I think we can all agree that 2020 has been decidedly weird. Despite our desires to the contrary, the weirdness persists, gouging grooves into our current reality that spell changes for the future of publishing. Savannah Cordova is here to share some trends we can likely see emerge as a result.
If there’s one thing 2020 has shown us, it’s that our lives are not nearly as predictable as we like to think. This isn’t exactly a new revelation — the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc. — but it’s one that brings fresh perspective and humility to all our forecasts now, whether in regards to the weather, the government, or the state of the publishing industry.
That said, while many of life’s twists are inherently unpredictable, others can be approached more confidently, with research and trends to back up one’s assertions. So while it’s true that any prediction in our current era should be taken with a grain of salt, it’s still worth a try (and gives us a certain human satisfaction) to speculate on what might come next!
On that note, having seen how both the COVID-19 pandemic and other major events have affected the industry over recent months, here are my best guesses at how publishing trends will evolve in late 2020 and beyond — both in the spirit of speculative intrigue and in the hopes of helping authors make more prudent business decisions over the coming months.
1. Diamond-in-the-Rough Dystopian Fiction
While early pandemic purchases tended toward the practical (survival guides, children’s academic workbooks, and the like), as months have dragged on, people have begun seeking out new genres of literature — and not all in the escapist vein you might think! Indeed, rather than gravitating toward elaborate, all-consuming high fantasy or fluffy romance, many readers have proclaimed a newfound love for dystopian fiction, in which the characters’ circumstances are just as bad (or even worse) than those we find ourselves currently facing.
Upon reflection, this isn’t as surprising as it might seem. For one thing, misery loves company, and even for those of us who aren’t exactly miserable, I’d imagine a bit of schadenfreude via a world even more desolate than ours might be rather comforting. Plus, for more pessimistic (or, depending on how you look at it, pragmatic) readers, dystopian fiction may even provide a tenuous blueprint as to how we should proceed in our own world. As Caroline Zielinski of The Guardian writes:
Now I reach for [dystopian fiction] because I want to see how characters behave when their freedoms are taken away from them. I want to know what choices they make when they lose their jobs, their livelihoods, their families and friends. Dystopian fiction helps us think through what reality could be like, and shows us how people might cope with adversity.
All of which is to say: dystopian fiction, while never unpopular (at least not since the Cold War), is having a real moment in 2020. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that all of it will flourish going forward! On the contrary, as more and more authors finish writing coronavirus-inspired novels, the late-2020-and-beyond market will likely be oversaturated with dystopian works.
Still, between readers’ renewed fascination with the genre and the pure quantity about to be on hand, there will surely be at least one or two standout dystopian novels, of the likes we haven’t seen since Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. And as someone who considers Station Eleven one of her favorite books, I personally can’t wait for the dystopian renaissance.
2. A Surge of Diverse Voices
Another publishing trend we’ll be seeing (and welcoming) much more in late 2020 is more diverse literature from a wide variety of authors. This trend stems from several sources: new writers that organically emerge each generation, a spike of people writing during the COVID-19 era, and finally an industry-wide call for diverse stories — which has, in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, increased exponentially (and rightfully!) to encompass many more perspectives.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize that as more people write about their experiences — and become conscious and inclusive of others’ experiences as well — more diverse narratives will become available for publishing. And with so many literary agents interested in #ownvoice stories (I’ve been seeing this request on every other Manuscript Wish List these days, which is honestly fantastic!), there should be no shortage of diverse, widely representative books in trad pub over the coming months.
As for self-pub, the same will be true, albeit with less mainstream coverage; more people writing still equals more perspectives, even if they don’t all end up with Big 5 contracts. To that end, I encourage all of us to seek out and support more diverse indie authors, as they too will be publishing in droves over the coming months! (And if you’re an author hoping to be a part of this trend, but don’t want to appropriate, be sure to check out this post for some excellent guidance.)
The rationale behind this trend is obvious: since the COVID outbreak, people have been understandably wary of physical items handled by multiple people before purchase. This is naturally a concern for books in physical bookstores, and even more for those in libraries and used bookstores. So at least for the time being, it seems we’ll be saying goodbye to quaint IRL browsing and hello to the safer digital alternatives.
3. More eBooks and Audiobooks
But even for hard-copy aficionados like myself, it isn’t all bad news. For one thing, ebooks are cheaper and more portable than hard copies, and some even come packaged with audiobooks — especially for books in the Kindle Unlimited library and similar subscription services. That’s right: even the indie authors whose books populate these platforms are starting to engage more with audio content (over the last few years generally, but especially since COVID-19).
And for another thing, ebooks are simply easier for authors to handle in terms of setup and production. Self-publishing a book on Amazon takes a great deal less time and effort than trying to land a publisher, so if readers are keen to get their hands on ebooks, indie authors can — and will — fill that demand with very little cost to themselves. Audiobooks are a little trickier, but the primer linked above will get you on track if you’re interested in recording one for your book.
In any case, there’s really no time like the present for authors to get into the ebook and audiobook game! And for those who may be concerned this trend will wane when things go “back to normal,” it’s crucial to note that ebooks and audiobooks were already on the rise long before the pandemic — and will be for years to come, if library checkouts are anything to go by. (Not to mention the fact that we really have no idea when “normal” will arrive, if ever.)
4. Virtual Events Become the Norm
We’ve already seen this trend taking shape over the past few months, and again, the rationale is pretty obvious: real-life author events involve lots of people in a crowded room, shaking hands and posing for photos, touching other people’s books, and all manner of potentially infectious behavior. Virtual events may not come with the tangible satisfaction of having an author scrawl on your copy’s title page in Sharpie, but they’re much safer in the current climate — and in my experience, have proven surprisingly adept at capturing a similar energy to real-life events.
Authors are also starting to get on board with the benefits of virtual events that have nothing to do with COVID. Sure, looking out at an audience of people who’ve read your book must be an incredible feeling… but is it really worth the costs, the travel, the forced speeches and socializing for authors who aren’t especially at ease in a crowd? While authors can always do more to up their book signing game, for many, the answer is still turning out to be “no.” Simply put: virtual events provide a cost-friendlier, less intimidating alternative to connect with readers. Not to mention more people can attend all at once!
I certainly don’t think this will be the end of real-life book events, but I do predict authors start cutting tours down and doing more virtually — not even necessarily readings, but all sorts of webinars and discussions (like Angela’s and Becca’s the other day!). Indeed, another great thing about virtual events is how flexible they are; for example, if an author discovers their readers aren’t too keen on Q&As, but that they love doing writing sprints together, that author can adjust their events accordingly rather than having to adhere to a preplanned book tour.
Maybe this is all wishful thinking, my rose-tinted dreams of a publishing world that shifts seamlessly into a new era. But I think we have enough of a precedent, even in these so-called “unprecedented times,” to know that authors will manage to persist and succeed no matter what comes at them. And even if I’m wrong about the rest, I look forward to seeing the solutions they innovate throughout 2020 and beyond.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).