Best of Ask the Agent: Taking the Temperature of Publishing Today

Plus, two adorable new picture books coming next week...

Hi! I’m your friendly neighborhood kid’s book agent, Jennifer Laughran, from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Best of Ask the Agent: The Newsletter typically brings you classics from the Ask Agent tumblr — but this week, I’m sharing a dispatch from more recent days. A reader yesterday asked about the State of Publishing; I posted my thoughts, and some folks found it useful, so I figured I’d share it again here. (And if you don’t want agentish advice - go ahead and scroll to the bottom for a couple of great picture book recommendations!)

Taking the Temperature of Publishing Today

Q: “I'm wondering what you heard this week about the activity/interest level of editors and publishers. How do you think agents' submissions numbers are looking compared to numbers before the pandemic? How do you think agents are feeling about their jobs? Do you expect to see many agents leaving the profession? Thank you!”

There are reasons for fear in this unprecedented time, obviously, but there are also reasons for optimism.

Here’s the good news:

See, books are slow to make, and publishing is a long game. We have to sell books this year in order for there to BE books two and three years from now – and two or three years from now, there won’t be a pandemic, hopefully! Therefore, books are still selling. I can’t speak for any other agent, but I’ve sold books every week since the stay-at-home order (pth pth pth).  While I’d say numbers across the board are down from the same time last year, business hasn’t ground to a halt or anything. Some books that are already in progress are being delayed, for one reason and another – but books ARE being sold, edited, designed, and yes, even published, during this time. Also, this is royalty season and there are LOTS of things for agents to do at all times that have nothing to do with the negotiating of deals, so our actual jobs are still quite busy. (Agents are also spending a lot of time in an ongoing conversation with publishing folks, gathering intel and navigating the changes that are afoot, and there is new info to keep up with every day.)

Anyway, this “long game” business means that agents who sell a fair number of books and have a backlist that earns royalties are somewhat insulated from the vagaries of short-term bad economy. First of all, if we are commission-only, our income fluctuates all over the map anyway, so we’re used to it, and also, I’m getting paid now for stuff that happened months ago or even last year and earlier - so even if I were to have a few months where I didn’t sell anything, while I would definitely be annoyed, and it would suck, I also might well still have income during that time regardless.

That said: My submission strategy is somewhat different of late, as I’m sure buying strategy is on the editor’s side. I find myself thinking about the future and, you know, I have no idea what it holds, but I don’t think it will be just the same as the old world. So thoughts about what the new landscape will look like, and what kinds of books will stand the tests of both time and dramatic societal upheaval are certainly on my mind.

I would say I’m submitting very judiciously, bearing in mind that editors probably are stressed on a number of levels, as I am. Theme-wise, I personally am avoiding extremely dark and upsetting books in this moment – I tend to think that most editors of my acquaintance would prefer distracting fun, joy, and optimism. (As would I.) 

Here’s the bad news: 

At this exact moment, there are editors and agents who are sick themselves, or have family members who are sick, or who are recovering. There are editors and agents who are stir-crazy from being trapped in their NYC studio apartments for a month, or scared, or depressed, or just feeling EFFING DISCOMBOBULATED (that’s me!). There are editors and agents who suddenly have to learn to homeschool and figure out how to balance full-time-toddler-entertainer with working from home. You get the idea. We’re people.

Additionally, publishers are tightening their belts. Which means some editors are being furloughed or laid off, or cut down to a four-day-a-week schedule or staggered off-on schedule, for the duration of the crisis. Small publishers may have acquisitions frozen entirely for a time. More measures such as these are sure to come if the crisis continues. I have no doubt that my editor friends are Le Freaked about all of this.

As for agents? Well, all the belt-tightening publishers are doing affects us as well. Not only because if editors are gone or acquisitions frozen, there are fewer places to sell books – but also because some publishers are reacting in predictable but screwy ways, such as wanting to put book payouts into more installments so they don’t have to pay as much on contract signing, which is quite problematic, particularly for newer agents who do not yet have a robust backlist. (I can get further into this at another time if anyone is interested but it deffo involves math and it’s not very nice, so it can be a topic for another day).

Point being: As much as publishers might be saying, “it’s business as usual” – it’s certainly not business as usual! It’s weird! Things are getting done, but it’s weird, OK?! 

Here’s the long-term view:

Publishing is an ecosystem. Creators, readers, bookstores, schools, libraries, publishers and agents all have a symbiotic relationship. There is NO DOUBT that this pandemic, and the economic distress that comes in its wake, will have a negative impact on this ecosystem, and already has had. It would be naïve to pretend otherwise. 

But. Publishing HAS survived pandemics, disasters, depressions and world wars. I am 100% positive that the book industry in general will emerge from this and be OK in the long term… but individuals may well not be. Some bookstores won’t make it. Some publishers will shutter. Some editors will be laid off, and some creators and agents will have to adios to greener pastures.

So what can you do? If you love books and you can afford it – keep buying books! Preferably from a local independent bookstore or B&N! We really really REALLY need bookstores to still exist when this is all over, the margins are already razor thin, and if the bookstores don’t make it, that’s a HUGE PROBLEM for EVERYONE in publishing.

Keep promoting books and authors you love! If you ARE an author – PLEASE keep talking about your own book and the books of your friends! I promise – we all actually REALLY DO want to hear good news and things that are NOT doom-related! I PROMISE that you are not already talking about books too much! 

If your friends are doing virtual launch parties or “at home” book events or fundraisers or whatever – GO TO THEM if you can! Talk them up on social media! 

If you are an author who is lucky enough to be able to concentrate for more than ten minutes at a time – Work! On! Your! Amazing! Books! This WILL end. We WILL want to read your brilliant work at some point, even if it isn’t today. And if you’re an author who can’t muster up the wherewithal for writing, amazing or otherwise? THAT’S OKAY, TOO. No pressure, babes! Taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally, is the most important thing. This WILL END.

New Books to Look Out For

MAIL DUCK by Erica Sirotich - Abrams Appleseed, April 21

Come along on Mail Duck's delivery route for a day full of lift-the-flap surprises!

Mail Duck is delivering differently shaped packages to all his friends on his mail route. (Trudy likes triangles, and Harry likes hearts!) Lift the flaps to peek inside and guess what each friend received. Then head back to the post office for a big surprise: a thank-you celebration for Mail Duck planned by all his pals using the various packages they received throughout the story! Sixteen flaps and a final double-gatefold spread give readers plenty of sweet and silly details to unpack in this charming board book.

DIRT CHEAP by Mark Hoffmann - Knopf - April 21

A young entrepreneur sets out to earn some money and discovers the value of a dollar (and of dirt)! Perfect for fans of Lemonade in Winter, The Most Magnificent Thing, and Rosie Revere, Engineer.

Birdie doesn't know much about money. All she knows is that she wants a new soccer ball that costs $24.95. The fastest way to that $24.95 is going into sales, but what to sell?

All her belongings?
Not much of a market for those.

Birdie needs something that she has in abundance and that everyone needs. So when she sees everyone in her neighborhood working on their yards, she realizes she's hit pay dirt. Literally!

Soon Birdie is raking in the dough, with profits of all varieties: quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies, even dollar bills! Now she can buy that soccer ball, but does her business plan have any holes?

An industrious tale about striking it rich!

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