Publishing a book is an intimidating, frustrating and confusing endeavour at the best of times. The pandemic is the worst of times. People are reading fewer books. Publishers are commissioning fewer books. Bookstores are shutting down. “I would be lying if I said it was business as usual for us,” said Manasi Subramaniam, Executive Editor and Head of Literary Rights, Penguin Random House India.

“The fact of the matter is that the lockdown, which was necessary for reasons of health and safety, did disrupt our publishing operations,” Subramaniam added. “In the early phases of the lockdown, the sale of physical books, online and offline, became a challenge. This also created a kind of backlog for us, almost like a problem of plenty.”

Santosh Pandey, a manager at India Book Distributor (Bombay) Ltd. agreed. “Offline book distribution is very bad. There are hardly any customers visiting stores. Many major book chains have closed stores, and many more are on the verge of shutting down.”

“The coronavirus, just as it invades vital human organs, has also infiltrated various essential aspects of the publishing business,” said Teesta Guha Sarkar, Senior Commissioning Editor, Pan Macmillan India. “Acquiring editors are compelled to be more selective than ever as publishing lists are being tightened.”

What does all this mean for aspiring writers? Should they wait until the pandemic ends? Questions, questions, and more questions.

What do publishers want now?

In India, non-fiction, such as historical biographies, political narratives, management books and books on spirituality have had the most consumer traction in recent times. Is that still the case?

Vijesh Kumar, General Manager, Indian Publishing, at Penguin Random House India said non-fiction continues to dominate, but not all flavours. “Self-help books that touch upon say ‘how to lift your mood’ has got people’s attention. It’s the same with diet and health books. We’ve also noted greater demand for children’s books, especially activity related ones.” Prerna Gill, an editor at HarperCollins India, added, “Readers are also turning to biographies and inspiring true stories.” Add to this a search for humour, a category in which not many new books are written.

The casualties of shifts in demand, and, by extension, in what publishers want: poetry, books on politics, and travel. Said Kumar, “We are being particularly deliberate with our publishing list. It is important to be confident of the title and the author and understand whether the market is ready.” And the bad news for novelists, as Guha Sarkar explained, “Certain genres are bearing the brunt of rejection harder than others, which has possibly put literary fiction and non-fiction at a further disadvantage.”

What about that advance?

For several years now it hasn’t been a good idea to write books in order to make a living. It’s worse now. Even the initial payment that publishers make to authors – the advance against future royalties – is dropping. As expectations of the number of copies shrink, so do the upfront payments.

Advances in India have been low at the best of times, especially for poetry or short stories, and rarely high, going up to a few lakh rupees for a bestselling or celebrity author. Everyone except a neta, abhineta, mega-influencer, or Priyanka Chopra’s dog can expect even less now. “Advances have shrunk by 10% to 20%, depending on the genre and subject,” said Anish Chandy, Founder of Labyrinth Literary Agency. “Overall, fewer midlist books are being acquired.” Moreover, even the slim advances are likely to be paid closer to publication than to the signing of the contract.

Things may get worse before they get better. “Many Indian publishers have deferred acquisition decisions,” said literary agent Priya Doraswamy. “Advance and royalty payments have been delayed. While, thus far, publishers have been silent about invoking the Force Majeure clause because of the pandemic, it remains a matter of great concern. The clause is worrisome since it could potentially allow publishers to cancel publishing agreements without incurring any penalties.”

Still, there are islands of hope. “It really depends on the book,” said Chiki Sarkar, publisher at Juggernaut Books. “I am being conservative with small books, but I have also paid our biggest advance in the last two years this September. So, it’s a mixed bag.”

Can a literary agent help?

Even though most publishers in India accept unsolicited manuscripts and 60%-70% of books are picked up without agents, it is still better to get one, especially when social distancing makes it harder to find opportunities to network in person with a potential publisher. The volume of agented submissions has gone up during the pandemic, said literary agent Mita Kapur of Siyahi. “Since the lockdown, we have received almost thrice the number of submissions we usually do!”

Do pitches have to change? Said Hemali Sodhi, founder of A Suitable Agency, “There’s been no marked difference in the way people reach out to make a query – although they’re more mindful about enquiring about your wellbeing.” What has changed though is the sequence through which literary agents might lead new manuscripts to publication. Agent Sherna Khambatta said, “We’ve adapted with releasing e-books and audiobooks first, and waiting for print editions to follow.”

How will books be marketed?

“The publishing ball game has changed across the world,” said writer Shobhaa De. “Old-fashioned marketing strategies have been thrown out the nearest window. Just as well. They had long gone past their sell-by date, especially those lavish but meaningless book launch parties, which didn’t really sell any extra books, but were a social occasion for the usual suspects looking for free khaana-peena!”

This means writers have to move their online promotion game into a higher gear. “All marketing activities have moved online, accelerating what was already happening before the pandemic struck, where online was becoming more and more important,” said the best-selling author Amish.

This, of course, means reach is increased many fold. Agreed Guha Sarkar, “Online book events means there’s no limit to the number of people who can tune in, no matter their location.” “I was relieved not to have to bounce around India, visiting bookstores to promote the titles,” said De. “Instead , we used Zoom calls with stores, and reached a far wider audience.”

Is self-publishing a good option now?

With increased online purchase of print books and more e-books being read, some of the advantages of being published by a company with a wide distribution network are being eroded. Said Manish Purohit, co-founder of self-publishing platform AuthorsUpFront, “The overall publishing model is changing. Traditional publishers’ promise of widespread distribution is facing challenges and could affect their competitive advantage.”

But self-publishing platforms are themselves fighting pandemic-induced changes. As Purohit explained, “Authors have tightened their budgets. So, platforms have ended up discounting, or providing more flexibility on payment terms, revenue share and offers. It gives the authors more options, but puts pressure on the overall profitability of smaller platforms.”

What about a movie deal?

The party had just begun before, and in the early days of, the pandemic for adapting books to films and web series. “April and May had good momentum, just like March,” Sidharth Jain, founder of The Story Ink, a books-to-film company. “But investments in new stories and books for development became weaker from June. The downward spiral continued right through November. Volumes have not picked up.”

Jain isn’t very optimistic about near-term prospects. “I don’t think things will get better on the book-to-screen adaptation front until film shoots go back to pre-Covid levels and theatres open up like before. Development funding has always been a tough task, and in the current situation, the risk appetite is low and focussed on only a few projects.” Chandy confirmed that writers are suffering from delayed payments, longer decision-making cycles, and dropped projects.

Clearly, with the publishing industry itself under great pressure, it’s going to be an uphill journey for writers. This might be a good time to write a new book for the future, rather than trying to publish your last manuscript.