Business Musings: The Year Ahead
I wasn’t going to write this post. In fact, I just told a friend that I didn’t see a point in writing this post for 2020, but she knows me well enough to know that if she asks the question, my mind will turn it over and over and over, and I might come up with an answer.
Or at least, a blog post.
She asked if I was going write blogs on the American election year, specifically as it relates the writing and publishing business. I wrote several posts on the effect of a U.S. election on sales back in 2016 (start with this one) and she hoped I would do more in 2020.
I hadn’t planned to. As I’ve looked ahead to 2020, my focus has been on my businesses as one thing, and the election as something else. Since I live in a state that will vote third in the presidential primaries/caucuses, I’m already immersed in the election season—from the waves of ads on television to polling phone calls to requests that I use my copious spare time to volunteer.
Our focus on politics here in Nevada started in April of last year, when the first candidates showed up (including the president and his people), and it really hasn’t slowed down.
So I’ve been thinking about the election for a while, unlike the rest of the country, and I had already come to some conclusions on how it will impact our businesses. I was a bit surprised by my friend’s question, to be honest, because my timetable is so screwed up. In other words, if I had written about the election according to my new Nevada timetable, I would have done so last fall.
She’s right though: the time to focus is now. Actually it was a month or so ago, but now will do.
Why am I even talking about this, particularly when I know so many of you hold different political views and/or aren’t even from the United States?
Because election year book sales—heck, election year entertainment sales—are usually weird. In the past, there’s usually a decline in retail sales (and that includes entertainment dollars) in the U.S. during the fall of a general election year. Sales will increase in November over the previous few months, but third quarter sales (and the first month of the fourth quarter) usually take a nose-dive.
I am very sensitive to changes in business caused by real-world events. One of the reasons that Pulphouse Publishing, the first publishing company Dean and I owned, crashed, was because of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. The entire United States stopped buying books, stopped ordering magazines, stopped shopping entirely and watched news of the war, day in and day out.
Those 42 days of distraction destroyed a budding collectables market, caused a number of brick-and-mortar bookstores to close their doors, and had an impact on many small press publishers. None of the businesses that closed after that period of time —including us—had enough capital on hand to make it through a black swan event.
We had two such events in 2016 in English-language publishing. The first was the shocking Brexit vote in the summer in the U.K, which had a cascading impact across the world—and, in fact, is still having an impact worldwide.
The second was the divisive U.S. election with the surprise outcome that no one—not even the candidates with their internal polling—saw coming.
There are two reasons I had initially said no to my friend about doing this. The first is that politics here in the U.S. has moved beyond divisive and into toxic. Many people have split with family members and lost friends over politics these past few years.
And right here, right now, I’m going to tell you that I will not post any political comments. If you make such comments to get my attention, either to tell me how I should vote or why I’m wrong in my politics or why other people are wrong in theirs, I will delete your comment and block you from commenting in the future.
The point of this blog post isn’t politics. It’s planning.
And that’s the second reason that I wasn’t going to do this post.
So much has changed since 2016. We went from a normal, if divisive, election cycle with a normal, if polarizing, news cycle, to a chaos-filled every-day-is-a-crisis news cycle—no matter what side of the political divide you’re on.
And it’s not just here in the U.S.
Politics and government have ceased being predictable in the old-fashioned way across many regions, from the U.K. to the Middle East and beyond.
We don’t know from day to day what the news cycle will bring. We nearly slid into a war at the start of this year, and that would have grabbed a lot of attention. In the U.S., we will have an impeachment trial of the president. Whether that trial will dominate the airwaves the way the trial of Bill Clinton did in the 1990s remains to be seen.
Brexit continues to dominate European economic news, all across the E.U. The U.K. isn’t just dealing with Brexit this year, it’s also dealing with a body blow to the monarchy that was instituted by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Royal watchers are royally watching right now, wondering breathlessly what will happen next.
And then there was that nearly hot war in the Middle East right after the first of the year. The entire world watched breathlessly—and probably will continue to do so. By the time this post sees print on Thursday, there will probably be another major crisis in a major country somewhere, one that will dominate the news not just in that country, but worldwide.
How consumers—particularly readers—will respond to this continual sense of crisis is unknown. In the past, we could predict retail slumps. Here in the U.S., the slumps would occur during election season in two ways: regionally, as each state prepared its primary, and then from July or so until the first week in November, as we prepared to vote in the general election.
For most of my adult life, the news cycle in a political year was dominated by primary coverage, starting in November or so of the year before the election. Not so this election season. There’s been crisis after crisis, so much that the talking heads on the various TV news programs complain that they can’t focus.
My friends in the journalism community also complain that they just get a handle on a story when another story supersedes it.
If it’s hard for journalists to focus, it’ll be hard for consumers to focus. They might not get swept up in news instead of fictional entertainment, like they usually do in an election year.
If chaos becomes normal, and it’s impossible to focus on one major news story or event, then consumers will stop paying attention. That’s what they do most of the time. Because the world is always heaving and churning. We continue our lives through all that noise.
But if something dominates the nation’s or the world’s attention, then consumers will stop buying entertainment.
Here’s what I said in 2016 about my plans for 2020, back when I thought this would be a normal election year:
What I discovered was that the decrease in sales, coupled with the decrease in demand in the fall for our product type, was a predictable result of a U.S. presidential election year. Now that I know that, my financial planning in 2020 will take into account the period of uncertainty before the major election. I won’t bank on the pent-up demand making up ground, which will give my businesses an added bonus in November and December, should the pent-up demand be there.
And, to be frank, Dean, Allyson & I have had those discussions. We’ve noted that 2020 is an election year and our sales might (will probably) slip. That’s part of our planning. It’s better to plan on lower income in the last half of the year than the regular amount of income.
But what I said to my friend when she asked if I was going to write about election planning was this:
I doubt I will [write about election year planning]. Politics is too fraught right now. And things change hourly. I suspect the whole year will be a continual mess. Sigh.
Just keep doing what you do and expect attention spans to be short in 2020.
As I went on my walk this morning, I realized that my advice to her was probably something I needed to share with all of you.
We will be lucky if this is a standard election year. I think it’ll be a wild ride, not just in the U.S., but in the world.
I stand by the idea that the year will be a continual mess of news. How consumers—and particularly book readers—will respond to that, I can’t even guess.
But I’m going to plan for sales to be down all year. I’m also going to plan that sales will slump even further in October and November.
I’m not going to change what I plan to publish, although I probably won’t market heavily in the fall—until after November 3rd.
Our financial models, however, will be conservative for the entire year. People will be distracted.
If we writers are lucky, distracted people will want more entertainment, not less.
If we’re unlucky, distracted people won’t read as much all year long.
We can’t bank on normal, though. 2020 is a different ball of ugly, as my husband would say. We are in uncharted territory.
And when the territory is new, the business-minded hoard capital and take fewer risks.
That’s all I can advise you to do for your business as you head into this very strange year.
The other piece of advice that I can give you? Write a lot. Keep your head down, produce, and don’t be distracted by all the noise. That will be hard, but remember this: If you had (have) a day job, you’d go no matter what’s happen on the national and international level. Show up as a writer as well. Writing is not only what you do, it’s what you do well.
Remember that. And remember (as I had to do today) that when you type on social media, you’re not writing fiction. You’re taking time away from your fiction. Make sure that long Facebook/Instagram post is worth the time you’re taking away from your fiction. If that post isn’t worth the time, no matter how riled up you are, walk away. Shut off your internet connection, and write something fictional.
Because in times of great chaos, readers often default to fiction. If I had to predict what was going to happen in 2020, I would say that reading might go up rather than down.
However, just because reading goes up doesn’t mean sales will go up. A lot of people will do “comfort” reading by rereading old favorites.
Divorce your creative time from your business time. Have fun with your writing. And don’t sweat the business this year.
We’re all in this together, although we occasionally forget that. We’ll get through this year.
We always do.
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“Business Musings: The Year Ahead,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / zven0.