I was asked to give a talk at Digital Book World this month, and had a lot more latitude about what to discuss than I normally have when I’m asked to speak, which was both extremely freeing and kind of overwhelming. The last time I gave a talk with that much freedom was 2019, when I made five predictions for the future of publishing, which Ron Hogan wrote about in his newsletter at the time.
I spent months reflecting on what I might say that would be interesting and meaningful, and tried approaching from a few different directions, but I kept returning to some of the points in an essay I’ve been writing about the terrifying state of our country for queer and trans people right now. Digital Book World is a very Book Tech business-oriented conference, so ultimately, the framework I went with was one about five areas I’m watching in publishing in 2023. I wanted to share these five areas more broadly than just with conference-goers, so I’ve abridged and adapted the talk for this newsletter.
#1: Consolidation and Monopolization
The story of the Penguin RandomHouse & Simon & Schuster merger isn’t over yet. According to The Guardian, Simon & Schuster’s owner, Paramount, said that the publisher was a “non-core asset” to the media behemoth, and “does not fit strategically within Paramount’s broader portfolio.” I made some predictions about that last year after the DOJ’s decision came down, including speculating about who might be next to make an offer for S&S. I fully anticipate that the next chapters will unfold over the next twelve months.
In other news, Astra House bought DAW Books, and Kensington Books bought Erewhon in the second half of 2022. This flew a bit more under the radar for many in the field, butI expect it will have a meaningful impact on the speculative fiction and fantasy publishing landscape.
And of course, Amazon will continue to flex and exert its power over the publishing industry. I’ve heard from several publishers that Amazon is their least lucrative sales channel, the single largest account, and the one with the most power. As the largest retailer of books in the US, Amazon’s decisions have a massive impact on the publishing landscape. For example, last summer, when Amazon decided it had too much stock and slowed its ordering from publishers, it created a shock to the publisher ecosystem that could definitely be felt.
#2: Cash Flow Uncertainty
Beginning in mid-2021, we began to see rapid inflation at a level the US hasn’t had for 40 years, and that most of us currently working in book publishing have never seen in our careers. The Fed responded by hiking interest rates repeatedly and dramatically, from 0.25% in March 2022 to 4.50% in December 2022. Both of these factors cause uncertainty in the business world, and a lot of folks have been anticipating a recession in response to the substantial interest rate increases.
We’ll also probably see continued supply chain disruptions, and cost spikes. As I took the helm at Feminist Press last spring, turnaround times for domestic paperback print runs stretched from 11 weeks to 16 weeks at one point over the summer. This was a stark contrast to the 2-4 weeks I used to see when I was last working with printers frequently a decade ago. At one point, one of the ARC printers we work with ran out of certain types of paper altogether. Prices also spiked dramatically, one time going up by 15% between when we went on-press and when our books were shipping to the warehouse.
High rates of inflation, cost spikes, and uncertainty are huge challenges for publishers and booksellers since we set the prices for our books at least a year in advance. Because of this, it’s very likely that some of the books published late in 2022 and this year are underpriced compared to publishers’ actual costs.
Why am I talking about cash flow? Even a publisher that’s profitable can run into huge problems in the immediate term if their cash flow is disrupted or goes negative without enough reserves or a large enough line of credit to meet their obligations. In 2006 and 2007, we saw that happen when Publishers Group West went bankrupt and payments to 150 indie publishers were disrupted and in limbo for months. It forced a lot of great publishers to make really hard decisions.
Though it might not be the most interesting part of the book publishing business for most people, cash flow is a foundational part of any business, and one that could be especially difficult for publishers this year.
#3: Labor Justice
In 2015, a wave of media organizations started unionizing, and the tech industry has started to move in that direction. Workers at my previous employer, Kickstarter, were in the vanguard, reportedly making Kickstarter the first major tech company in the US to unionize in early 2020. Today, HarperCollins’ unionized employees have been on strike for more than two months.
With inflation as high as it is, better pay has become an even more urgent issue for book industry workers than it has been in the past. If we don’t increase pay and improve working conditions and work-life balance in this field, we’ll lose talent—to other publishers, but also from the industry as a whole.
We saw during the early days of the pandemic that people turned to reading en masse, and so many publishers had a banner year in 2020, and again in 2021. But that success and wealth mostly didn't trickle down to the writers and employees who made it possible. We as an industry owe it to our staff and writers to figure out how to make the numbers work. If we can’t pay a living wage to our staff, then only people who can afford to work for less than a living wage can work in our business, which will continue to dramatically limit the pool of people whose vision and experience will be represented in our extremely culturally impactful field. We have to create a field that is sustainable for people to work within if we want to see change and hear new ideas. This is especially crucial right now.
#4: Moving Beyond Representation to Equity and Inclusion
The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Study called out the lack of diversity in the book publishing field as an issue back in 2015 and shared the stats with us.
There was a racial justice reckoning in 2020, but though publishers made commitments and changes back then, it’s not clear that that has truly represented a permanent shift in publisher priorities or that it has caused a dramatic shift in the racial makeup of the writers getting book deals or the staff of the publishing industry, especially at the higher levels.
For both equity and business reasons, the industry needs to draw on the full range of talent available, and needs to publish books that will excite and resonate with all of our potential readers out there. In 2023, I expect to see even more clear signals about which publishers are walking the walk and making substantial investments in equity and inclusion among writers and staff, and which ones were just paying lip service a few years ago.
#5: The Rise of Fascism in the United States
In 2003, political scientist Dr. Lawrence Britt published an analysis of fascist regimes and came up with 14 commonalities among them, including:
Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
Obsession with National Security
Religion and Government are Intertwined
Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
These themes feel extremely familiar right now. The troubling trends and events of our time might feel unrelated when each one pops up as a shocking headline, but taken together, they paint a dark and terrifying picture of where we are as a country, and where we’re headed. We are living through a time in this country where things have been relentlessly normalized that just a few years ago would have sounded serious alarm bells for us. But taken in their totality, it’s difficult to dispute that we’re watching the rising tide of fascism in the United States in real time.
We’re seeing people have their rights stripped away because they are women or can get pregnant, or because they are transgender.
We’re seeing teachers and librarians forced to remove books from their shelves, especially books about queer and trans lives, and people threatened and intimidated with guns because they are wearing glitter and dresses and reading books at libraries.
We’re watching in horror, again and again, deadly attacks on nightclubs and medical offices, churches and synagogues and public transportation, grocery stores and schools and other places where Queer, Trans, Black, Chinese, Latine, and Jewish people, women and children go to gather and live their lives and find safety and community.
In her National Book Award speech in 2014, Ursula K Le Guin warned us: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”
At Feminist Press where I work, we specifically publish insurgent voices: those who dream up a different reality and share that vision with all of us. Those who show us the steps to take to bring that dream into being, forcefully creating change in systems that are very resistant to it.
As publishers, we do important work, representing people’s stories and lives. Books are powerful. The book is a medium that can be shared from hand to hand, which is hard to destroy or surveil at scale. Books create space to share and expand on ideas, change people’s minds, inspire, instruct, and rally people to a cause.
There are ideas that are bad and dangerous. Ideas become beliefs, which become actions. We’ve seen how poisonous ideas become literal violence against marginalized people. Publishers enable the art of writers. In publishing a book, we are lifting it up and telling the world with our resources and credibility, that these are ideas worth considering, ideas worth sharing.
As leaders in an industry that is so powerful in shaping and disseminating ideas, we need to take a stand and take risks as we’re able. The more power we have, the more privilege we have, the more crucial it is for us to take risks, and to put ourselves on the line for our beliefs.
If we always do the safe thing, then society remains safe only for those for whom it is currently safe. People did the brave thing decades ago to make society a little safer for me, as a woman, as a queer person, as a person with disabilities that are invisible. And so I must do the brave thing and make our society safer for those whose safety is currently not guaranteed, or not possible, in the world and country we live in today.
And if someone has made the world safer and more open for you, or if, through some magnificent stroke of luck, the world has always been safe and open for you, then you must do the same and build the future better for others who are here and not safe and free, and those who will come tomorrow.
In that same speech, Ursula K. Le Guin said: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency for the publishing business to act like things happen to us—things that we couldn’t possibly expect and that will be difficult for us to adapt to. But publishing is one of the oldest businesses in the world, and we’ve seen countless changes in the hundreds of years we’ve been around, and myriad shifts during the course of all of our careers. Change is the only constant, and I believe this industry needs to be more proactive about making change, and responding to external circumstances.
Books are a critical source of information, historical record, and cultural development. The responsibility that calls for is substantial, but I firmly believe that if we bring all our ingenuity to the changes and challenges we’re faced with, our field will thrive.
I look forward to continuing to work alongside all of you to imagine and create other ways of being. That’s the thing that really gives me hope.