Business Musings: Eclipse Expectations
I live in the zone of totality for the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. The eclipse happened on Monday morning, August 21, 2017. My little town, Lincoln City, Oregon, was where the eclipse hit landfall first in the United States. The eclipse then cut across the entire country, sending a shadow across America. The actual eclipse took about 90 minutes to travel from sea to shining sea.
It was totally cool. And totally cold. When they say it gets cold in a total eclipse, they’re not kidding. The temperature drops. I expected it to drop quickly, but it dropped as the moon slowly blocked the sun. We had sunshine and fog, and the fog returned as the sunlight vanished. We were able to see much of the eclipse, but not the planets around the eclipse.
Still, fascinating, and I’m glad I caught it.
I almost didn’t. I got food poisoning over the weekend, and wasn’t sure I would feel well enough to get up. (The eclipse occurred two hours before I usually get out of bed. I’m a late-night person.)
I did feel well enough. (I’m fine; the food poisoning was minor, if unpleasant.)
I certainly didn’t expect to be writing this blog after the eclipse, but I had to take some rare sick days, so like the rest of the working world, I return to tasks left undone and schedules in need of modifications.
I have two reserve blog posts finished. (You can read them on Patreon if you are at the right pledge level.) I had one scheduled for Thursday, just in case the dire predictions about the eclipse came true.
Those predictions didn’t come true—which inspired this blog—so that means I’ll hold those two posts in reserve just a bit longer.
Because this idea for this post caught me. I tried to get Dean to blog about it so I wouldn’t have to, but no dice. He wrote a great blog on bookstores instead.
The idea for the post? Much of what occurred around the eclipse in my small town happens in publishing all the time. Let me lay out my thinking.
First, what happened in Lincoln City this weekend:
Damn near nothing. Yeah, I was surprised. Yeah, we all were surprised.
Because for the past 18 months, all we heard about the eclipse was what a mini-disaster it would be for our small town. We expected 100,000 visitors minimum. Hotel rooms were booked more than a year in advance—all of them. Which, the planners told us, meant that we would have at least that many people camping roadside as well.
The airlines had to add extra flights into Portland (the nearest major airport). One million additional people were flooding into Oregon for the five days around the eclipse. Rental cars were booked months in advance. (One woman found an available car for Thursday only and the rental car company had slapped a one-day rate on the car of $850. Yeah, no.)
The state, local, and regional governments were planning for disaster. We were warned that electricity might go down, especially if the temperature in the valley (away from us, but near the big power grids) soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius). Our internet connection would probably go down, they said. (Great, we said. Our business is on the internet. Phooey!) Our cell phones would definitely go down.
The state called out the National Guard, expecting all the trouble you get when you cram too many people in a small space. The hospitals staffed up. We were told that traffic would be in gridlock for four days, so plan travel accordingly. Dean and I own three retail stores in the area, so we spent weeks discussing scheduling—who could walk to work, who couldn’t, who might stay overnight if need be. Right now, as I write this, Dean is working our new bookstore, because the bookstore employees live 6 miles away, and couldn’t walk if there was gridlock. The schedule was set in stone; no gridlock, but Dean was scheduled, not the usual employee, so Dean is guarding the fort (so to speak).
One writer friend who works with the local disaster coordinating organization had a medical kit at his home, like so many others, because no one thought ambulances would get through on our roads. In fact, that organization decided to use this event as practice for a big earthquake/tsunami disaster that might hit this town some day.
Grocery stores stocked up on food for an extra 100,000 people. Local restaurants brought in extra staff and stayed open 24-hours to accommodate all of the visitors. Porta-Potties lined every turnout and parking space throughout the town, along with some rather grumpy no-parking-during-the-eclipse signs on empty land.
And some wag put up Burma-Shave type signs near the highway for folks stuck in traffic. One, near two of our stores read, You Are Not…Stuck… In Traffic…You Are…The Traffic.
Only they weren’t.
There was no traffic. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. When I went on my run on Friday, I crossed an empty highway. Even in the winter (which is not our tourist season), I have to wait for cars to go by. Not on Friday. And not on Saturday (pre-food poisoning). Sunday, I’m told, was the same.
And this morning, as I drove frantically to the bookstore because fog was encasing my house and I couldn’t see the dang sun, mine was the only car on the highway (except for one crazy Californian who seemed to be driving in circles near Siletz Bay).
A handful of people lined the streets, all wearing weird glasses (eclipse glasses), and looking to the east—which is unusual here, since the ocean is to the west. Some of the parking lots were half-full. Most were empty. Ours was partially empty, as you can see from the photograph above.
When the weather forecast came in, about ten days ago, it became clear that the coast was going to be the coast—low clouds and fog in the morning that might or might not burn off by eclipse time. (It did, I’m told, in the center of town. I live in fog-central, so my house was socked in. But the stores had visibility.) That forecast doomed us for the Major Eclipse Watchers. They canceled their reservations for hotels here, going instead to the deserts of Central and Eastern Oregon, where they were guaranteed sun. And who could blame them?
Only those places experienced very little gridlock (just the night before a concert), and weren’t overrun either.
We don’t know. There will be a post-mortem, I’m sure, and I’ll hear about it from the friends in disaster relief, but I do know this.
Grocery stores in the area are stocked with perishables. The backroom warehouse in our favorite grocery store is so overstocked with non-perishables that it resembles a hoarders’ house. One small grocery in the next town over told one of the major news organizations that they had spent an extra $12,000 on perishables.
Think about that for a moment: A small business spent an extra $12,000 for an event that did not happen.
And they were not alone. All that extra staffing, all the extra food, all the expected revenue that didn’t happen occurred all through the state. A number of marginal businesses will probably fail this fall, because they spent too much money on something that didn’t happen.
How does this relate to publishing?
Well, predictions and planning and expectations.
This weekend, we were trying to figure out where the predictions of huge numbers came from. The hotel reservations, yes. The increased air travel. The rental cars. And…what, exactly?
Why did the authorities believe that everywhere along the 60-mile path of totality would get hit, rather than just Madras in Central Oregon?
An event was occurring here, after all, and everyone figured people would flock to it.
But…that’s not what happened. Madras and the area around it was one of the few places that became a destination—and for a reason other than the guaranteed sunshine.
You see, Madras planned. They set up an actual festival, with music acts, science exhibits, and more.
They weren’t the only ones. Prineville, a little farther east, also planned, and got a lot of the tourist traffic. In fact, the one major traffic jam to get to the eclipse occurred on the roads to Prineville on Thursday, as people were heading to a huge concert to start out the weekend’s festivities.
Everywhere else had smaller gatherings, if any at all. Our casino held eclipse parties, but I didn’t hear of anything else inside our small town, except privately planned viewing events.
We had an eclipse, but they had a better eclipse. Not just sunshine, but music and beer and acrobats. Things to do while you waited for that nearly two minutes of totality. While you waited all weekend for that two minutes of totality.
Publishing—both traditional and indie—behave the same way that these towns did in the path of totality.
Let’s go with traditional publishers first. They never base their projected sales figures when buying a new author on anything but gut sense and past experience. Well, they reason, if a similar book sold x copies, then this one will too.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of books that sold for high six-figure advances that “tanked.” The book was stocked in all the right places, just like those grocery stores were stocked, but no one bought the book because the publisher did the same-old, same-old marketing.
Yes, people need books. People come into bookstores (real and virtual) expecting to buy a book, but that doesn’t mean they’ll buy your book.
Indie writers make the same mistake.
Just because you wrote that book and finished it and put a pretty cover on it and put it up for sale doesn’t mean people are going to swarm to that book. (I know, I know. I wish they would. I wish it were that easy.)
You have to give them a reason to come to your book—which was what my entire branding series was about earlier this year.
Or…if you’re going to do the same old-same old marketing, you have to adjust your thinking. You need to realize that sometimes, people want to see tribute bands at a concert while camping in the high desert, waiting to see the sun disappear for two minutes. Most of the time, though, people will travel to more hospitable tourist destinations—the ones that appeal to them.
They’ll go to the coast when they feel like going to the coast or to Paris when they want to see Paris.
The problem we had this weekend was that expectations built up were not based on any real numbers at all. After all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event for these regions. We will not have another total solar eclipse here in my lifetime (and longer). There’s no way to accurately predict what will happen, and no way to figure it out based on past experience.
And that’s where solar eclipse events and publishing differ. Eclipses don’t have regular statistics. They occurr in different places at different times of the year. But publishing actually has numbers, although traditional publishing doesn’t use them. They prefer to trust their gut. (Although that is slowly changing as the data becomes firmer and firmer.)
Indies are better at using data to predict what will happen next, but most don’t. And generally, most don’t need to.
They just need to adjust their expectations.
When you finish a book, it would be really nice if 100,000 people bought that book the first weekend it was published. They won’t, though, most likely, because most of us can’t afford to do the kind of marketing that will get 100,000 people’s attention in that short a space of time.
(And, sadly, many writers aren’t yet good enough storytellers to attract that many people even if those people did know about the book.)
Better to get that 100,000 over the space of months or a year or two or five. Especially since publishing a book is not (or should not be) a once-in-a-lifetime event. Once that reader likes what you write, they’ll be back for the next book and the next.
That’s what the coast has to comfort itself with. The fact that yes, most of the eclipse watchers went to the Oregon desert, but there’s not many hotels in that desert. There’s not much to see when there aren’t big concerts or big celestial events.
Here, there’s a lot to do, almost every weekend. We have hotel rooms for 100,000 people. We have restaurants (good ones) to accommodate them. We have the ocean, but usually, it’s not the only attraction.
Tourists come here every year, sometimes every month. It’s all about repeat visits instead of one lone event.
That’s the kind of writer you want to be. You want to be the writer whose work they buy because they love your work, rather than the writer who distracts them for one weekend and whom they never read again.
Yeah, it’s been a little strange around here, and pretty nifty and cool and somewhat surreal. (You haven’t lived until you see 30 people standing at the side of the road staring into space.) I wouldn’t have changed today’s experience for the world.
But I’ll be happy to have the usual tourist suspects back next weekend. It’s weird to have empty roads in August. I promise I won’t complain about the traffic…too much.
And I’m back to writing today, as you can tell. I’m pretty sure all the images I saw this week will show up in the fiction.
But I have to admit—I’ll forever equate the empty streets with the overstocked bookstore shelves filled with a bestseller that didn’t happen. Predictions are iffy things, and almost impossible to pull off if you don’t have real data.
Sometimes—as with this eclipse—there is no real data. There is only guesswork based on historical eclipses in other regions and indicators that might or might not be reliable (like hotel room bookings one year out).
Mostly, though, there’s a stubborn refusal to use the data at hand, to predict based on what you know versus what you hope for.
We all want our latest releases to sell millions of copies this year. Most of us—99.9% of us—won’t achieve that. But we will have published a book or two or three, and we are working in our chosen field.
We’re the day-to-day folk who provide the best entertainment possible in a non-special-event kinda way. And that’s what most readers want.
Remember that the next time you see a lot of hype.
And realize that the hype isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
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“Business Musings: Eclipse Expectations,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.