Kirkus WC's Publishing Trends for 2021

BY HANNAH GUY • December 18, 2020

Kirkus WC's Publishing Trends for 2021

Somehow the months between summer and winter managed to fly by in blur of routine, surviving, and circus-like distraction (oh hi, presidential election). And here we are, approaching the door to 2021, weary and wondering what lies ahead.

There’s no telling what 2021 brings for the world at large. But there’s no doubt that the waves from this pandemic year will ripple outward for years to come. Book publishing will certainly be affected, whether that’s through the publishing business itself, the kinds of books that readers will be looking for, or how we writers look at creating, selling, and promoting.

We’re not official prognosticators. These are just a few signs we’re seeing as we look ahead at the publishing trends in 2021.

More escapist fiction 

This one is kind of no-brainer, but with the pandemic still going strong, medical experts and epidemiologists have been suggesting that even as the vaccine is being distributed, it could take months, or longer, before it’s available to the general public and the pandemic begins to subside. Small businesses are going to be struggling, and readers are going to want some relief from the seeming hellscape of reality. Romantic comedies and happy endings will be popular, sure, but we can also expect to see some wonderful fantasy and science fiction, unusual dystopias, and even potentially absurdist approaches as authors escape reality, reinvent it, or look at more nuanced facets of everyday life in contrast with the world around them.

“Across most genres, I think there will be a tonal and thematic similarity to the books that rise to the top of the 2021 New York Times bestseller lists,” writes author Tory Hunter in “2021 Market Trends in Book Publishing: My Unqualified Speculation.” “We will see two motives in the average reader: the desire to escape and the need to deal with grief. But how will that manifest? What does it mean?”

More quality and more quantity

Before 2020, people still loved to read and curl up with a book. But the pandemic hasn’t just shaken up our routines. It’s changed—on a potentially fundamental level—not just how we look at the world around us but how we interact with it and, most of all, what is most important to us.

And for some people, that meant falling in love with reading. For others, it deepened that already steady relationship. What does that mean for authors? It means that people aren’t going to be looking for a quick, on-the-go read. People will want to escape, yes, but they will also want that escape to be dynamic and memorable. In 2021, watch for a desire for longer and more engaging reads, epic tales, but also big books that draw us in for the afternoon, the evening, and late into the night. 

The expansion of the audiobook

This has been a growing trend over the last several years, and all indications suggest that self-published and indie authors should be seriously contemplating an audiobook release along with their e-book and/or print book, or even converting their backlists. Audiobook popularity keeps rising as book lovers discover that they can listen to a book in bed, in the car, while making dinner, and even at work.

According to a survey from the Audio Publishers Association, “74% of audiobook consumers listen in their car, up from 69% last year. The home is the second most popular spot at 68%, down from 71% in 2018.” The survey also suggests that increased smart speaker use is contributing to the growing audiobook trend.

Greater diversity in books

Readers want to be seen and represented in the books they read, and over the last year or two, we’ve been seeing calls for greater diversity. Not just diverse authors, but books and characters themselves reflecting a world that is filled with many representative voices. Authors from the BIPOC, LGBTQ2IA+, neurodivergent, and disabled communities will continue telling their own stories, through their own perspectives, and we hope to see more readers embracing and buying (and loving) these books too.

“It doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize that as more people write about their experiences—and become conscious and inclusive of others’ experiences as well—more diverse narratives will become available for publishing,” writes Savannah Cordova in “Predictions for Publishing Trends in Late 2020 and Beyond.” “And with so many literary agents interested in #ownvoice stories (I’ve been seeing this request on every other Manuscript Wish List these days, which is honestly fantastic!), there should be no shortage of diverse, widely representative books in trad pub over the coming months.”

If you’re a self-published and indie author who doesn’t belong to these groups—and you want to have more inclusive characters in your books—this is also a great time to think about hiring a sensitivity reader for your manuscript.

The year artificial intelligence becomes an author?

We’ve been seeing some of this speculation, but beyond a vanity project or two for buzz, we’re gonna call this as a no.

Skynet will likely not be releasing a bestseller. (This year, anyway.)

We embrace virtual book launches

It was with some degree of sadness and heartbreak that I watched debut authors navigating the release of their books during the early days of lockdown. Many rallied, holding events online, but the usual hoopla that goes along with a book launch (like the party!) was decidedly muted.

However, the experience has shown authors that with some planning and creativity, a launch can be done with little expense and made more accessible globally.

According to Cordova, “Simply put: virtual events provide a cost-friendlier, less intimidating alternative to connect with readers. Not to mention more people can attend all at once! I certainly don’t think this will be the end of real-life book events, but I do predict authors start cutting tours down and doing more virtually—not even necessarily readings, but all sorts of webinars and discussions.”

Collaborative publishing grows stronger

In the past, we’ve drawn a line between self-publishing and traditional publishing. But self-publishing is a heck of a lot of work. To that end, a lot of authors are moving toward hybrid—or collaborative—publishing. What does this mean? Working with publishing professionals to achieve a similar quality of book as a traditional publisher, while still maintaining control over the finished product—as well as sales and marketing.

According to Izzard Ink Publishing’s “The Top Publishing Trends of 2021 and Beyond,” “Those professionals bring decades of experience and deep knowledge of proven approaches to editing, design, and marketing for each genre and book category. They know their audience, they know how to stand out in a marketplace, and they know how to get results.”

Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.

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