IT GOES without saying that this has been a tumultuous, tragic, and terrifying year, and to writers hoping for a publishing contract, or book lovers looking for their ravenous thirst to be quenched, it begs the question:
What will publishing trends look like in 2021?
Will it be a year of rom-coms, slapstick comedy, and lighthearted contemporary serving as an escape from our grim reality?
Or will our desire for escapism plunge us deep into epic high fantasy and sci-fi, like children reading by flashlight under the blankets, long after bedtime?
There’s room for genres and niches galore in publishing, but I’m talking about the lead titles, the two-million-copy bestsellers, the worldwide phenomena adapted for Netflix, HBO, or film. The next Twilight. The next Gone Girl. The next A Song of Ice and Fire.
I have a couple ideas, so in true chaotic 2020 fashion, I’m gonna throw on my Dunce hat and make some predictions.
Bear with me. Forgive me. Pity me.
What were the book market trends of the past?
In 2019, one of the most hyped and bestselling novels was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, the story of a young girl who grows up alone in the wild marshes and is accused of murder when a local star athlete is found in the woods having fallen to his death. In terms of market trends, Owens’s book seems to be the last vestige of a Gone Girl-inspired succession of female-lead suspense/thriller novels, though, unlike WTCS, most of the books riding the wave of this trend were contemporary. WTCS is also particularly lyrical and imagery-heavy, though later in the book it turns into more of a courtroom drama.
Before that? Or running concurrent to it? With the rocket fuel that was the HBO series Game of Thrones, the Big Deal in the book world for several years was A Song of Ice and Fire. From there you can go back in time to Fifty Shades, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and the Harry Potter series.
So now what?
What are literary agents saying about upcoming book trends?
In my futile and ill-advised efforts to predict the market, I’ve started watching a lot of new literary agent interviews on YouTube, because agents always get asked, What are you currently looking for? Now, in the age of Covid-19, agents are forced to answer this question through the lens of our radically changed cultural climate. (If you’re a writer and you’d like to see for yourself what agents are currently predicting about upcoming market trends, I suggest going to YouTube, searching “literary agent interview,” and sorting by upload date. You might even run across an agent who seems like the right fit for you.)
What I see agents saying is that the publishing industry is looking for lighthearted escapism. Rom-coms with HEAs. Fantasy adventure stories. Contemporary issues with a little hope and triumph in the offing. A gasp of air in this stifling, oppressive time, and maybe, by some miracle of a chance, a good laugh.
I think this trend is short-lived and waning fast.
I do. I really do. Not that rom-coms won’t sell next year. Rom-coms always sell. Again, I’m talking about the Big Book of the Year, especially if that book turns out to be so popular that it generates its own trend.
People want happy stories when they’re feeling happy. They want summer blockbusters in the summertime. Sure, in the days of lockdowns, quarantine, and isolation, readers flocked to the shelves to grab up books that provided comfort, but at best I think the trend has been split down the middle, some readers looking for a break from the pandemic and others doubling down and embracing the darkness.
So what will the book market look like in 2021?
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. 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?
Here are my two predictions:
1) Books will be longer.
Gone are the days when readers require breakneck speed, intense action, and an ending they can reach in a single day, their minds perhaps influenced by the rapid pace and instant gratification of on-demand TV streaming, social media, and recommendation algorithms generating auto-playlists.
No, I think we’re about to see a new day. A day of epic adventures, the slow-burning coming-of-age tale, the non-episodic series, the multi-generational family saga, the 800-page, multi-POV small-town epic.
Readers who want to escape want to escape for as long as they can. They want to find some place where they can fall in love or get into an adventure, and they want to stay there in that charming world. Now more than ever.
2) Books will take a grim but delicate approach to themes of death, grief, and loss.
They won’t be grimdark. They won’t be gratuitously violent. They won’t have fatalistic or nihilistic overtones. Rather, I think the most successful books of 2021 will be mournful celebrations of death. Life-affirming narratives that take on our worst fears and deliver unto us an elixir of hope.
Don’t be surprised if the biggest book within the next decade is spiritual in nature, perhaps dealing with ghosts or other ethereal subject matter, like The Lovely Bones mixed with A Walk to Remember—except, like I said, longer.
I think we’re about to Make America Love Again.
In any case, whatever the book market trends look like in 2021, there’s only one thing we know for certain.
We don’t know anything.
That’s why I put the disclaimer in the title of this article. I’m simply speculating, and I’m wholly unqualified to do so. This is guesswork. I’m thinking out loud and sharing it with you, because why not? If I’m wrong, nobody’s going to care. If I’m right, I can shout it from the rooftops—and still nobody’s going to care. Maybe I’m still coming down from Election Day and I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN. Lol.
So what do you think the newest trend will be?
Will readers want light and fluffy, dim and edgy, or dark and razor-sharp?
Will the Next Big Thing be another series like A Song of Ice and Fire or Twilight? If so, what genre?
Will vaccines and SpaceX and 5G internet and conspiracy theories lead us to the next great science fiction epic?
Or do we want the complete opposite?
Here’s hoping we all make it through long enough to find out.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments—or on Twitter if that’s where you came across this article. You could even quote-tweet the link and start a discussion with your own followers. I really appreciate the support you’ve shown for me and my little blog these past two years, and I hope to continue to provide better and better content for writers and readers alike.