Publishing in a Recession

It’s no secret that times are tough all over. The publishing industry is no exception. When one or two publishing houses lay off a few people it is cause for concern but as more and more publishers “restructure” from sales right up through editorial you can almost feel the panic roll through the writing world.
How bad is it, really? The answer is – it depends. Some publishers are weathering the current storm without many changes.
“We are acquiring and going about business as usual,” says Victoria Wells Arms, Editor at large for Bloomsbury Children’s Books. “I think we’ll see some effects in production and how we try to trim costs and keep the books beautiful.”
Likewise at the Lerner Publishing Group, Carolrhoda Editorial Director Andrew Karre reassures us that, “Lerner Publishing Group is very healthy and is well positioned to weather the challenges of this market. We will continue to publish efficiently and well, and we’ll take advantage of opportunities that present themselves due to changes at other houses.”
Over at Charlesbridge Publishing, editor Randi Rivers reports that they are a bit ahead of the game. “We acquired a lot of manuscripts at the beginning of 2008, which filled our lists through 2012. So we were slowing down our acquisitions before the recession became “official” last month. Now we’re being extremely selective but are still keeping an eye out for special books to add to our future lists. Our main focus at this time, however, is editing and preparing books that are currently on our lists for publication. Like everyone else, we’re watching our costs and will probably skip some of the conferences that we normally attend.”
Back at the beginning of 2008 when Blooming Tree Press saw that readers and buyers were ordering more paperbacks than hardbacks they did a small restructuring effort which included opening two new paperback imprints; “Tire Swing” for children and “Sentinel Books” for adults. “We are putting out our acquired books very carefully, just like other publishers. But we are still putting them out there,” says publisher Miriam Hees. “Orders are still coming in and so far I don’t see much of a slow down.”
When they hit, the effects of the recession trickle down to all layers of a publishing house, explains Nicole Geiger, publisher of Tricycle Press, a division of Ten Speed Press. “The recession has forced Ten Speed Press to cut costs all around the house, from the kind of coffee we provide staff to print runs of 2009 titles. We have had to cut just a few staff as well and everyone has picked up a little extra work. Belt tightening, all around. We are carefully considering each marketing expenditure and have cut our budget for advertising as well (not that it was very large to begin with!). “ But it is not all gloom and doom, adds Geiger. “We have not cut the lists in terms of numbers of titles…yet. We have a terrific special markets sales program, which is only becoming more and more important. And, we’ve been terribly fortunate this year to receive a greatly increased amount of publicity exposure in major consumer outlets as the New York Times among others, so the Tricycle imprint in particular has been weathering the downturn decently so far (and is even up for the year!)”
At Scobe Press, CEO /Co-Founder Brett Hodus can sum it all up in just one word. “Tentativeness,” says Hodus. “There has been an unwillingness to deviate from the safest practices in publishing. Being a small publisher, we normally take risks that larger publishers wouldn’t. But in these tough times, we’ll probably play it safe in the way we market and sell books.”
Does all this financial upheaval mean the rules of publishing have changed the way authors should approach the business of writing? Geiger says no then adds, “They should downgrade their expectations in terms of both advance monies and marketing budgets as print runs are being impacted.”
“Patience is of the utmost importance right now in the publishing industry,” says Hees. “Publishers are going to be more careful than ever about what they aquire.”
Rivers encourages authors to look at the recession as an opportunity to organize the business side of writing. “Now is the perfect time for authors to take stock of the market and their place in it. It’s easy to get caught up in writing and to forget to monitor the market. I’d recommend that authors survey booksellers, librarians, and teachers to find out what trends in book buying and readership they are seeing during the recession. How have sales/readership changed over the past two years? What are the current market needs? And as an author, ask yourself, ‘Are you writing books that have strong backlist potential?’
Also, it’s a good time to catch up on what’s happening at each of the houses—people-, book-, and sales-wise. This will help authors better target their submissions. Now is not the time to throw everything at an editor to see what sticks; in this economy it’s important to direct submissions as precisely as possible. Stay in touch with any contacts you’ve made over the years, too. People tend to move around a lot in the best of times, but this is especially true during a difficult economic environment.”
Paperbacks are likely to be strong sellers during this financial downswing. What other books might be more popular while we weather this financial crunch?
“Children’s books,” says Geiger, “(people cut other expenditures before they cut spending on their kids), though hardcover may become tougher. I do think parents want value for their money, so books with some educational content should remain popular. Adult cookbooks are still doing well as consumers cut their eating-out budgets and cook more at home.”
Rivers adds, “Anything with an established track record—the classics, award winning books, best-selling authors—will be popular with both book buyers and with consumers. When people have very little to spend, they want to make sure they get their money’s worth. They’re less willing to take a chance on something new.”
“I don’t think the recession plays a major part in readers’ decisions, at least not for children’s books,” states Karre. “I think some themes and subject matter regarding money, wealth, and greed may be slightly more attractive to readers (particularly of teen fiction, perhaps), but I think that’s true of any major cultural events. But none of that matters to what writers are doing now, since anything I acquire now will come out after this recession has passed (I hope).”
Economists have said that you can always find ways to make money — you just do it differently in good times versus bad times. What’s a writer to do?
“Don’t get swept up in the negativity,” says Hodus. “Much of the great writing throughout history has come out of tough times, so try to go with it. Stay positive, and don’t give into the fear! Personally, I think the best efforts in young adult publishing come out of fearlessness, a willingness to take great risks and do things that have not been done before. If writers become obsessed with trying to analyze what the market will bear, and what publishers are thinking, their writing will suffer.”
This is a good time for authors to beef up their skills and branch out to new areas. “Keep writing,” says Rivers, “but add something new to your repertoire. If you’ve neglected it in the past, then set up school visits and book-signings. Create an author website and learn more about marketing yourself. Or go to a conference and brush up on writing and storytelling skills. Just get yourself out there—the more you have to offer, the more valuable you are not only to your publisher but also to yourself.”
Rivers continues, “Take time with your cover letters and proposals to explain why your book is right for right now—in other words, Why should I spend the money on your book?; and, Am I going to make it back?”
Karre adds, “Focus on professionalism. The need for well done books from reliable authors seems to have come into sharp focus now. Authors who act as their publishers partners can do well in these times.” Karre encourages already published authors to find their audiences and become part of the conversation. “Books are relatively cheap,” he says. “People aren’t going to become less connected online, even in a recession, so authors should maintain and perhaps enhance their outreach to their readers.”
In other words, now is the time for all good writers to hustle just a little harder.
“Keep yourself out there in every way possible,” says Hees. “School visits, guest speaking, blogging, websites. Anything and everything you can think of.”
Arms agrees. “Stay out there—go to schools, bookstores, libraries, create teacher kits you can leave in classrooms. Teachers will still love to see you, even if they can’t pay the honorariums they used to—don’t turn down an opportunity to sell yourself and your books.”
It’s also a good time for an author to strengthen relationships with local booksellers. “Pound the pavement for your local bookseller,” says Geiger. “Start a small, local lit festival in your town. Check out local book clubs in your town; can you visit them and present your book? Use your free copies (and perhaps try to get more free copies from your publisher in lieu of marketing budget) and get those books into the hands of tastemakers. Blog–and make sure your web presence, whatever it is, is heavily linked so that your traffic improves. “
“Economic hard times is a bit of a reminder that we all need to do our best work if we want to stay viable in any kind of market,” says Rivers. “That goes for all of us, not just for authors. And remember, the economy runs in cycles—eventually we’ll come out on the other side.”
Arms states, “Publishers may be getting pickier, but part of that is because we’ve put out too many books in the last few years and pulling back a bit on the part of publishers to support only the strongest titles will be making more and more sense, tough though that may be to hear. But I believe that editors are always looking for really wonderful books to put out there, and if yours is one of them, it will be found.”
“Prepare for change,” says Geiger, “and try not to fear it. Learn about how the music industry has changed over the last 10 years and think about how those changes can and will apply to the book industry to some extent. “Not to be facetious,” she adds, “but don’t quit your day job. Everyone’s income is being affected, from publishers to booksellers to authors and illustrators. We’re all trying to survive this together.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.