Last year I laid out my predictions for what book market trends would look like in 2021—including what readers would be reading and what publishers would be buying. It turned out to be the most popular post I’ve ever written, so it behooves me to make my admittedly unqualified speculation an annual tradition and offer my predictions for trends in the 2022 book market.
Who the hell am I to predict publishing trends?
As a freelance developmental editor who reads 50+ manuscripts a year—along with countless query letters and sample pages—I am treated to the tiniest inside look at what writers are writing and what stories are currently resonating with literary agents. But it’s an itty bitty sample size, publishing is slow, and if any of the manuscripts I read this year ultimately get picked up by a publisher, they probably won’t come out until 2023. (For example, I worked with an early draft of My Sweet Girl (Berkley) by Amanda Jayatissa at the beginning of 2019, and it wasn’t released until September 2021. If you’re a thriller reader, I hope you’ll add it to your TBR.)
So this small batch of books to which I’m exposed only gives me a limited perspective on writing trends. And this, what writers are writing, is only one of three factors in what will drive the book market. You also have to consider what literary agents and publishers think readers want in 2022 and what readers will actually want in 2022. Supply, demand, and the frantic effort to select from the former in order to satisfy the latter. Piece of cake, right?
Yet here I am, putting on my Dunce hat once again and tossing out my 2022 market predictions in publishing. Take it with a grain of salt, a pinch of cynicism, and a hearty laugh, because at the end of the day, the famous Wiliam Goldman quote about the film industry applies to book publishing, too: “Nobody knows anything.”
So here are my thoughts on what 2022 and beyond might look like:
What books will readers launch to the top of bestseller lists?
It might not happen next year, but I think we’re coming into a period when escapism will reign supreme in a big way. We’re due for a big international blockbuster success like A Song of Ice and Fire. A series that becomes a cultural phenomenon. It could be fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, or even historical fiction, but at some point a franchise like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, or A Game of Thrones will inevitably take over the world for a couple years.
If I had to bet, I’d put my money on science fiction. Something that takes place on a near or distant future Earth, or maybe an Earth-like planet. Or maybe it’ll be a space opera, but I have a feeling there’s a giant space on the shelves for a more grounded sci-fi adventure saga. Like Harry Potter meets Bladerunner: a futuristic setting but isolated in its location. No interstellar travel and space battles—at least at first—but something set in a place much like the slums of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII before expanding farther out into the story’s horizon.
Not that contemporary fiction will fall off. The demand for all types of fiction will largely stay the same. I think contemporary work will venture into new and seldom-visited places. Perspectives we’ve yet to see. More influence on the Western world from non-Western places. And stories that don’t take place in urban and suburban areas but rather in small towns, the desert, the wilderness, or on the high seas. These types of stories can potentially provide a nice blend of contemporary relevance and escapism. Not every contemporary American novel, for example, has to take place in the Big City, the Deep South, or the Soul-Crushing Suburbs. What about those in-between places? Those overlooked places? A novel about a mid-sized American town whose center is dying because commerce is moving over to the nearby interstate. A novel that tackles the opioid and fentanyl epidemic–in a realistic way, a young drug addict way, not a sassy, pill-popping soccer mom way. Publish novels written by and about poor people, for God’s sake.
I believe there’s also a chance that something weird and “literary” will burst into the mainstream, much like Cormac McCarthy’s work when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize and got selected by Oprah’s Book Club and the Coen brothers adapted No Country for Old Men. Or maybe we’ll see a structurally unique work like House of Leaves appear out of nowhere and dominate the bestseller lists. As much as I see literary agents calling for upmarket fiction—a blend of “literary” and genre that brings all the boys to the book club yard—something weird and unexpected is bound to take off in a really big way thanks to the right agent and right imprint taking a big risk.
Risk. Hmm. Might have to look that up in the dictionary. Not sure what it means anymore.
Anyway, moving on . . .
Genre novels like domestic thrillers, crime fiction, and cold case mysteries will continue to do well, in my irrelevant opinion. Readers of these genres are nearly as voracious as romance readers. Though I think we’ll start to see some fresh takes on old tropes. More stories that integrate social media, podcasts, and crimes/disappearances that go viral. Talk about an opening for a successful upmarket novel: a crime mystery/thriller that observes the impact of international focus on a missing persons case or murder.
Get on it, writers.
Which brings me to the next topic . . .
What can authors expect from literary agents and publishers in 2022?
The bad news? I think debut buying will come with smaller advances and smaller marketing budgets. Publishers will shift from trying to generate buzz by tossing out huge advances to acquiring authors at cheaper prices, setting lower expectations, and letting debut novels serve as an audience test, then perhaps making larger investments in the sophomore novel of a select few—and, of course, pumping marketing dollars into those debut works that sell well on their own. I think the Big Five will buy fewer debut novels for large advances but invest more resources in marketing those they do buy.
Good news for authors who get book deals; bad news for the rest of us.
For querying authors, I think the wait to hear back from literary agents is only going to lengthen. Agents are getting flooded with queries just like editors at publishing houses are getting flooded with submissions.
Add to that bad literary agents who spam submissions, and the increasing popularity of Query Manager (a tool literary agents use so they can automatically flag and sort queries based on arbitrary things like the presence of the word “vampire” or the book’s length, which helps ensure your query will sit in limbo for months and months until the agent finally gets around to auto-rejecting queries they didn’t even read), and things are bound to get worse before they get better.
Right now there’s no solution in sight. I think we’re finally seeing the effects of the internet and social media on the submission process. Increased accessibility to writing and publishing tools and resources has simply generated more writers—and more books written per writer. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the Twitter #writingcommunity, and writing-focused Facebook groups have all contributed to more work being produced. That’s a great thing for readers, but for authors the streets are crowded and traffic is at a standstill.
The solution will come naturally, I believe. The longer writers have to wait to hear back from agents, the less—and, perhaps, more selectively—they’ll query. Eventually the flow of submissions will ease on the agency and publisher level, and a proper flow will be established. Until then, chaos reigns.
But, hey, what do you expect? Literary agents, who are supposed to be an author’s business partner, are now treating writers like students or employees by forcing them to fill out a long submission form and answer asinine questions instead of accepting an email query like a professional. And Big Five publishers care more about the profit and loss statements of a book’s comp titles than they do the quality of the writing.
Concept, concept, concept! (Until Amazon and self-published authors put you out of business.)
Oh, but it gets worse.
You might have caught wind of the recent controversy surrounding the six YA authors who announced the launch of (and quickly canceled) Realms of Ruin, a collective writing project in which participating authors create characters and stories and are awarded with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which are a form of cryptocurrency, the value of which will rise as your character/story becomes popular and is adopted into the canon of the overall universe.
Writers writing for free, in other words. A pyramid scheme that early adopters might benefit from but will ultimately result in lots of unpaid labor.
Yeah, things are going great.
But hey, times are tight, and we’re already seeing big franchises milked to death, so why not start milking the very souls of upcoming writers?
Another recent controversy that’s cropped up is the news that Sue Grafton’s alphabet series featuring iconic character Kinsey Millhone has been bought up by A+E Studios despite Sue’s lifelong objection to allowing her stories to be adapted to film. Who needs integrity when you can have millions of dollars, though, right?
Top it all off with the Department of Justice recently suing Penguin Random House to block their acquisition of Simon & Schuster, and the publishing industry looks like it’s in a state of complete and total meltdown.
But I’m optimistic. I think the Big Five are experiencing growing pains as they adapt to the new world order brought about by the enormous technological wave of the World Wide Web. New York is a stagnant place full of stagnant mindsets (yes, I said it), but eventually the desire for profit will drive them to question just how much of a grasp they have on the taste of the reading public, what readers want, and where to find it.
And I believe the answer to what future trends in book publishing will look like lies festering in the dirty, dirty realm of self-publishing.
What traditional publishing can learn from self-publishing.
Here we go. Bringing out the big guns.
You traditional publishing people need to get over your claustrophobia-inducing word count restrictions. 120K max for a debut fantasy or sci-fi novel? You’ve gone completely insane. Do you honestly think readers give a damn about printing costs? No, they care about good stories, and a surefire way to prevent good stories from being written is to squash creativity with arbitrary rules you, as an agent or editor, are not qualified to set.
While traditional publishing falls behind in the times alongside network television with the ridiculous belief that people have short attention spans, successful self-published authors and fan fiction writers are proving the exact opposite every day.
Just like HBO, Netflix, and podcasters have learned, the average person is way smarter than condescending white-collar [expletive redacted]s in high-rise buildings have fart-sniffed their way into believing.
People. Want. Long-form. Content.
Here’s a question: Why did every Harry Potter novel get longer and longer? Was it just because J.K. Rowling was trying to meet her reader base at their age level? No, it was also because she intuited that when readers fall in love with a universe, they want to stay there as long as possible.
When traditional publishing pulls its head out of its ass, the biggest trend we’ll see in the book world is a comeback of epics and sagas—books that span 600, 700, 800+ pages. And this will occur across the genre spectrum. Books will no longer be pigeonholed into a structure that’s designed to be adapted to film. (Thanks, Netflix, for helping break that mold. The more we see books adapted into series, the more publishers will take chances on longer books that provide adequate source material.)
Self-published authors are getting rich with fantasy and sci-fi series that span eight, nine, ten books. And romance authors are pumping out neverending standalone series, each book featuring a new set of characters but taking place in the same type of setting, which is its own kind of worldbuilding.
And yet when a writer commits the sin of querying a manuscript that defies an agent’s suffocating word count restrictions, their query is “flagged” as ineligible to be graced with the agent’s attention.
But READER EXPECTATIONS, Tory!
Yeah, sure. Like anyone knows what the hell “reader expectations” are. Short of HEAs in romance, nobody knows a damn thing. The data is skewed. The New York state of mind is homogeneous, unimaginative, and risk-averse. If it can’t easily be reduced to an elevator pitch, they don’t want it.
And what they want has nothing to do with what readers want.
Which is why the mechanisms for growing a successful self-publishing career are getting better, and the mechanisms for acquiring a traditional publishing contract are getting worse.
It’s why more and more indie authors are developing careers for themselves with limited resources, and giant publishers are demanding world rights from debut novelists and not paying proper advances for them. Don’t believe me? Go check out Publisher’s Marketplace. If you see “sold North American rights” on a debut acquisition, the deal was negotiated by a top tier agency or the author is famous. What you’ll find is book deal after book deal for world rights with little to no advance.
Authors getting screwed, in other words.
Again, I do think things will get better. But right now this industry makes me want to pull my hair out.
So where do we go from here?
Ultimately, I think the attempt to predict market trends in publishing is part of the problem. When literary agents and editors rely too heavily on the profit and loss statements of comp titles (titles similar to the book being bought), they inadvertently narrow their field of vision and risk losing their capacity to identify the potential in something fresh and creative when they see it.
Publishers are missing out on opportunities for big wins every day, because, in my lowly opinion, they’ve forgotten why people read. They’ve forgotten to trust their instincts. They’ve forgotten the meaning of the word imagination. (Hint: the definition is not “the same but different.”)
And I get it. Everyone is trying to make a living. Literary agents know they have to supply comp titles, and editors know they have to supply profit and loss statements. Books have to be the same but different. Like X but with Y.
Because to be bold is to risk not being able to pay your rent next month. After all, you can’t supply what the person above you won’t buy, even if readers would.
So if you’re wondering why Amazon—and self-publishers—are slowly eating the publishing industry alive, you can stop now, because I just told you.
I am a freelance editor who specializes in manuscript critiques, developmental editing, and prepping query letters, synopses, and sample pages for submission to literary agents. You can find my full list of affordable editing services, as well as client testimonials, here.