The Impact of the Pandemic on Publishing: an Interview with 2 Seas Co-Founder Marleen

The Impact of the Pandemic on Publishing: an Interview with 2 Seas Co-Founder Marleen

In an interview with our Brazilian co-agent Luciana Villas-Boas, 2 Seas co-founder Marleen Seegers reflects on the publishing landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons she has learned from it

publishing 2020

This interview was originally published in Portuguese on the Villas-Boas & Moss website, in January 2021.

VB&M: How do you assess the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other 2020 dramatic events on the 2-Seas Agency and on the international book business in general?

MS: After many countries went into a severe lockdown in the spring of 2020 and bookstores were closed, many publishers saw their markets recover over the summer and in the early fall. Quite a few publishers told me that people were spending more money on books because they didn’t have (as much) access to other cultural activities such as theater, cinema, museums, and the opera.

We received very few offers from mid-March till the end of April or so. Then we started receiving requests and offers again from South-East Asian countries such as South-Korea, China and Japan, at a time when the pandemic and consequent lockdown slowed down or even halted acquisitions elsewhere. When in Europe lockdowns started to get lifted in May/June, editors were concentrating mainly on changing their marketing strategies and/or re-programming their publications for the rest of the year and seemed to be paying less attention to submissions of new titles.

A great number of publications that were to take place in the spring were postponed to the fall of 2020, or later. This caused delays in previously scheduled publications. Since their publishing programs are now often full till 2022, many editors still tend to be even more careful than usual when it comes to acquiring new titles.

Apart from some sales over the summer, worldwide rights sales clearly picked up again in September. It has been steady since, though still a little slower than usual. Many sales usually happen before the actual Frankfurt Book Fair starts. This time, however, I felt it was more evenly balanced, for us at least, as we received offers before the fair as well as afterward, following our virtual meetings.

When the second wave arrived later in the fall and countries went back into (partial) lockdowns, bookstores had to close again quite a few. In some, including the Netherlands, they continued to be closed throughout December, which is usually the busiest time of the year.

In this light, it is to be seen how big the financial impact will be on the international book markets, and how many -especially independent- bookstores will survive. We still have a long way to go before physical retail stores can function again ‘as usual’.

I think the trend we’ve seen in the last decade or so, that bestselling authors sell even more copies of their books while midlist titles are disappearing, is going to be even more visible.

But it is hard to predict what will really happen in 2021 and beyond. There are still so many moving parts, from not knowing when physical book fairs will take place again, to the lasting impact of the pandemic on the publishing market. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me, is to expect the unexpected.

VB&M: What were the changes that you introduced into the agency routines to face the challenging times that you believe will be long-lasting?

MS: Since we’ve had a remote set-up almost since we started out in 2011, we were spared the challenges of having to switch to working from our homes as the Covid-19 pandemic was spreading last spring.

Our virtual office has continued to function pretty much as usual between Nicosia, Cyprus where Senior Agent Chrysothemis is based (currently on maternity leave) and Ojai, California where I live with my husband & agency co-founder Derek.

Starting mid-March, when nothing much was happening work-wise, I did have to temporarily reduce the working hours for Foreign Rights Assistant Nikoleta, who joined the agency a few months earlier from North Carolina, and for Administrative Assistant Irma, who is based 40 miles down the Pacific coast from Ojai.

When things started to pick up again later in the spring, everyone went back to working their normal hours again.

Before the start of the pandemic, Irma would come to the Ojai office once per week to take care of our mail, and she hasn’t been coming in since March. I now take care of this, which in the end doesn’t give me much extra work: a lot of the usual paperwork, such as contracts and royalty statements, has gone digital.

To me, this is a big silver lining of the pandemic-induced remote working situation. We opened a DocuSign account for our contracts back in 2018, and had already been advocating for electronic royalty statements for a long time. Too much time was spent tracking down physical contracts that had gotten lost in the mail somewhere between China and France!

The biggest change, however, was not made by me but imposed on us by the pandemic: none of us has been on any international business trips since March 2020. Traveling to book fairs – not limited to those in Frankfurt and London – and to international publishers’ offices has been part of the agency’s DNA since its beginnings.

VB&M: What were 2 Seas’ greatest achievements last year?

MS: Several things happened last year that I am proud of, in spite of (and, on some occasions, thanks to) the challenging times we were facing. I’ll focus on two of them here.

In the midst of the spring lockdowns in Europe and our strict stay-at-home order in California, when the world truly seemed to be crumbling beneath our feet, I got the opportunity to represent North American rights in a previously unpublished Simone de Beauvoir novel entitled LES INSEPARABLES. We sold these rights quickly to Ecco, in a very nice pre-empt. The event was covered in a long New York Times article which mentioned 2 Seas Agency, together with my name. I can now tick off that box on my life goals list!

The second achievement I’ll focus on here is the podcast I started in April, called The Make Books Travel Podcast.

I’d been playing with the idea of starting a podcast for a while. When Covid-19 emerged in Europe in late February, I had to cut a 5-week business trip to Europe short after only 1 week of meetings and returned to California. Fast-forward a few weeks, and the world had become a different place. As I mentioned before, while almost everyone had to adapt to working remotely, having a virtual office was business as usual for the 2 Seas team.

During the many virtual meetings, I had the weeks following the start of the pandemic to make up for all the in-person meetings I was supposed to have at the London Book Fair and elsewhere in Europe, I was asked more than once if I had any tips to share on best practices of working remotely.

This led to the first podcast episode, “The Virtual Literary Agency: An Interview with Chrysothemis Armefti” which I published on April 17, 2020.

Brazilian publishingSince then I’ve interviewed international publishing professionals from around the world, including you and Anna — which by the way is one of the most-listened-to episodes! It’s a great way to reconnect with people at a time when we can’t meet anyone in person.

My podcast guests provide real-time information about how they are doing, what is happening in their country in terms of the pandemic, lockdowns and such, and how their publishing markets are coping with it all. And I am delighted to share this valuable information with other publishing professionals, who are eager to find out about it. I’ve received countless thank you notes, sometimes from editors and other publishing professionals whom I didn’t even know yet and which then led to new connections and virtual meetings later on.

After a break in October to focus on my virtual Frankfurt meetings, I started Season 2 in November. There are 26 episodes to date, and we now have over 6,000 plays. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve learned so much (I now also master Garageband — before starting the podcast I had no idea why this app was on my Mac).

Recording these podcast episodes has turned out to be the second-best thing (after actually meeting people at international book fairs), and is worth every minute I spend preparing the interviews and everything else it entails.

VB&M: Are you planning to participate in literary fairs in 2021? Are you planning to travel to Europe to see clients and potential publishers to your books, as you have been doing since 2 Seas’ very beginnings?

MS: The London Book Fair is usually the anchor for my travels to Europe during the 1st semester, but given the current situation around Covid-19 I doubt that a physical edition will take place in June.

I’m rooting for the fall season, during which I hope to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. If possible, I’d like to visit Paris and Amsterdam prior to or after the FBF. I would then also love to spend some time with my family in the south of the Netherlands, which I haven’t seen since early March of last year.

VB&M: What is the future of the book fairs?

MS: I had meetings throughout the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair week — on European time, so I could make the most of it. This was definitely a good alternative to the physical fair, and I am reassured that it worked out for me in spite of the 9-hour time difference.

But I hope I won’t have to repeat it: a virtual book fair will never replace the experience of a physical book fair. Everyone is eager to meet again in person, and international trade events provide the perfect opportunity to meet up with many different people in a short period of time.

So in my opinion, physical book fairs will never disappear. However, since many book fairs have now experienced what it’s like to organize a digital edition, some may think about proposing certain digital events to take place parallel to the physical edition. This would allow people who can’t attend the fair physically to still participate in some manner.

VB&M: Would you like to point new literary trends provoked by the pandemics and which are particularly well represented in your catalogs?

MS: In terms of non-fiction, which was already in higher demand before the pandemic, and it continues to be: books on nature and animals (Arjan Postma’s HOW ONE CRAZY ANT CAN CHANGE THE WORLD, Meulenhoff Boekerij), memoirs, practical guides and self-help titles are much in demand. We are currently receiving a lot of interest and have made several sales for the self-help/gift book HOW TO LIVE LIKE THE LITTLE PRINCE, which features the original Little Prince drawings by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Books with a feminist approach also continue to garner interest, such as PREHISTORIC MEN WERE WOMEN TOO (Allary Editions, which you sold to Rosa dos Tempos)

In the fiction genres, I noticed a strong demand for escapist fiction as well as inspirational novels based on true stories, such as Maria Peters’ THE CONDUCTOR for which we continue to receive strong interest (Meulenhoff Boekerij, and which you sold to Planeta Brazil) and our current highlight THE JEWISH NURSERY SCHOOL (Hollands Diep), based on a true story of the rescue of around 600 Jewish children in Amsterdam during WWII. Classics such as Paola Masino’s BIRTH AND DEATH OF THE HOUSEWIFE (Editions de Lamartinière Littérature, which you sold Instante) to are also much in demand, though this also pre-dates the pandemic.

VB&M: What are your projects for the new year?

These last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about implementing a new communication system for our team. Since December we have two new and additional co-workers: Donatella who is based in Rome and who is in charge of the Italian market, and Berlin-based intern Katie.

Even though Chrys is now on maternity leave, as our team grows I feel the need to streamline and optimize our internal communication. We’ve been using Google Docs, but that no longer cuts it for me.

I’m a bit of a systems geek, and to me having good systems in place is essential for an efficient and productive virtual office. So believe it or not, that’s one of the projects I’m excited about!

Other than that, I am very keen on continuing the podcast — I have three interviews lined up for the next couple of weeks. Even though I already dipped my toes into fields other than foreign rights and trade publishing, such as the audiobook market, I’d love to cover other segments of the publishing world. I’m thinking about books-to-screen, libraries, the educational book market, university presses… There is still so much to (dis)cover. Always be learning!

VB&M: To end this rich conversation, can you please tell us about what it’s like to live in California today. 

MS: With the arrival of the New Year I was hoping for less drama, and more peace and serenity after the avalanche of intense events we experienced in 2020 (including Covid-19, the horrific murder of George Floyd and others, the devastating wildfires in California, the presidential election and its aftermath). That hope was quickly shattered by the attack of the Capitol Building last week. I still can’t believe this actually happened.

In spite of everything we have witnessed since Trump came to power, I do trust that justice will prevail, both for the perpetrators and Trump himself. But part of me says that this may just be the beginning, there is so much division in the US.

I still don’t fully ‘grasp’ this humongous country, its histories, cultures and dynamics, though I’ve been living here for almost 10 years now. I’ve been very privileged to live in Ojai, California, which is a small town, providing some kind of progressive hippie bubble (though it doesn’t keep the wildfires away). Being close to nature -the Pacific Ocean to the west, mountains and national parks to the north and east- has helped me keep my sanity and focus throughout 2020. And it helps me stay optimistic about the future, on most days at least.

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