Business Musings: The Year Ahead

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.

Here’s what I said in the fall of 2016:

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.

12 responses to “Business Musings: The Year Ahead”

  1. “Keep your head down, produce, and don’t be distracted by all the noise. ”

    Word.

    The single greatest things I’ve done for my own personal happiness and productivity in recent years have been 1) Permanently deleting my personal Facebook account and 2) Stop watching the news.

    The never-ending drama, incessant brinksmanship, and sheer douchebaggery of social media and the 24 hr news cycle simply sucks up too much time and energy, for zero return on investment.

    I prefer to just live life and control what I can.

  2. Nicole says:

    Thank you so much for commenting on the probable effects of the upcoming election (and the time-scope) without making it political. This is so helpful for those of us who aren’t American, and need reminding that an election (a four-to-six week disruption in many of our home nations) can be a six-to eighteen month disruption on one of our large markets.

    So many events affect book sales. Do I expect that fewer people are reading books in large swathes of Australia? I’m guessing so! When my province was on fire, I wasn’t reading (or writing, to be honest) novels. I was trying to find out if my friends and family members were safe and making donations and clearing out the spare bedroom in case it was needed.

    When there’s an extended war on far away, that can be different – it’s drawn out, the news can get repetitive, there’s only so much you can do, and people you love are away. People who usually read, still read. Sometimes more, for distraction, for reassurance, for nostalgia.

  3. Cora Buhlert says:

    I launched a new space opera series in August 2016, which from a German POV was not overly close to the US election in November, because over here the election season usually heats up about a month before. Never mind that the US election had seemingly been going on forever by that point due to the umpteen primaries.

    Fuirthermore, I’ve never really understood people who just stop reading books, watching movies, etc.. due to some kind of political or world event. I am a political person and I do follow politics, but I keep it to the regular news and don’t go seeking out 24 hour news coverage. I’m also one of those people who are annoyed when e.g. TV stations suddenly change their programming because of some political and/or world event. After all, I just watched the news and I don’t want to watch a bunch of talking heads offering their hot takes on what is going on, even if they have no more ideas than the rest of us.

    Anyway, the series did much worse than my other books in the same genre, even though I released four books fairly close together between August and early October 2016. I didn’t give up on the series and it eventually recovered somewhat, but I can’t help but wonder how the series would have done, if there hadn’t been a US election in 2016.

    Nonetheless, I’m not going to let the US election or any other world events stop me from writing and publishing books. Because there’s always something happening somewhere in the world and yes, it does impact book sales. tFor example, the election of Jair Bolsonaro killed my book sales in Brazil, where I had been doing quite well, considering I don’t have books in Portuguese, At the moment, I have less sales in Australia than usual, because Australians are understandably otherwise occupied.

    Finally, I’d like to share the following story: On September 11, 2001, a small German cable channel experienced its best ever ratings for a rerun of Murder She Wrote of all things. Why? Because all other channels had changed their programming because of the attacks in New York and Washington DC. There were talking heads and the same familiar footage on every TV station, while music and shopping channels had shut down their programming altogether. So everybody who did not want to watch the footage of the attacks for the hundredth time had only the option of switching off their TV or watching Murder She Wrote.

  4. I’m so glad you blogged about what to expect for 2020.

    I remember quite well that 2016 saw a marked decrease in my book sales. Indeed, they have not yet returned to pre-2016 levels.

    But, even though I attributed the change to the election, I had not mapped that fact forward to what it might mean for this year. Thanks to you, I am now mentally prepared. Not looking forward to it. How much lower can I go? 😉 But it’s better to know what I might be facing than not. Much appreciated!

  5. Alice says:

    The fires in Australia was my epiphany. I’m an old fart and I can’t believe how much the world has changed. And keeps changing every day. Watching the coverage of those fires brought home to me how the changes in the world are going to actually impact little old me. My “normal” is decades dead but I think I was still using it to measure the world around me. Still pondering that revelation.

  6. SeanR says:

    What about the Olympics? Granted, every presidential election in the US is also a Summer Olympics year, but how do you do during the summer? How did you do, oh, around 2000, when Australia had the Olympics, and that whole mess was offset by about a month and a bit? (When I started this question, I was under the miss-assumption that the Sydney Games amounted to a six month offset. Roughly forty days might well have gotten lost in the noise, for all I know.)

    • Olympics used to be a big deal in the States, but they messed with the coverage and now it’s not. I’m not sure about other countries. I do know that the Olympics had an impact on TV shows back in the day, but not so much now…in the States.

  7. Harvey Stanbrough says:

    Kris, fairly recently you wrote a post in which you talked about having made too many commitments in the past (speaking engagements, etc.) and cutting back on making them in the future. Can you direct me to that post? I wanted to share it. I did search for “commitment” but it took me way back to 2011. Thanks.

  8. C.D. Watson says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been tuning out of the news because I lean toward the non-political anyway, but the constant barrage of crises is just…overwhelming. I wonder if it’s causing adrenaline fatigue in people and some kind of numbing. When everything is a crisis (and the media turn everything into a crisis whether it is or not, becuase crises sell), it’s easy to burn out.

    Which is exactly why I’m trying to take your suggestion and focus on writing and family/friends. So again, thanks for the reminder.

  9. Angelica says:

    I cannot express my gratitude for your decision to refrain from explicit political statements. So many entertainers I respect have allowed politics to bleed over into their realms of entertainment, and it’s been so disheartening. There are areas of life where politics aren’t important, and where people can gather around and enjoy and discuss and connect regardless of their voting habits, and that doesn’t make any of them evil.

    Thank you so much for not contaminating this realm of enjoyment for me. Much respect.

  10. Widdershins says:

    I think we’re at the beginning of this ‘into the unknown-ness’, or rather the ‘unknown-ness’ has been around for quite a while, but its effects are only now starting to surface into the every-day lives of more and more people. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but quite probably it’s not going to be pretty.

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