Lily Lindon is a writer and editor living in London.
She studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge and was part of the Footlights comedy group. She was editor-in-chief at Vintage, Penguin Random House, before joining The Novelry.
During the year 2021, I have experienced the publishing industry from different angles.
I started the year as a Classics Editor at Vintage, part of Penguin Random House, where I would basically manage a roster of around 40 titles, a mix of reissues and new commissions.
I worked for the biggest publisher in the world, but I had never felt so separated from my colleagues. Gone are the Zoom evenings (certainly destructive for the soul) of 2020; I only had regular contact with my manager.
Aside from the obvious psychological impact of this, far too familiar to anyone working from home, something I found particularly baffling was my resulting ignorance of the new books.
I hadn’t realized how much my knowledge of the contemporary publishing market (and gossip) came from osmosis in the office. I was seeing books for the first time in a friend’s Tweet, only to find out that it was a bestseller from the same company I worked for.
It was a time of strange contradictions. We kept hearing that book sales have never been so good. So why did we feel like we were publishing our precious books in an abyss? Part of it was that there were a lot of books published. The 2021 release schedule was doubly busy, as posts had been postponed several times since the first lockdown announcement made the space even more competitive. Another is that sales were more unevenly distributed.
The publishing ecosystem has always tended to disproportionately promote a handful of “big hitters” and leave others out, but in 2021 that was overkill. Top-selling celebrities sold better; so-called mid-list authors and quieter works struggled. Richard Osman’s second novel, The man who died twice, has become one of the best-selling novels since record debut, with 114,202 copies sold in its first three days on sale, and this novel along with its debut The Thursday Murder Club are regulars on the weekly roster of the Sunday Times bestsellers.
The non-fiction list was dominated by familiar cookery and cleaning books, like several spots given to Kay Featherstone’s Pinch Of Name series.
However, there would sometimes be wildcards: especially because of the arrival of “BookTok” reviews TikTok, which has proven its power to create bestsellers like Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles thanks to readers filming their recommendations stained with tears.
But it’s not all about the goliaths. 2021 has seen the passionate and popular support of independent bookstores, whether they are physically open or not. Librairie.org, a website that allows readers to buy books online while supporting their local independent bookseller, opened in the UK at the end of 2020 and has already established itself as a ‘socially responsible alternative to Amazon’.
In March, he claimed to have raised £ 1million from independent bookstores across the UK.
As a local example to me, a new independent bookstore Bookbar, which opened in north London earlier this year, had queues around the blocks on release day in September of the year. ‘one of the biggest publishing moments of the year, Sally Rooney’s Beautiful people, where are you?
In-person events returned in limited capacity, and in October, Bookstore Day was celebrated with author signings and mini-book tours. World premiere, June saw the new royalty fund AuthorSHARE, allowing authors to collect royalties on used books.
Commercial publishing has traditionally been a slow-moving beast in most aspects, and one of those ways has been the stagnant job ladder (senior executives have often held office for decades, and the few positions beginners attract hundreds of overqualified applicants).
Yet 2021 was a watershed moment, with major promotions, sabbaticals, parental leave and industry giants laid off. For the record, I find it difficult to name a single person in my Vintage team who has remained in the same role in which they started the year. I’m optimistic to see the impact of these moves on the actual release of publishers.
The shift of the online industry has offered more opportunities to those with previously unmet accessibility needs, both in the area of employment and events.
There have been, at least on the surface, movements for greater inclusion of under-represented groups in the industry: as well as publishers setting quotas for demographic representation, and various accessibility programs such as the launch by the PFD agency of a new Queer Fiction or CrimeFest award offering a scholarship to a police writer of color. Industry outlet The Bookseller also ran dedicated issues with The Black Issue and LGBTQ + Special (April) and The Disability (September) to highlight specific concerns and celebrate triumphs. Calls for transparency on wages in the publishing industry ultimately led many publishers (including Penguin Random House) to list the pay on their job postings, as well as supposedly equalizing the wages of equivalent roles in all teams.
However, Creative Access data revealed this month shows a disproportionate decline in financial stability for editorial staff at under-represented groups.
As a guardian of speech, publishing has always been a place where debates on “freedom of expression” have been particularly busy.
2021 has shown the edition to be just as politically divided as anywhere else.
JK Rowling and his followers continue the TERF (Radical Trans-Exclusionist Feminist) wars, while the prestigious Women’s Prize was all the rage when it selected Detransition Baby, a novel written by trans woman Torrey Peters (the prize was won by Susanna Clarke’s ‘From Another World’ Piranesi); Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Orwell Prize winner Kate Clanchy has been accused of using racist language to describe children and her insensitive editors throughout her proofreading process.
WW Norton has removed a biography of Philippe roth after a series of allegations of sexual assault against its perpetrator, Blake Bailey. Yet when Jeanette Winterson burned her books, a symbol of censorship, it was apparently just because she didn’t like the new covers she had approved.
While the year of new closings increased people’s reading time, it also encouraged more people to try writing theirs.
the novelty is an online creative writing course, which has seen “massive growth” during the lockdown, expanding its staff to include not only creative writing courses and personal mentoring of published authors, but also an editorial team from publishing professionals (including myself).
In this work, I come face to face with some of the tides of people who have tried to write their great novel in the midst of the pandemic. Some of the things I hear repeated have to do with how Lockdown has been a double-edged sword: offering more time at home, but no mental state suitable for playing with disembodied words.
For aspiring authors, the impact of COVID is that publishing your book has never been more competitive. With an overworked publishing staff adopting authors from predecessors and heavily loaded bestseller lists, there is less room for “smaller” books. (Aka: pretty much everyone.) Agents and editors say they even turn down shiny books because there isn’t the time, budget, or energy available for them. Discouraging indeed.
I was one of those people who wrote during the lockdown, and in March the rights to my first novel (the queer romantic comedy Double Booked) were sold. Writing Double Booked on my alternate commute was a lifeline for me, and the one time I felt I had some form of control while on lockdown: just me and the page, and some made-up issues.
I cheered myself up by writing something fun.
I sent my book to agents around the same time last year and signed off with the one I met at an outdoor cafe table the night before the Christmas cancellation. Yet if writing and signing a foreclosed book contract was odd, it had nothing to do with the experience of publishing it.
I only met my editor – the woman who suggests meaningful changes to my work, and who implicitly holds my writing career in her hands – face to face until months after the process began. At Penguin, I’d seen writers walk into offices to discuss paperwork over coffee, have lunch with editors, warm up prosecco after an ad, or just meet the team behind their post. I guess deep in my head I had fantasized about these moments, being on the other side of the table, but they haven’t been able to happen yet.
Woe to me, let me take out my little violin.
In the meantime, I am writing a second novel. If the eerie novelty of the pandemic in 2020 has fueled writing like an escape, now the constantly looming and all-too-familiar fear and doom are in stark contrast.
A disease for everyone
As of this writing, my partner has omicron (literally who doesn’t?) And my plans to see my mom for Christmas have once again been thwarted.
My creative output stretches out until I feel sad and scared and cranky, which isn’t exactly the vibe I want to give readers of my exuberant romantic comedy.
I end 2021 with concerns about what will happen next to the publishing industry. On the one hand, there are real concerns that we might not be able to print books, due to international paper shortages, rising lumber prices, and supply chain issues. . Maybe a silver lining will be an ebook and an audio boom.
But of course the main thing everyone thinks about for 2022 is: will we be able to dress for a real, safe launch of my book in June?
Lily’s debut novel, Double Booked, was purchased under a two-book deal at auction and will be released in June 2022. Find her on Instagram @BookyMcBookFace.