Knowing What We Don’t Know

When facing massive uncertainty, as exists in today’s highly interconnected global economy, it is essential to appreciate both what one does know as well as what one does not know.  ~Vikram Mansharamani

Publishing has been operating in an atmosphere of uncertainty for years now. Right now we’re in a pandemic which has affected all businesses as well as consumer behavior, so obviously publishing is uncertain right now. But — we could look back to the financial crisis of 2008 when everything was thrown into question, and say, THAT was really when publishing faced uncertainty. Or… was it the previous year, 2007, when the Kindle was released, that things really changed? The introduction of digital books certainly changed the landscape. But wait. It had to be social media that changed everything, right? Why would people read books when they could scroll Twitter all day? We had no idea what was going to happen!

But then again, maybe it was the Internet itself that made publishing so uncertain. Would people need books anymore, when they could get all they wanted online? No, no, no. It was television that was going to kill books. But weren’t video games the death knell? No, it was movies. Maybe it was radio! Actually, it was the ease of self-publishing that was going to kill the traditional publishing industry. Right?

You get my point. In an uncertain world, publishing has been an uncertain business for a long time. Yet in many ways, even right now during the Covid-19 crisis, the publishing industry is still operating “business as usual.” People are still reading books. Publishers are still producing them. As literary agents, this is where we keep our focus. For hundreds of years and through countless crises, people have continued to read. We’re going to behave as if that’s still true. When and if it becomes clear we need to pivot in some way, we will.

It’s a fact that things are uncertain. There is truly so much we don’t know, especially with the pandemic changing so many business models. I think it’s crucial that when discussing career paths, when making decisions for the future, we acknowledge what we don’t know.

  • I know publishers are still making traditional advance/royalty deals, and they’re still taking a year or more to get a book out. I don’t know if this will change very much in the next few years.
  • I know print books are still selling, and I know sales of e-books are stable, and I know the proportion of audiobooks sold is growing relative to other formats. But I don’t know when or if any of this will change.
  • I know writers are free to self-publish a book any time they choose (if not restricted by a traditional publishing contract). I don’t know exactly how it will affect their publishing future; for some it’s positive, for some it’s not.
  • I know publishers, like many businesses, have experienced financial challenges from the pandemic, some significant, some less so. I don’t know how it will all play out long term.
  • I know many authors feel anxiety about the future because of all this uncertainty. I don’t know how to convince them it’s always been somewhat uncertain, so they may as well get back to work!

I’ve seen several publishing-related news articles lately, in which the writer interviewed various players in publishing, trying to discern how the current pandemic crisis is going to affect us in the long run. There are lots of different data points, and lots of opinions. But it all seems to add up to one big “we don’t know yet.” Everyone is continuing along, doing the best they can. Nobody is operating out of any great body of evidence. Each industry professional is speaking from their own experience, a bit of data, and a lot of instinct based on years in the business.

So what should authors do? Keep writing your books, if that’s what you want to do. While much is unknowable, I’m fairly certain there will always be ways to get your words in front of people, regardless of how closely it resembles current traditional publishing. Try not to overly concern yourself with the uncertainty. That’s the state in which we live (even though we pretend it’s not). The fact that publishing is uncertain, well, it’s not exactly news. Best to keep your eyes on what you control.

Keep writing! The world needs you.

What do you KNOW about current and future publishing? What DON’T you know?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Valda on September 10, 2020 at 8:12 PM

    I love the positivity in your message. As a teacher who will be receiving students next week, facing 4 and 5-year-olds in a mask and visor, I understand uncertainty. We just don’t know. With our writing, when we have a message that we want to share with readers, we post that weekly blog hoping that they will come. My tribute to my grandmother the week she died had nearly a hundred visitors. My next post only saw 20 visits. But maybe, just maybe, one of those readers benefited from my message. Maybe I touched that person in some way, encouraged them, fed their soul. If that’s the case, it’s worth it. As writers, sharing our words is our way of serving others. This is not the time to give up sharing our message because of uncertainty.

  2. T. Powell Coltrin on September 2, 2020 at 5:59 AM

    Great quote and post. Covid has changed the world (and people). What I know is that the world, the economy and people will survive Covid-19 and move on. At least people have more time to read 🙂 since we can’t go shopping or do other public pleasures, as we did last year this time.