The Business Rusch: The Fierce Urgency of Now (Discoverability Part 3)
We’re all familiar with the “fierce urgency of now.” We have experienced it all of our lives. It’s that feeling that we have to have something or have to do something right now or we’ll lose the chance.
When it comes to buying something, “the fierce urgency of now” used to drive our purchasing life. Back in the days of brick-and-mortar stores only, back in the days of appointment-radio, appointment-television, and appointment-movie attendance, the fierce urgency of now was a very real thing.
If you didn’t watch a TV show the night it aired, you might never get to see that show. If you didn’t see a movie in the theater, you might never get to see that movie. If you didn’t buy a book when you saw it on a store shelf, you might never see that book again.
The fierce urgency of now governed everything, because space was limited. Bookstores had only so much square footage, and that square footage was devoted to the latest books. The amount of time a new book remained on the shelf—known as the turn—went from nearly two months to as short as two weeks (in the early 1990s).
Television sold advertising based on that fierce urgency. If television executives could convince viewers to stay home one night per week to watch shows, then advertisers flooded to those shows. Advertising rates went way up, and became the way that a show’s success got measured—not just by how many people watched it, but by how expensive the ad buys were.
Movies were that way as well. If you read movie announcements in newspapers from the 1970s (which I do every time I write a Smokey Dalton novel), you’ll see that the announcements often mentioned how many screens the movie was playing in nationwide.
The more screens, the more the studio bet on the movie’s popularity. If a movie got a large audience, it stayed in a theater and the number of screens showing the movie increased. In the summer of 1973, The Poseidon Adventure stayed at the movie theater in my small Wisconsin hometown for at least a month. I memorized that damn movie (and contributed to its staying power by continually buying tickets) because there was no other film I could see within walking/biking distance. You’d often see “held over for an astonishing 6 weeks!” on movie marquees as if movies were theatrical performances filled with living players.
If the demand was high, then movie theater owners were loathe to trade out a popular show for one whose popularity hadn’t been proven yet.
These habits slowly died as technology changed industries. For decades, charities made extra money sponsoring a movie night, spending the money to get classic movie and charging admission so that people could see a film they’d only heard about. Some film societies—particularly those connected to universities—funded themselves by doing this.
Those societies died with the rise of videotape, cable, and the DVD. Now, cable and DVDs are having trouble because of streaming. If I want to see an old movie, I find the streaming service that carries the film, and download it immediately.
The fierce urgency of now has a completely different meaning in 2013. Thirty years ago, it meant “See this or miss it forever!” These days, it means, “Bring it to me the instant I want it.”
And that difference changed our entertainment culture from a limited top-down monolithic culture to a seemingly unlimited consumer culture. In the past, we had to choose from what the gatekeepers offered us. Now, we can choose not only from all of the things (or most of them) that were published, produced, filmed (you name it) in the past, but also from a wide variety of things that never got vetted at all.
Our entertainment culture has become dynamic, but it’s also weirdly personal. When Dean and I started teaching twenty-some years ago, we would use certain movies as an example of good plotting because we knew that everyone attending our classes had seen those movies. Now, we can’t make that assumption.
It’s a good thing in many ways, because it forces us to give a reading list to each class, so that we all have the same background. But it limits the cultural conversation in ways that are unfamiliar to those of us raised in the monolithic everybody’s-talking-about-the-same-things society.
Right now, the large multimedia companies are grappling with this change. Their businesses are still based on velocity, so they need consumers to buy a new product within weeks, sometimes days, of that product’s release. In other words, the large multimedia companies still believe that the fierce urgency of now still operates on the 20th century model, and in book publishing at least, the traditional companies are very confused by the change.
They want you to buy now, so they’re doing everything they can to get your attention (within the proper advertising budget, of course).
But the problem for them (and everyone else using the velocity model) is that the noise has become so loud that it’s impossible to hear about one new product in a sea of stuff.
To make matters worse, consumer habits are changing. That change became evident over this past weekend in the United States. According to data compiled by IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark, more people shopped online on Cyber Monday than ever before and—more importantly—more people shopped on Cyber Monday (as it’s now called) than on Black Friday. The revenue for Cyber Monday was 31.5% higher than the revenue for Black Friday.
(For the non-American readers lucky enough to miss the advertising frenzy that the United States becomes at the end of November, Black Friday is the term Americans now use to describe the day after our Thanksgiving celebration. Black Friday marks the beginning of the holiday season—at least the shopping portion of it—and measuring the sales statistics has become a gloom-and-doom evergreen story in the press since the media started tracking Black Friday sales some time in the mid-1990s.)
This past weekend’s data came in from a variety of sources. One analysis showed that two days this shopping season (tracked from Halloween on) had over a billion dollars in online sales. The first billion-dollar online sale day was Black Friday, since so many retailers had the same bargains on their websites as they did in their brick-and-mortar stores. The second billion dollar online sale day was Cyber Monday. Cyber Monday’s sales were $200 million higher than Black Friday’s sales.
The dominance of online sales is significant, because it shows that consumer habits are changing, just like we suspected all along. According to Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with Edward Jones, quoted in the same Los Angeles Times article that brought you all these other statistics: “You’re seeing more and more consumers shopping online instead of going to bricks-and-mortar retailers. People are under the impression that the Internet has cheaper prices and is more convenient, allowing you to avoid the crowds.”
So you avoid the crowds and shop online. But you still need to be informed of the deals. Yes, there were literally a million sales on Monday. And the only way to know about many of them was to stumble upon them or to have them drummed into you ad nauseum.
For example, in the middle of November, a car company that shall remain nameless started a nationwide television ad campaign promising two weeks of Black Friday. The reason the car company remains nameless is I simply can’t remember which company it was. I was so irritated at the very idea of the commercial that I failed to register the name of the perpetrator.
That two weeks of Black Friday thing, weirdly memorable as it was, is something that will backfire. I have no idea how much money the car company made from its sale and promotion. I just know that next year, it’ll try the same thing, and by then, we’ll be sick of it. Such promotions will make a day like Black Friday insignificant.
Black Friday has already ceased to be a day and has become a “season.” So has Cyber Monday. If you’re reading this on Thursday or Friday, you’re reading it during Cyber Week. The promotions continue.
I confess. Two companies got my business on Cyber Monday. They were not companies doing heavy advertising. I stumbled upon their sales through my Monday reading, and bought products I normally buy in dribs and drabs throughout the year. The discounts were so deep, I bought those products in bulk.
That lead me to pause for a moment—not as a consumer, but as a business owner. Yes, consumer-me responded to the fierce urgency of now and whipped out my plastic, paying for those products immediately. But consumer-me would have bought those products at full price, spaced out between now and next December, a steady revenue—and more of it. Will these retailers even notice the loss of my money over the year? Probably not. But multiply that loss by thousands of customers, and yes, the retailers’ revenue might well go down in the next six months or so.
That’s the gamble of sales and deep discounts. If you dig into the articles about Black Friday sales and Cyber Monday promotions, you’ll see comments from experts who follow trends, noting that 50% off is the new 25% off, and that the profit margins are being sliced even thinner to get customers in stores.
Some experts pointed out that many companies that used to participate in the Black Friday madness have pulled back, offering deals that barely compared to deals offered in the past. Instead those companies (mostly tech companies) now offer their deals in the off-season, when they can actually get press for those deals, changing the calculus of the fierce urgency of now to whatever they chose it to be.
You see this in book promotion. I wrote about the bestseller problem a few weeks ago—with all of the major publishers releasing their major titles within weeks of each other (sometimes overlapping). And it’s turning out as I predicted. Many guaranteed New York Times bestsellers are not New York Times bestsellers with their current books. Some former #1 bestsellers didn’t even crack the top ten.
That velocity thing doesn’t work when everyone plays the game. Or maybe, it does work, and it shows which writers have succeeded in making their work a must-buy no matter what the season.
Indie writers are seeing the problems with velocity also. A lot of writers are complaining that “free” doesn’t work any more or that they can’t even get their titles into successful non-traditional advertising venues like Book Bub, whereas they used to get their titles into those places in the past.
When you’re the thousandth guy to jump on a bandwagon, then that bandwagon isn’t going to be as big a deal as it was for the first 100 guys.
So, what makes people buy a product now?
All those marketing gurus have come up with three things. You’ll find the same three things over and over again in marketing textbooks and on marketing blogs.
People buy now because:
1. They need the item. Think about that. How often have you unhappily pulled into the gas station and spent the twenty dollars in your pocket just to get home. You didn’t want gas at that moment, but you needed it.
“Need” has a variety of meanings, especially when it comes to entertainment. Some TV episode ends on a particularly good cliff-hanger. You need to see the next episode right now. If you’re binge-watching, no problem. You’re going to stream the next episode. If you’re live-watching, you’ll tune in as soon as that next episode airs.
The same goes for series books. The good ones get readers to return to each book in the series when the book’s released.
There are problems with series, though, especially linked series. It’s hard for a newcomer to start with book 10 or episode 50. That’s why television producers back in the day mandated that serials belonged in daytime, and had lots of repetition so viewers could keep up. Now, when you hear about a particularly good serialized show, you can stream the first episode or season and see if you like it.
That’s caused a change in television, and in the movies, truth be told. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire set a record over the holiday weekend by taking in more than $82 million in five days. It’s the second film in the Hunger Games series, and its take was greater than the Harry Potter film that had held the title previously.
However, you don’t need series writing to get people to take in the entertainment right now. Sometimes you just need to intrigue the viewer/reader. For, along with The Hunger Games this weekend, a little stand-alone movie that could, Frozen, also took in more than Harry Potter.
For each rule of thumb, there is something that breaks that rule.
In other words, just because I say series are doing well in this environment, don’t take that to mean write only series. Because word-of-mouth will elevate anything, stand-alone or a series.
Or word-of-mouth will tank something—even if it is in a series. As Entertainment Weekly pointed out in its “Summer Winners and Losers” column in September, the sequel book to The Devil Wears Prada, Revenge Wears Prada didn’t fare well after its first week. Why? It didn’t meet reader expectation. The book hit the bestseller list and quickly fell off, as word got around.
Another reason people buy something right now? They find…
2. A great deal that is so fantastic the consumer impulse buys. That’s what got me on Monday. Choose: Spend $50 now or $100 over the next six months for the same item. I actually paused and checked my entertainment fund. Yep, I had the $50. So I bought, and saved myself $50 because I would have spent the money anyway.
But all of those videos you see every single Black Friday weekend of shoppers going insane and fighting each other for deeply discounted products? Often those deals aren’t really deals. Prices got inflated before the holiday so they could be “marked down.” The items were going to be discontinued anyway. The list of deal scams goes on and on.
What used to happen, what still happens, is the hype infects the consumer, and the consumer makes impulse buys. This happens mostly in brick-and-mortar stores, but it can happen online as well. The point of a sale is to bring someone into the store or the website. And most people, once they start shopping, buy more than they intend.
Hell, that happens to me every single time I walk into a grocery store with a list. I still buy more than I planned.
The problems with good deals in book publishing make doing the deals difficult, if not impossible. Let me try to explain.
No reader knows or cares who publishes a book. So traditional publishers, hoping to increase sales on all of their products, won’t get readers into the “store” with brand loyalty, because the brand is the author name, or the series name, not the publisher.
Many readers don’t know author names either. Readers buy by genre or series or whatever has a pretty cover. They might buy a book because it’s 99 cents, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll buy another book by the same author because it was cheap.
People might buy a cheap book because it’s cheap, but that doesn’t mean they’ll read the book. The first thing heavy readers who set themselves up as book reviewers learn is that half the books they get for review they wouldn’t read in the first place. The same with free. It worked for a while. It rarely works now that everyone’s doing it, because so many people rarely read what they get for free.
Plus, books have another problem with free. Readers know they can get free books at any time just by going to the library. It’s not like getting a free watch. A free watch is pretty unusual. A free book resides in a building somewhere in town with a bunch of other free books—and that free book might be one you actually want to read.
The other reason people buy now?
3. A good deal with a time limit.
That was the second thing I bought on Cyber Monday. I had a bunch of items in my online to-buy queue at a major online retailer, but I was planning to buy them when I was ready. I logged onto that site to check something else that day, and discovered a 30% off sale that would last another four hours. Those items, at 30% off, were a good deal. I had the money in my account. I bought ahead of when I normally would have.
I’ve seen indie writers use this scheme to good effect. Book bundling uses it well. Five books at a great price for two weeks to ten days? Most readers don’t care if that bundle includes a book or two by someone they’ve never read. Readers like to discover new writers. Besides, they got three books they planned to read for less than they’d pay for each book individually.
It’s the same with a reduced price sale, particularly on the first book of a series. So, a reader’s heard about the series and wants to try it, but doesn’t want to pony up full price. That limited sale—a week or so at a lower price—might convince them to buy now.
The key is might. The other key on these limited promotions is to have many other books that the reader can buy. Again, these promotions don’t work for traditional publishers because they’re not a brand. (When was the last time you bought a book because it was published by Random House? You might have bought a Random House book, but you did so because of the genre, author, cover or some other reason.)
In the retail business, offering something for a lower price for a week is called a loss leader. A loss leader is a product sold at a loss that will lead the consumer to other products. You need the other products for the strategy to work—and those products must be recognizably yours.
If you’ve made it this far into the blog, you’ve probably figured out that most of the standard fierce-urgency-of-now strategies don’t work for book publishing. Not any more. In a culture where consumers control their own entertainment, they also control when they consume that entertainment.
That’s where discoverability comes in. As I mentioned last week, your job as a writer is to write the book, the very best book you can, and then write the next book. Your main marketing job is to let the consumer know that the book exists.
You tap into the fierce urgency of now when you do that. But, because publishing has changed, the fierce urgency of now has another meaning.
If all of your strategies mimic traditional publishing, you’ll get a few sales when the book comes out and then the sales will die off.
So, here’s what you do to change that:
1. Let your readers know when the book is published.
2. When you publish the next book in the series, make sure the first book is advertised in the back of that book (along with any other genre-related books you might do and a link to your website).
3. Jump on the right bandwagon. When Downton Abbey became successful, a handful of traditional publishers shocked the crap out of me by actually doing correct marketing. They brought back some titles set in the same milieu as Downton Abbey, with new covers. They targeted their marketing to a different crowd—the PBS crowd here in the U.S.—and those books started to sell again.
4. Remember books don’t age. Just like music doesn’t. Just like movies don’t.
Journey’s song “Don’t Stop Believin’” hit number 9 on the Billboard charts in 1981, the year of its release. Then the song became the 72nd most downloaded song in 2008, and the 84th most downloaded song in 2009. According to Wikipedia, it is “the best-selling rock song in digital history with 5,855,000 digital units sold in the US as of September 2013 and the best digital song from a pre-digital-era.”
What’s old becomes new to each new generation. After Baz Luhrmann’s surprising success with The Great Gatsby movie last summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel hit—and remained—on the bestseller list, hitting number one right after the movie’s release.
In other words, just because your book isn’t successful now doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Or, conversely, just because your book did well on its release, doesn’t mean its selling days are over. It can be revived, if you time things right, with the idea of discoverability.
What do I mean by that? I mean that you have to let the book fade. You can’t continually hype the same title. If you hype, you become the Howard Wolowitz of publishing. (See this video from The Big Bang Theory on my Word of Mouth post to see what I mean.)
Instead, plan your moment. Wait months before reminding folks that the book has been released. Then wait a few years before starting promotion again—if the book isn’t the first book in a series. Then you can promote that book each time a new series book comes out.
If you look at the Journey article on Wikipedia and examine the dates, you’ll see that the song got a new boost as each generation discovered it. That’s the sign of a great piece of entertainment—it can be enjoyed by people of different generations. I hope you’re striving for that whenever you write. (I’m not saying write for people of all ages. I’m saying this: your book might be perfect for thirty-year-olds. When each generation hits thirty, you want that generation to enjoy your book.)
5. Write the best book you can.
Remember that readers now determine the fierce urgency of now. You want them to pluck down their cold hard cash in the middle of the night because they need your next novel now. The only way for that to happen is to a) have published more than one novel and b) write great stories.
Readers will discover you. They just won’t do it quickly or when you want them to.
That fierce-urgency-of-now thing? It’s even more out of our control—everyone’s control—than it has ever been. Right now, some person is finally discovering how great Shakespeare’s plays are. I remember when I discovered it, by being dragged to a production in London’s West End as a teenager. That guy’s work has been around for hundreds of years, but he was new to me in 1977. He’s new to others in 2013.
Write. Write more. Improve. Keep writing.
Have your work inspire that fierce urgency of now, because all the ads in the world won’t make someone buy something they don’t want.
Even on Black Friday.
One of the things that encourages me the most about this blog is the analytics. I see how many of you spend your time here each week. Thank you! Time is short for all of us, and I appreciate the fact that you’re spending some of yours with me.
A handful of you also support the blog financially, allowing it to be free for everyone else. Thank you folks. You’re the blog’s backbone.
And I appreciate the comments/e-mails/links. The interactivity benefits you as well as me, even in weeks when I don’t have time to answer the comments (like last week).
Thanks—and if you feel so inspired, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: The Fierce Urgency of Now” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.