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Life after COVID-19: five expert opinions on the future of publishing

Life after COVID-19: five expert opinions on the future of publishing

By Gabrielle Johnson |

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

whitefox asked an agent, a blogger, an indie author, a publicist and a pitch coach to give their predictions for the new (publishing) normal after COVID-19.

Joanna Penn – Independent author and podcaster

Joanna Penn is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers (as J. F. Penn), and she also writes non-fiction for aspiring authors. She’s a podcaster and an award-winning creative entrepreneur. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 100 sites for writers by Writer’s Digest. You can find her on Twitter here

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The pandemic has sped up the shift to digital reading across the world with ebook and audiobook sales and subscription borrows increasing, particularly in countries that have been resistant to digital in the past. Independent authors are primarily digital-first so have benefitted from this change, and we expect this shift to continue as people get used to the new normal.

Libraries are also showing signs of switching to digital, so growth in the library market is likely to continue for indie authors. Those of us who sell directly from our own websites and use services like Patreon have also seen an increase as readers choose to support creators directly, buying books and using patronage to keep writers writing.

‘The landscape will become even more fragmented, so personal connection and strong branding will be increasingly important.’

Book marketing has increasingly moved online, favouring independent authors who already use digital methods. Paid advertising costs have also dropped, creating opportunities for expansion for many authors during the time of lockdown. These trends all point to a positive future for independent authors who develop a direct relationship with readers and who publish and sell online in an increasingly digital, global market.

However, it’s also likely that indie authors will face more competition in the digital space as traditional publishers embrace the full possibilities of online sales, including print on demand, lower-priced ebooks and selling direct. The landscape will become even more fragmented, so personal connection and strong branding will be increasingly important.

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Georgina Moore – Director of Books and Publishing at Midas PR

Georgina Moore spent 15 years as Communications Director at Headline, where she ran the Press Office. Before that she was in publicity at Hodder & Stoughton and has 20 years’ experience in the publishing industry. Georgina has helped create many bestsellers across fiction and non-fiction. Since joining Midas last summer Georgina and her books team have masterminded many PR campaigns that have helped create bestsellers, including The Carer by Deborah Moggach, It’s Not Okay To Feel Blue (And Other Lies) by Scarlett Curtis, Truth To Power by Jess Phillips and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. You can find her on Twitter here.

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So much about the way we work to tell the world about our authors and their books has changed. There is no doubt that every book publicist is having to work much harder. The media landscape is evolving continually. Some media outlets want easy content and they want it yesterday. Some outlets are planning so much further ahead because they are working on a skeleton staff. One day a freelancer will be there asking for pitches, the next day they have disappeared, and no one knows where. Constantly we need to find ways to make our author’s content either COVID-19-related, or a complete escape from COVID-19 – there is not much space for the middle ground. Never has it been so valuable to work in a team and to share daily information on the changing PR landscape, but of course now is the time we are all separated, no longer able to bounce ideas and contacts off each other. At Midas, to try and stay on top of things we have a Journalist Tips channel on Slack, and this has been invaluable.

In the immediate future the most pressing issue is how many books have been delayed until the Autumn and how crowded the market will be. Reviewers on social media are saying that review space will be hotly contested, and many titles will lose out. Only the most persuasive and persistent book PRs with the sharpest elbows will win coverage, and in-house PR teams will be overwhelmed by the amount of titles to work on and will need to ruthlessly prioritise. Everyone fully expects this car crash of titles to continue into the Spring of 2021.

‘I believe we can use virtual events to attract potential new book buyers. At some point these virtual events and festivals will find ways to be monetised to survive in the long term and to better drive book sales.’

As with all new evolving landscapes there are exciting opportunities springing up. I know that I for one will be keeping virtual events as part of my PR repertoire long after COVID-19. The attendance numbers for virtual events are high, they allow a more diverse audience and they can attract authors no matter where they are in the world. They also attract viewers who might think the traditional book event or festival is not for them, and I believe we can use them to attract potential new book buyers. At some point these virtual events and festivals will find ways to be monetised to survive in the long term and to better drive book sales. The other hugely positive factor that has come out of more online traffic is all the creativity from authors and booksellers themselves. Every day there are new online book clubs springing up, Instagram or Facebook Lives, indie bookshops banding together to create virtual events programmes. There is also a brilliant new emphasis on community particularly seen in Book Twitter, with big-name authors like David Nicholls generously giving a platform to debut writers who are particularly struggling at this time. And finally, a lot of people have woken up to the important role book bloggers play in spreading word-of-mouth recommendations. I hope that we hold on to a lot of these developments post-COVID-19.

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Linda Hill – Book blogger and reviewer

Linda Hill is a blogger and reviewer whose entire life has revolved around books and reading; from studying English at university, then teaching it, through becoming an Educational Consultant, Inspector and Adviser with a focus on literacy and English to writing non-fiction English teaching resources and, more recently, completing the first draft of her novel. Click here to visit her website, and here to follow her on Twitter.

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As I write this piece, it’s the day after a local literary event that I had organised should have taken place. I was supposed to be welcoming nine authors to my local library to meet readers and speak about their books at a ‘read dating’ event. Instead, I had to make do with blogging about what might have been.

And this has got me thinking. I’m part of a committee organising the biennial Deepings Literary Festival for 2021 for which we’ve been booking authors and venues. But what if we still have some kind of COVID-19 social distancing by the end of April next year? Will authors and attendees still come? How will we manage safe experiences whilst still retaining the intimate atmosphere for which we are getting a reputation? What might we do instead?

‘Attending a book launch or festival is expensive and for the travel costs one can buy several physical or ebooks. For that reason, I don’t think COVID-19 will reduce book revenues, but I do think authors and publishers will need to be more creative in generating interest in their particular books.’

To find the answers, I’ve been asking local people about their views. Most have said they wouldn’t be interested in a virtual online event and I have to admit that I have given them up, too. Partly this is because I have been inundated with blog requests. More and more authors, publishers and brands are requesting blog space. I’ve been spending up to two hours a day just dealing with emails and I merely blog as a hobby. It makes me wonder whether blogging post COVID-19 will change, with more bloggers charging a fee for blog space, perhaps. I would not want paid posts.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis I was used to attending many bookish events; awards, launches, festivals, meet-ups and so on. When lockdown is eased I very much doubt that I will have the confidence to go back to these events for some time. That said, I think in my case this will lead to me buying more, not fewer, books. Attending a book launch or festival is expensive and for the travel costs one can buy several physical or ebooks. For that reason, I don’t think COVID-19 will reduce book revenues, but I do think authors and publishers will need to be more creative in generating interest in their particular books.

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James Spackman – Publisher, agent and coach

James’s book career, which started glamorously in the postroom of Bloomsbury Publishing, has involved sales and marketing roles there, at John Murray and at Hodder. He was MD of Watkins (then part of Osprey Group) before setting up on his own. He now commissions geeky books about cycling for Profile, under the imprint Pursuit. In 2018 he set up The bks Agency with two ex-Hodder colleagues. He coaches publishers and agents in presentation skills as The Book Pitch Doctor and he is also founder of The Spare Room Project (sponsored by Penguin Random House), which finds free accommodation for publishing interns in London. You can find James at The Book Pitch Doctor and on Twitter.

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There’s a core of persuasion to what we do: ‘pitching is publishing’, as I always say. And that’s no less true when we’re all working from home. Editors still present acquisitions to colleagues, and sales, rights and publicity people still pitch to customers and contacts.

The core principles of talking about books persuasively don’t change just because you’re in your kitchen with your pyjama bottoms on, but there are some important new considerations. Two examples:

I ran an online presentation workshop recently with some excellent Penguin Random House people. When they role-played ‘presenting a project to the board’ in teams of four, it was striking how the most compelling presentations were slower and more deliberately paced than the face-to-face norm. It felt like we, the audience, needed a tiny bit longer to process what we were being told. Those little messages we instinctively pick up from body language and tone of voice are imperfect online, so we’re working harder cognitively and need more time.

‘The core principles of talking about books persuasively don’t change just because you’re in your kitchen with your pyjama bottoms on, but there are some important new considerations.’

For the same reason, the presenters’ ability to ‘read the room’ and gauge reactions wasn’t quite as instinctive as it would be around a table, so they needed to do it more deliberately. Tip 1 – slow down and check in.

Tip 2 is Zoom-specific, though I’m sure it has an equivalent on other platforms. If you’re self-conscious when you’re on a video call then hover over your video feed, hit the three vertical dots in the top right hand corner and select ‘hide self view’. Then, liberated from Hermione Granger-style ‘does my hair really look like that?’ thoughts, you can give all of your attention to your audience, which is where it needs to be.

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Kevin Conroy Scott – Literary agent and co-founder of Tibor Jones & Associates

Kevin Conroy Scott is the co-founder of Tibor Jones & Associates. As a literary agent he has discovered and represented authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, worked with authors who have won the Nestlé Prize and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and recently arranged one of ‘the biggest publishing deals of all time’ for his most well-known client, Wilbur Smith.

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As a working-from-home agent who closed my office some time ago, I’ve been self-isolating for over two years while I balance the needs of my clients with those of my two primary school children, trying to prioritise my family while doing my best for my authors. In this way I’m qualified to talk about agenting in a post-COVID-19 world.

For me this is about working from home and changing our custom of trade. We are experiencing a generational change as agents who liked being away from their domestic space to work with colleagues and clients realise that is no longer necessary or cost-effective. Literary agents have never needed curb appeal for their offices, only a good product, good energy, communication skills and the brass to ring up publishers when they have something worth sharing. A good lunch in a well-chosen restaurant is as impressive as an office on Bedford Square. An exciting deal and a proactive agenting style is more important than anything else. 

‘Markets go up and down but books, they last forever. If you want to learn something, reading a book is the best way to do that.’

As for the publishing environment, this reminds me of 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. A prominent editor had been away on maternity leave for the duration of the financial crisis. When she returned she wanted to buy a literary debut with dark themes – a tough sell at the best of times but a worthy book. She marched into her boss’s office and pitched the book with passion. The boss asked what her opening offer was. She said £20,000. He replied, ‘You’ve been away for a long time …’

Markets go up and down but books, they last forever. If you want to learn something, reading a book is the best way to do that. If you want the best value for transportable entertainment, a book is it. So while we all will have to do with less, the music will carry on playing. Perhaps more than ever, ordering a home delivery of books from your local bookshop is more important – and useful – than ever?

One day, we will no longer all permanently be out-of-office. Quite when remains to be seen. Until then, our objectives have not changed. We will keep trying to help writers and publishers make the very best books they can.

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