down, writers often spent more time on polishing and revision than usual, resulting in better submissions that stood a better chance of selling when houses open back up. Plus, many writers turned to agent hunting as a workaround to the closed publishers and found agents open and interested in new books. So it wasn't all difficulty and frustration, and now that life is slowly turning toward normal, many writers will be making the turn in a better place in terms both of skill and of having excellent submissions that have gone through meticulous revision. It's hard to say exactly what changes in publishing will stick, but with readers more interested than ever in finding a really good book, the future looks pretty good.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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