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June 12, 2024

VIPs forum: Crime, younger readers, and unexpected success

The ASA was thrilled to be invited to attend Creative Australia’s Visiting International Publishers (VIPs) Forum again this year, to hear from international publishers and agents about global publishing trends and opportunities for Australian authors overseas.

The attending publishers and agents hailed from the USA, Germany, France, England and the Czech Republic, and the panel discussions explored trends in crime, an update on the German book market, and unexpected success stories.

Market updates:

  • Audiobooks continue to be a growing market except in Germany where they have stagnated
  • Inflation is reducing profits for publishers, but people are still buying books
  • Growing categories in the US book market: romance and speculative fiction, including fantasy and horror
  • In the US, the library market has been affected by book banning; this is predominantly affecting children’s books

Trends in Crime

In each panel discussion it became clear that trends in each territory can be quite different, and successfully selling rights to international markets is about knowing and taking advantage of these trends. For example, while in Germany cosy crime is a growth market, in the Czech Republic, Foreign Rights Manager Andrea Stratilová said cosy crime doesn’t work at all. In fact, the more gruesome the crime novel, the better. Crime fiction featuring serial killers was trending in the Czech Republic, as well as books featuring a male and female detective who have an enemies to lovers arc. Crime fiction series are also very popular. In the US, the crime thriller category is flat, but younger readers are gravitating towards horror. In Germany, horror for both adults and younger readers is doing really well.

From an author perspective, it is notoriously questionable and difficult to write to trends, partly because by the time your work is published the trend may already be waning but also because the latest fad may not engage you. An interesting observation about predicting trends was made by one of the panellists: when publishers are trying to predict the next trend they look at the readership for categories that are booming now. For example, is romantasy booming for young women aged 18-25? Where will they be in five or ten years time? What might be happening in their lives and, therefore, what might they be interested in reading about? Part of predicting the next trend is investigating the upcoming stages of a reader’s life. Regardless, our takeaway for authors is that being aware of trends is most helpful regarding positioning for pitching. 

Younger readers still engaged

The panel discussion about the German book market featured insights that bucked the trends we’re used to hearing about for younger readers: the 18-25 age group are strong readers and, as is the case in Australia, are currently enjoying reading predominantly in print. Romance and romantasy are not the only highly popular categories fuelled by TikTok – classics, modern classics and literary fiction like A Little Life were all experiencing a boost in sales. Smart or upmarket commercial fiction is also trending in Germany, particularly Fleabag-esque books for readers who enjoy romance, but are seeking fresher feminist perspectives.

Success in the book industry

One of the insights from the recent Department of Justice vs Penguin Random House trial to block the merger with Simon and Schuster, was reiterated by the panellists: in books, success is typically “totally unexpected”. 

Simon and Schuster publisher Eamon Dolan said 80% of the titles they publish are not particularly successful in terms of sales. Within the 20% that are successful, there are different magnitudes of success, which makes the business of publishing possible. Interestingly, while Eamon found it impossible to predict success, he noted books that were difficult to find comp titles for had typically been bestsellers because they filled gaps in the market. Having said that, it remains important for authors to include comp titles when pitching their work, so publishers and agents understand at a glance where the book might fit in the market – even if it’s filling a gap.

In terms of influencers and celebrities, fame does not always translate to sales and success. While those authors may have large networks or strong public presence and social media followings, it’s not always the case that their audience comprises readers or book enthusiasts.

What was emphasised by the panel was how important matchmaking was for success in publishing, particularly in finding the right home for a book. For example, while an author might think publishing with a large multinational publisher would lead to greater sales than if they published with a small independent publisher, this is not always true. Authors’ books can get lost in a big list, and if sales are especially low they cannot rely on the continued support of that publisher. To be a lead title at a smaller publishing house could mean more support for your work and could lead to greater sales. 

Our warm thanks to Creative Australia for their generous invitation to the Forum, in particular Wenona Byrne and Karen Le Roy.