The following is gleaned from the latest issue of Publisher's Weekly:
“With bookstore sales falling the last four months of 2008, total sales for the year fell 0.5%, to $16.93 billion.”
“Bookstore sales were off 4.7% in December, an improvement over the 13.0% and 5.6% declines posted in November and October.”
“Sales for the 81 publishers that report their revenue to the Association of American Publishers fell 2.4%, to $10.6 billion, in 2008. . . The 13% decline in the adult hardcover segment was the result of a 5.3% drop in gross sales plus a steep 10.8% increase in returns.”
As you know, Houghton Mifflin has stopped accepting new submissions and Borders is on the ropes.
How is the downturn in book sales affecting literary agencies? Are agents taking on fewer new clients? Are agencies relying more on their existing best selling authors? Are colleagues of yours in fear of losing their jobs? How should unpublished authors trying to break in view all of this? Should we follow in Hemingway's and Poe's footsteps and just do ourselves in? Worse -- get a real job?
Yes, chicken little was right. The sky is falling. Soon people will be burning books for fuel and attaching spikes to their cars. Me, I plan to camp out at Walmart. I think I could last pretty long in a Walmart in some kind of massive global socio-economic destruction. They have food and clothing and camping equipment and generators. I would be fine.
Despite the corporate doom-and-gloom, publishing is actually a fairly stable industry in that people always want/need books. It's either for school or escapism, and it's rather cheap escapism, as most mass market paperbacks are now cheaper than a movie ticket and the book will last you longer. And not all publishing companies are doing badly. Yes, I don't know an editor who isn't under a little extra stress (or a lot of extra stress because half her department was cut and merged with another imprint), but most companies are in the black or near the black, and the ones doing well are being tight-lipped about it, hoping no one will figure out their secret. (Hint! It's probably cheating the authors with low advances and bottom-level royalties!)
The one company that is actually gaining in this crisis is Amazon, despite the rising cost of postage and increasingly slow speed of mail, along with the bankruptcy of DHL (bad for Barnes and Noble). Their used book seller program is probably generating them insane profits, allowing them to slash prices on new books, which then increases buying and gets them more profits. My book was recently reduced by about $1.50 on Amazon and is now selling about twice as many copies. I don't care about the sticker price, as my contract stipulates that I get my royalties based on the established retail price (the price set by the book company), so whatever the stores sell it at, I still get the same $1.12 or whatever it is per copy. Also, another way Amazon is able to offer great deals is that while bookstores have earn 50% of the retail price (the rest going to the publishing company), Amazon earns 55%, meaning it makes more on each book and can afford to keep the prices down to attract customers. Also Amazon sells a lot of other stuff, which just generally keeps the company afloat. I recently bought $35 headphones through a used seller for $4.00 AFTER shipping. And they were new in box.
Will the publishing companies go bankrupt? I doubt it. They may decrease in size, merge imprints, merge companies, or just shift around their lists, but they will survive and then thrive when the economy picks up again. People need books and POD technology is not yet economically viable to produce those public domain classics; you need a real company to do that. When the cost of POD goes down significantly, we will probably see a real restructuring of the industry, but not before.
What does this mean to literary agents? Well, advances are lower and it's certainly a bad time to become a literary agent, but my boss doesn't seem worried at all. If anything, she's rejecting more because we're seeing more queries as people who've been laid off submit books now that they have the time to write them. A ton of queries in her inbox can put her in a rejecting mood if she's just gotten some contracts out for rights in Indonesia and the Korean translation of the newest bestseller on her list just came in. This doesn't affect my work. Actually, it puts you guys at an advantage, as I'm not prone to be busy with another area of the business and reject queries because I'm busy, as my primary (but not only) job is to read queries. So, I'll put the normal amount of maybe's in the pile until she says there's too many, and then I might get a bit more discriminating, but usually not by much.
What does this mean to you? It could be good news, despite what I just said about my boss. (She really is a nice person, and takes on new authors all the time, but a large query pile can be staggering) Even if money is coming in from old backlisted items and current bestsellers, a good agent is always on the look out for new things, and probably on the lookout for more things with the knowledge that the advance is going to be lower for each book. In other words, agents have an incentive to actively look for new clients.
Either way, if you've written a good book, submit it. Just don't expect a big check to come if sells.