Takeaways & Trends | Books & Publishing

Where the publishing industry led the way in 2018 and where it's headed in 2019 as seen by the author of LJ's Book Pulse daily news report.

Last year was a banner one for books. Sales in 2018 shot up in several categories, and a number of high-profile titles caught the nation’s attention, each selling millions of copies. Debut authors broke through, poetry made gains in both profile and readership, and a giddy array of conversations about books, including celebrity endorsements and Insta­gram cover shots, kept the buzz flowing. The Library of Congress’s National Book Festival even broke its attendance record. This avid interest in reading led to increased book coverage across multiple outlets, with sites such as Vulture and The Atlantic stepping up their reporting. Independent bookstores saw a resurgence in both sales and their media coverage.

While the book news never ceased and was markedly varied, three related themes dominated the year: politics, #MeToo, and increasing diversity.

Political Books Drive Sales

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury published in the first week of 2018, ushering in a year that racked up splashy sales and neon-glowing attention for gossipy takedowns, political philosophy, partisan screeds, and a range of memoirs. Such was their impact that nonfiction best sellers lists got stuck in a holding pattern, going for weeks with only politics at the top of the charts. The year closed with the phenomenon that is Michelle Obama, whose memoir Becoming, it was widely reported, sold the most books of the year in a remarkably short window of time (eclipsing Wolff’s work, which also sold quickly and in massive numbers). Obama’s title hit shelves in mid-November, debuted at number one on the New York Times (NYT) best sellers list, and generated sold-out crowds on a book tour with buzz on the scale of a rock concert.

This trend had roots in the previous year: political books captured the reading public in 2017, too, as voters and nonvoters alike sought to contextualize the 2016 election. Expect more of the same in 2019. There are releases forthcoming by reporters and pundits, about gun violence, more memoirs, and—while a publication date is not yet set—a new title by Wolff. Somewhere on the horizon is Barack Obama’s memoir, part of his and Michelle’s record-breaking book deal. Some titles, such as the memoirs of Trump administration figures and some rants by TV and radio talking heads, fizzle out quickly (with sales figures propped up by bulk buying, resulting in a brief tenure on best sellers lists). But others, those full of juicy gossip and meaty works framing the current political age, have staying power. Embargoes on most titles mean a lack of early reviews, but in the week or two prior to publication a pattern has emerged of newspapers and online news sites excerpting passages, ginning up interest, and making certain that the book will be on readers’ radar. That is followed up by appearances on late-night shows, cable news interviews, and, in the case of blockbuster titles, author tours and profile pieces.

#MeToo Rocks the Literary World

In late 2017, LJ sister publication School Library Journal became a sounding board for commenters struggling with the issue of sexual harassment in the publishing industry, beginning a year full of allegations against major authors of YA blockbusters, literary darlings, even a nonfiction power­house. The allegations were not limited to individuals. In May, the Swedish Academy cancelled the ­Nobel Prize in Literature for the year, prompting a new award with nominees submitted by Swedish librarians and ushering in a series of bad-to-worse stories regarding the academy. Writers from Amber Tamblyn to Kate Walbert to Rebecca Traister responded to the moment.

It is doubtful that 2019 will pass without more authors being accused of unacceptable behavior. Responses to charges have become more professionalized, however, so look for those accused to have action plans in place to limit their personal, and professional, losses. Already such plans are working; early in 2018, agents and publishers were dropping authors once accusations were levied. But as 2018 ground to a close, newly accused authors were still holding their own on the NYT best sellers list or in spotlights.

Publishing Makes Diversity Gains

Authors from traditionally marginalized communities experienced a remarkable year. Native American, Asian, black, and female authors from a diverse array of backgrounds featured strongly in a larger part of the literary conversation while also earning critical praise for works that showed the power of their voices. Examples were welcomely plentiful (including N.K. Jemisin’s outstanding Hugo win). Consider these five markers of the power and rewards of inclusivity:

Lauren Groff ended the “By the Book” column in the NYT and turned the standard questionnaire into a moment to highlight women authors. Her stance garnered much attention, in print and on social media, and helped to create a movement focused on reading, and suggesting, female writers. There were plenty of strong titles to choose from, with authors such as Tayari Jones, Madeline Miller, and Ottessa Moshfegh making waves.

  • Tommy Orange’s debut, There There, published to widespread acclaim, garnered extraordinary reviews while giving readers a powerful novel. His achievement also served to emphasize other new Native American writers such as Terese Marie Mailhot.
  • Much as Black Panther did earlier in the year for black artists, the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians shined a light on Asian actors and actresses and, more broadly, Asian artists of all kinds. The film far exceeded its box office expectations and served as a cultural touchstone, creating space in the mainstream literary conversation for more Asian authors, such as Vanessa Hua, R.O. Kwon, and Ling Ma.
  • The New York Times Style Magazine published the essay “Black Male Writers for Our Time,” featuring some of the best writers of our age in an ode accompanied by a short film. The piece showcased a rich tapestry of authors, connected them to an important literary time, and highlighted their achievements.
  • Early in 2018, the National Book Awards announced the creation of a prize for works in translation. By doing so, it instantly made the awards roster more inclusive and wide-ranging, introducing, via its long list, authors with perspectives and histories beyond those typical of our shores.

Expect readers to continue to seek out new voices and for a number of sites on the literary web to assist in that quest by publishing lists and features stressing underrepresented authors. Librarians face a more difficult challenge as they seek to create inclusive collections. While 2018 saw new features in trade sources celebrating diverse “own voices” authors, LibraryReads added a “Hall of Fame” for new authors, and librarians crafted book lists, it remains challenging to identify the race, gender, and ethnicity of writers. Perhaps, if librarians demand it, 2019 might be the year publishers and review sources make finding diverse voices easier.

Media Matters

Audiobooks saw significant mainstream strides in coverage and attention in 2018. The NYT added a monthly category to its best sellers lists for audiobook fiction and nonfiction; year-end “best of” lists focused solely on the format. Newspapers and book sites added audiobook suggestions to their regular monthly lists, and stories about the rise of the format and its popularity were constant among book reportage. The Guardian added an audiobook narrator to its roster of literary interviews and emphasized audiobook readings on its podcast.

The audiobook market share continued to increase in 2018 (with downloads leading the way) and looks strong for 2019. Audio has become the new “it” format now that ­ebook sales have leveled off. Expect continued interest in 2019 as listeners gravitate toward high-profile productions and big-name narrators. Also look for more innovations in production and creation; audio-only and audio-first editions are already old news.

Films and TV shows based on books are nothing new, but we saw a remarkable surge in adaptations and critical and popular attention to them in 2018. Works such as Annihilation, Avengers: Infinity Wars, ­BlacKkKlansman, My Brilliant Friend, Sharp Objects, and To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before mesmerized viewers and helped illuminate the work of authors in Hollywood, with a range of stories and essays on the topic following on their heels.

Changes to the industry, centrally the increasing power of streaming services to buy and create content, led to a notable change in 2018 as Netflix helped launch a resurgence of romantic comedies. Hollywood power players continued to search actively for books to option, and the box office success of films created by people of color carved out a place for diverse new authors and diverse casts to showcase their appeal and power.

Welcome 2019. Artemis Fowl, Avengers: Endgame, Capta in Marvel , The Goldfinch, Good Omens, Little WomenThe Rosie Project, The Woman in the Window, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and at least two adaptations of Stephen King novels are already on the way. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon will continue their work as incubators of any number of productions, and new streaming services promise even more. Also expect more international shows and variations of foreign-language novels, making their way to U.S. television, by way of partnerships with streamers or direct acquisitions.

It would seem that 2019 looks to be building on the strengths of 2018, with more big books, buzzy adaptations, and literary discourse in the pipeline. See LJ’s editors’ spring picks for forthcoming books to stir new interest in your collections. 


Typographic illustraion by István Szugyiczky


This article was originally published in Library Journal's February 2019 issue

Author Image
Neal Wyatt


Neal Wyatt is LJ’s readers’ advisory columnist, contributing The Reader’s Shelf, Book Pulse, and Wyatt’s World columns. She is the coauthor of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2019). Contact her at nwyatt@mediasourceinc.com

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