Mid-Year Update on the State of Publishing Today

I’ve been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the state of publishing today – especially about the general sense of ‘flux’ and uncertainty as well as the lingering sense of trauma following the pandemic. This particular issue came up recently on social media when a writer demanded on Twitter (never a good thing…) why agents and editors seemed particularly slow in responding to submissions at the moment. This set the stage for a flood of responses from those in the publishing industry reiterating just how traumatic the pandemic had been for many of them – stemming not only from the lay-offs and economic uncertainty, but also coping with working from home (often with young children), and generally being in the midst of a confluence of horrors and illness which affected everyone’s ability to focus.

Now, as we pass the mid-point of 2021 many in the industry are still struggling to catch up with the backlog of work and trying to regain a sense of normalcy after the pandemic upended so much within the industry. Reading this Twitter thread was both reassuring (given my own creative struggles during the pandemic), as well as terribly sad (so many people still trying to come to terms with their experiences last year). What was unnerving/shocking (although given it’s Twitter also inevitable…) was the number of negative responses (even from writers!) criticizing agents and editors as if they should somehow not have any human frailties… Witnessing this whole exchange on Twitter made me wonder about what others were experiencing when it comes to the publishing industry at the moment, whether they see a ‘reset’ any time soon, or whether we are really just in the throes of a kind of post-traumatic syndrome that may take many more months to overcome.

Some of my fellow writers have received a fair bit of ‘doom and gloom’ talk from their agents and editors (though to be honest I say ‘so what’s new?!’) so I thought I’d reach out to our TKZ community to see what your experience has been so far in 2021. Are your agents and editors still reeling from the pandemic? Are submissions or responses to queries taking longer than normal? What feedback have you got from those in the industry about the state of things at the moment?  One interesting tidbit I’ve heard is that many publishers are now looking for projects that they feel they can sell to Netflix for a future movie/TV show – I’m assuming because of the success of the recent Shadow & Bone series perhaps…??…anyway not sure if anyone’s heard this…

For those of you out there in TKZ with their fingers on the pulse, what are you hearing about the state of publishing at the moment?




31 thoughts on “Mid-Year Update on the State of Publishing Today

  1. I work for a hospital so I feel as though I’ve been living in a parallel universe. We’ve been working the whole time (though most hospitals laid off a lot of staff since the revenue generating portions were not open). Our state has been more or less back to normal since September, for which we’re grateful.

    One positive thing that happened was some writer’s conferences that were in person went on line. I appreciate that because I actually got to attend a couple (virtually but I was there for the education so it worked for me). I hope going forward conferences keep a virtual option.

    • Cynthia, I also hope that conferences and conventions have a virtual aspect going forward. I was a panelist at a virtual convention this year, and it was a great way to be involved from the comfort of my own home. The panels I was on were very well attended, too. The convention used the Airmeet video conferencing platform, which allowed for chat, Q&A and other channels during sessions, making it easier to moderate audience questions and allowing for more interaction at the same time.

  2. Thanks for a great question, Clare. I just accidentally erased a very lengthy answer, which indicates that the Universe is trying to tell me something this morning.


    There are a lot of moving parts to bringing back the publishing industry. Many of them involve bringing back New York first. That is going to take much more than selling a few apartments in Manhattan. Things will not return to “normal” in the publishing industry until at least May 2022, and that’s only if nothing else happens. Something else is going to happen, but that’s a topic for another time. Expect the best and prepare for the worst.

    The way through this is to focus on completing what is right in front of us to the absolute best of our ability. That is filling the blank space on the screen or paper. After that, learn how to wait patiently. Find other ways to fill the void. It is better to wait for a good decision that is hoped for than to quickly receive a decision that is feared.

    BTW, Clare, what you heard about the hunt for a book that can be licensed for a television/cinema/streaming project is 100% true.

    • Joe – totally agree that we can only focus on the work and what is in our control. I do think the NY situation (and what they faced last year) has had a huge impact – hopefully it will get better there soon but recovery will be slow I fear 🙁

    • With all the work being moved online, etc., I wonder if the big publishers will rethink their ridiculously priced NYC based businesses. The day of the martini power lunches are long past, too. Baen Books, a very successful science fiction and fantasy publisher, moved to a small town outside of Raleigh, NC, years ago, and has been purring along nicely since then so it can be done.

  3. Interesting post, Clare, but as an indie author, it’s not really applicable. Which might be a good thing. I’m still chugging out my two books a year.

    • Thanks Terry! I didn’t mean to exclude the indie world – but sounds like things haven’t changed that much – though are you seeing any change in terms of the process (editorial, marketing?)

      • Not really, Clare. I have been using my editor for quite a while, and we just agree on a schedule. My cover artist is working at about the same pace as always. I do almost everything else myself. Marketing sucks, but for me, that’s no change. My least favorite aspect of the publication process.

  4. There’s a similar simmering in the music biz these days (dazed?) as well… with a lot of “Names” creating songs and even album length material, but either holding back releases until touring/concerts pick back up, or releasing independently to keep fans encouraged (and the financial pumps primed, as most of their revenue now comes via being on the road in front of folks, given the royalties currently being “paid” by the labels and streaming “services”).

    • Thanks George – interesting to note that the music industry is holding back releases. The publishing world obviously faces a similar dilemma given what happened last year.

  5. My personal experience with the production side of the industry (editing, agenting, distribution, etc.) is that nothing has changed from what I can tell. I know that everyone is working from home–which, in many cases, means a small apartment in Midtown–but I only know that because I have been told. The trains on my line seem firmly on the tracks and mainly on time.

    I see the biggest hiccup coming from the bookselling side. Pandemic panic drove booklovers to online resources, while at the same time, small booksellers found themselves with too little cash to weather the storm.

    I agree with Joe’s comment above about New York–both on the need for it to return to full vibrancy and on the structural and civic roadblocks to keep that from happening.

  6. It looks to me that it’s harder than ever for new writers to get invited inside the Forbidden City, as the driver of sales over the last year and a half have been books by name authors and their backlists, which sell better online than in (the remaining) brick-and-mortar stores. Getting attention for a new writers is harder than ever, what with bookstores shuttering and physical tours cancelling, and online algorithms bending things to what is currently hot.

    But I’m observing this with Terry from the lush meadows outside the walls.

    • I do wonder thought whether there will be flow on effects even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease? Are they finding visibility any harder or easier? I wonder about the state of the industry as a whole and how it’s impacting writers.

  7. Since I am self-publishing now, I haven’t seen much difference. My freelance editor and cover designer were — and continue to be — very responsive. I did notice one thing that may have been due to the pandemic: I contacted Findaway Voices late last year to have my second novel made into audio, and it took them quite a long time to get things going. Since the narrator for my first book wasn’t available, we had to audition others and even setting up the auditions took more time than I would have guessed.

    My husband did sign with a mid-size publisher a few months ago to have his first novel published.

  8. Thanks for a thoughtful summation, Clare. Contrary to rumor, agents and editors ARE human.

    Like Terry and Jim, my schedule of releasing books has not been affected. The control of self-pubbing is esp. valuable in times like these.

    But…my friends who’ve been querying in the trad world are all reporting very slow responses or no response at all. There’s considerable lingering uncertainty from agents and editors who are cautious about committing to projects that may not get off the ground.

    • Debbie – I’m hearing the same about agent responses and the lingering uncertainty at the moment. I think it’s just going to take time for people to know how things will pan out.

  9. Good post, Clare. Like Terry and Jim, I’m an indie, so am playing on an adjacent field to the publishing stadium, focusing on my own production and the challenges in reaching readers.

    However, I know from friends still endeavoring to sell novels to traditional publishing that things are tighter than before, with longer wait times. It seems like the pandemic accelerated tradpub trends.

    I think the biggest challenge for traditional publishing and the others “playing” there is what might happen with print sales going forward, given how important print has been to NY publishers and small presses alike. Print is a very small fraction of my sales as an indie, but it’s much different I think for tradpubbed authors.

    • Great comment. I was also wondering if it would be risky to go with a publisher as a fist time author vs. risk and go indie? Maybe traditional publishing will be shunned some day?

  10. Publishing times have never been better for me as an indie, Clare. I attribute this to two things. One is I made the decision – changed my mindset – to treat this as a business in February 2020 just before the pandemic effects set in. I increased my production to one new product (book) every two months, and I “went wide” allowing exposure on more retail spaces. Second, I believe readers in my crime genre had far more time to explore, discover, and buy online instead of in bricks & mortar stores – also they adopted e-reading devices. So it was a perfect alignment for me.

    I have no experience with trad publishing and working through agents so I’m not in a position to comment. However, I was chatting with Sue (Coletta) yesterday about her current experience. I’ll leave that for Sue to comment on, and knowing Sue as well as I do, I’m sure she’ll show up here any minute.

    One quick last comment about the net-stream side. I’m currently working on writing content for that industry and in an early conversation with an acquisitions exec at a well-known net-stream provider he asked, “Are you represented by an agent?” I replied, “No. I’m totally indie.” “Good,” he said and left it at that. You can read into that what you want.

  11. I don’t have a personal experience (yet) with the trad publishing industry, but I sure saw a downer on a blog the other day.

    An unnamed literary agency, a well-known one, featured a blog by an agent. This agent is one with whom I’ve had contact. Really like her professionalism and her encouraging nature. She wrote a blog on the agency’s site, to which I subscribe. The topic was how to approach an agent for an update on your submission. It was well-written, full of tips on how to handle this or that. There were several comments from others like me who were grateful for the tips.

    But then there was this one…this person commented no less than 3 times. Each time, the agent kindly replied. But her replies became shorter and shorter. Why? Because this commenter raked the agent over the coals for a few typos in her blog, using it as a weapon to heap all of her pent-up hostility toward publishing professionals, no doubt because no one was picking up her project(s). She couldn’t understand why agents hold all the cards, and can’t even proofread their own blogs. Really, the typos were minor. I glided right over them, because the content was stellar.

    This over-the-top criticism was painful to read. She didn’t hold back one iota. But the agent handled her beautifully.

    I wonder, with all of her vituperation, will she ever get anyone to endorse her writing projects. I feel certain that she will not remain anonymous after this. 🙁

    Gratitude goes a long way, as I’ve tried to teach my grown sprouts.

    • I think gratitude and patience are vital attributes at the moment – like you I can’t believe some of the anger on social media (and how some authors rail against industry professionals…ugh!)

  12. Two of my daily sites are SYFY.com and Tor.com for my nerd news, and sf/fantasy/horror/paranormal book series sales to all and sundry media has been very hot, indeed. The well-established series are the most popular because of lots of stories and indepth worldbuilding. Of the sales, sadly, at least one in ten fails to gel enough to be made.

    • I think lots of readers are looking for an escape (me included!) so it makes sense that great SFF books, particularly those with wonderful, detailed world building will resonate:)

  13. I’m in a unique position to comment on this subject, Clare. For years I went direct to publishers with submissions (or they came to me, as Rowman & Littlefield did). But for my latest narrative nonfiction/true crime project, I figured it’s time for me to get an agent. Regardless of what *some* angry writers rant about, an agent can be a valuable asset, as you know.

    So, once I finished my book proposal and sample chapters, I began the querying process. And I noticed both good and bad things happening now. Since agents are human, many are mainly looking for uplifting and/or inspirational nonfiction. Humor is big right now. My project is dark and frightening. As for timing, some agents requested the full proposal within a week of the query. Others take longer to respond. But so far, the overall response has been positive.

    What Joe mentioned about New York is true. I’ve had more interest and excitement from the West Coast than NY. East Coast agents still seemed shell-shocked, or like you said, are dealing with trying to adjust to working from home. I had one NY agent cold-call me on LinkedIn, but when I looked into her I found lawsuits, lots of lawsuits, which explains why she’s eager for clients. 🙂 Waiting is never easy, but checking the email nonstop is even worse. Better to keep working on the project while waiting for a determination(s) and/or response(s). Or write something new. And never ever rant on social media! That’s a surefire way to get rejected.

    • Thanks for the insight into your recent experience Sue – and I think it’s more important than ever to 1) focus on the work and 2) never rant on social media!! Good luck with your agent search:)

  14. 2020 was looking so good with 4 articles to be published and the Covid knocked them out and they went online and wrote their own articles. The joys of writing.

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