Notes on "The Future of Publishing"

Margot Atwell gave a really great talk at BookExpo last month!

Margot Atwell is the publishing director at Kickstarter—if you’re looking to use that platform to crowdsource a book, she’ll be an invaluable resource in your campaign. She’s also got a free newsletter, On The Books, where she talks about the financial realities of publishing, as well as the financial realities of professional writing. If you aren’t subscribed to that newsletter yet, you should be!

Last month, at BookExpo America, Margot gave a presentation on “The Future of Publishing,” touching upon five key themes. She’s pretty well on the mark, as far as I’m concerned, and I’d like to share her five main ideas with you, with some additional input on my part.

• “In 2025, successful publishers will have diverse readers, authors, and staff.” As Margot pointed out in her presentation, the publishing industry’s current employee demographic is 79% white—a stark overrepresentation when compared to the population at large. Those employees, as good as their individual intentions may be, are selecting books for publication that speak to them, and to readers like them.

So, yes, the industry needs more staff members who bring a different perspective to the job, who can find more books that speak to more diverse segments of the reading audience. The readers are there, waiting for the books. And the authors are out there, honing their writing practices, ready to share their voices. Powerful opportunities await the publisher who’s consistently able to put the readers and the authors together.

• “Publishers will become more spread out and virtual.” Margot had some sharp insights as to how Manhattan became the nexus of big book publishing, but with New York real estate being as expensive as it is, innovative publishers are more likely to set up shop somewhere else. On that note, if you aren’t subscribed to Notes from a Small Press, a newsletter produced by Anne Trubek of Belt Publishing, you should be—every letter is filled with useful information about the business of books, how they get made and sold.

One of the things about being a big publishing company is that you’re often focused on big hits. A smaller company, with less overhead and a more intimate focus, can concentrate its efforts on books that might not have “big” readerships, but would have enough a niche audience to make publishing on a smaller scale worth the effort. In an ideal world, those smaller publishers will be prepared to take on more diverse voices, knowing the readers are there, and it’s a matter of finding and connecting with them.

• “Publishers will find ways to connect with readers beyond the page.” Authors—some authors, anyway—are doing a fantastic job of making connections with their readers through social media, or through email newsletters. Some publishers are making headway on that front, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

It’s important to remember, though, that this isn’t about using social media or email (or a website) simply as a broadcast platform to make announcements about Your Latest Thing. You’ll end up doing that, of course, but it has to be one facet of a broader form of sharing your passions with readers… and of letting them share their passion for the things you’re passionate about with you, too. When they’re able to recognize you as one of their own, someone who cares about the things they care about, they’ll be open to hearing about your writing—it’s not “promotion,” it’s just “what I’ve been up to.”

• “Publishers will use data to guide their thinking without letting it dictate choices.” Amazon has a lot of data on its customers, including all the information it gleans about their likes and dislikes from Goodreads. Publishers don’t see any of that. They need to find alternative ways of learning about the people who buy their books, so they can make informed decisions about what kinds of books they should be doing.

That doesn’t mean that writers should “write to the market,” at least not as their primary goal. You still want to write about the passions and concerns that define you. But if you can identify particular themes among those passions and concerns that you know will resonate with readers, and you sincerely believe you have something meaningful to share on those themes, or you find something meaningful in the process of contemplating them, you’d do well to consider whether that might be a productive application of your writing practice.

(And how would you identify those themes? Well, if you’re paying attention when your readers are sharing their passions and concerns with you…)

• Finally: “Successful publishers will publish in many formats and diversify their revenue streams.” Every now and then, news coverage of the publishing industry gets excited about stories like “we’re reading on our smartphones more!” or “serialized fiction is making a comeback!” And it gets a little annoying, because the media can act like the wheel’s been reinvented every time, but it’s also true: These things are happening! And writers can take advantage of them as well as publishers can.

If novel-length manuscripts aren’t working out for you, there are other avenues that are opening up. Maybe your voice shines most effectively in the novella format, with 40,000 words instead of 80,000. Maybe you figure out a string of thematically connected essays, publish them individually at various outlets, and then collect them in an ebook. Maybe you turn directly to your readership for support, through patronage models. The key point here is: There are many ways you can share your voice now—and, yes, some of them boil down to giving it away, but some of them don’t! “Publishing a book” is a nice marker of literary success, but it isn’t the only one.

As I said at the beginning, if you aren’t subscribed to Margot’s newsletter yet, you should be—especially since it’s all free! There’s really no excuse not to be taking advantage of the knowledge she’s sharing with her readers.

(On that note, this edition of “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” was originally scheduled to be exclusive to premium subscribers, but I felt like this was something everyone ought to be able to see. There will be a premium edition going out before the end of this week, however.)