As part of The Bookseller’s Future Book Conference 2021, the literary agent Nelle Andrew appeared in conversation with Tom Tivnan to discuss trends, the impact of the pandemic and the future of publishing.

When asked for her take on current trends, Andrew noted how she felt audiences were being drawn to redemption stories, and for narratives which constructed order out of chaos. With readers steering clear of dystopias, Brexit and the pandemic, as there is a current need for time to elapse before people will want to engage with these subjects. She also noted the drop in paperback sales, stating that publishers could no longer rely on hardback sales being a clear marker of how well the paperback will do. Key theories for this decrease were firstly, due to people spending more time indoors, readers potentially did not want to wait for the hardback, but also without the need to commute, there is less need to wait for the lighter paperback as they won’t be carrying it. Furthermore, potentially with less to do outside of work, it may be that people were happier to spend more on the hardback copy. This lack of commuting and lockdowns overall has affected the success of debuts as new releases are not as visible as they were previously, whereas pre-pandemic advertising could be utilised to make you aware of new releases, with more people inside, publishers needed to become more creative in how they made you aware of new content.

Andrew also discussed the burnout of the pandemic, and the effects of expecting pandemic levels of productivity. Andrew outlines how publishers and authors are too often treated as though they should be grateful to be part of the industry and outlined how too often authors are writing for less than minimum wage, which too often is packaged as a privilege.

Finally, she was asked if publishing efforts to diversify the industry were doing enough, and she commented how these things should not be treated as a gem for “publishing magpies”, and any action needed to be meaningful. We also shouldn’t be expecting authors from previously underrepresented backgrounds to be repeatedly ‘mined’ to share their pain for repackaging. Notably, change will not just be achieved by the content that is published but she also calls for more people from different backgrounds to be ‘in the room’. We need to not only be employing responsibly, but also creating a working environment that makes people want to stay.

Authors should be seen as a long-term career, rather than a short-term enterprise and Andrew emphasises the idea that the author’s success was a ‘marathon, not a sprint’.