Business Musings: Uncertain Times
My crystal ball is broken. When the world worked in a way that progressed, rather neatly, from one point to another, I could see as far as five years in the future. Sure, things would change. My health changed, for example, in the previous decade, and that caused personal changes.
But the world I lived in here in the United States was relatively stable and that made predicting the future…not easy, but possible.
The changes started coming around 2009. The changes in smart phones, smart readers, smart a lot of things changed the way many of us did business. The 2008-2010 recession also caused changes. And politically, the western world changed (maybe the rest of the world too, but I’m most familiar with the west). We started seeing the rise of fascism—again. And white nationalism grew—again. And strong men (and yes, they were mostly men) came to power in a whole slew of countries.
But those things remained relatively predictable. We’d seen their ugly ilk before and we knew would see them again, if we didn’t start dealing with their root causes.
We’d seen pandemics too, in the west, most recently one hundred years earlier. The world wasn’t as interconnected, and science wasn’t as advanced, and so the response was different, but the 1918 pandemic did give us clues as to what was ahead.
My friends hate it when we discuss some current event, and I use history to predict how it will turn out. Usually history isn’t kind or gentle, and it wasn’t in the case of the pandemic. I said to my friends, in March of 2020, that we would face two to five years of living under the threat of the pandemic without a vaccine, and one to two years of living with the threat if we got a vaccine quickly.
We’ve got three (most likely) here in the U.S. at this writing. (Yes, some of you are seeing this about a month after the Patreon folks, because I’m actually working ahead at the moment.) The rollout was botched, the virus is mutating, and we’re still in a race against time. But we’ve gotten a second wind.
However, this pandemic was the last nail in the coffin of the post-World War II world that all of us were born into. Every norm we had has been shattered. Every single one. Daily school, going to the office to work, relaxing with family and friends.
What we did in 2019 does not allow us to predict where we will be at this time in 2022. Things have changed that much.
Which means that planning is, as I’ve been writing, hard. The problem is that the world has changed, but our mindset often hasn’t.
Sure, we’re all aware that our kids are not in school. We know how hard it is to get out of the house, how dangerous it can be in a crowded environment.
We’ve made major adjustments.
But parts of our minds are like little dusty corners of an unused room. As we slowly climb out of this hole we find ourselves in—and yes, it’s a hole, and we will only get out slowly—we have to contend with our own expectations as well as the reality of how we have lived.
For example, after a nightmare spring, books had their best year in quite a while, at least those measured by BookScan. I’m assuming, if traditionally published books sold well, then indies did as well. It might be a bad faith assumption, but we’re going to go with it.
January 2021 built on those excellent numbers. Book sales were up by double-digits in January over January of 2020. Remember, though, that January of 2020 was the last full month of the Before Times.
If you dig into the numbers, particularly the numbers from 2020, you will find some startling things. As reported to Publishers Weekly, NPD BookScan numbers showed that print book sales grew. They were in trouble when the bookstores shut down in the spring, but rebounded…kinda.
Backlist sales accounted for 67% of all print books sold in 2020, which is up 4% over 2019—even with that spring crash. Kristen McLean of BookScan told PW that
the increased popularity of online shopping was a major reason in the growth of backlist, since it is easier to find backlist books than it is to discover new titles online.
Another major change? The holiday shopping season was completely different. Most people bought books early, and sales were very strong after Christmas.
And yet one more change: book sales came in waves.
McLean point(ed) to the big jump in juvenile nonfiction purchases soon after schools locked down in the spring, followed by increasing sales early in the summer tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as gains in adult fiction driven by summer reads. Political books did well in early fall, and the year closed with a good selection of holiday titles, plus Barack Obama’s blockbuster, A Promised Land.
Unsurprisingly, ebook sales—as tracked by BookScan (which is bad at tracking actual ebook sales) grew dramatically during the pandemic. That supports the anecdotal evidence I’d seen online from every indie writer with a platform. Let me rephrase that. The news supports the anecdotal evidence from every indie writer with a platform who was not in Kindle Select. The growth at Kindle Select was not nearly as large, primarily because Kindle Select is its own ecosystem, and a lot of readers don’t want to buy into that particular all-you-can-eat model.
Anyway, ebook sales, according to BookScan only, were up 12.6% over 2019 and sold the same number of units as they did during the peak of traditional ebook sales, which was in 2015.
So, let’s unpack this a little.
Remember: Traditional publishing is based on velocity. New books published in large numbers, selling as many copies as possible out of the gate, with sales dropping off after the first month or so.
If you look at that measure, traditional publishing had a horseshit year. Thirty-three percent of book sales were new, out-of-the-gate books.
The entire model is flipped on its head. Traditional publishing is not built for backlist sales. Backlist kept them alive in 2020, but if you looked at the profit and loss for each new title published by traditional publishers in 2020, I’ll wager most of them (if not all) registered as a loss.
Why? The things we discussed in last year’s trainwreck essays. There were too many books crowded into the fall season, so many of them couldn’t get reviewed or even get promoted properly. There were printing delays (for paper books) and the loss of advertising marketplaces. There were no book tours, which was a major driver of print book sales, and no (or little) handselling by booksellers. And on and on and on.
Backlist is where it’s at. Backlist and ebooks.
But we in the indie community have experienced that for ten years.
Note I didn’t way that we have known that. Because knowing that requires us to clean off that dusty mental shelf in the corner of our offices, the one that includes a lot of desires now more-or-less worthless: a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, having the biggest selling book (by millions of copies) in the nation (or the world), making sure that This Big Editor noticed and/or bought your book for their publishing house, and you know. Whatever that dream you had for your writing career, the one born in the mid-to-late 20th century, in a world now gone.
Here’s how book sales—all book sales—currently work in the 21st century.
The book gets released. Sometimes with fanfare and sometimes without. Readers get notified through their preferred method. Your website, maybe? A newsletter, maybe? A book blogger, maybe? A notification from your online retailer, maybe? Who knows. It varies from book to book, series to series, writer to writer.
The book might sell five copies its first week. But those high velocity initial sales aren’t that important anymore, and certainly aren’t any indication of where the book is headed.
The book might sell steadily for the rest of the year. Five books per week, ten, one hundred, whatever the threshold is for that author, that series.
Then something might goose the sales. A BookBub promotion. A favorable mention in a major publication. A bundle. Or the book might become the basis for a TV series. It might be the also-ran after someone else’s book becomes the basis for a TV series. (Do you know how many fantasy novels sold better because of Game of Thrones? Hundreds. And all because George R.R. Martin still hasn’t finished his next book.)
Something in the zeitgeist triggered more sales of your book/series. Dragons became the go-to fantasy trope a month or two. Right now, a whole new audience has discovered Regency romance because of the Bridgerton series. An even larger audience has discovered all sorts of Black writers because of the Black Lives Matters movement last summer.
What does this mean for your book, if it gets caught in one of these things? Its sales will rise and rise and then they’ll peak and go down. But the sales will never return to their pre-peak level. Even if you only sold a handful before, you’ll sell a handful plus one at your new plateau.
Once readers have discovered your books—and if you have a lot of product—they’ll read everything you’ve done that looks interesting to them.
Which is the opposite, again, of what traditional publishing taught us. We learned to write the same thing over and over again. “Readers expect dragons from you,” some idiot would say, “so you can’t give them pixies. Readers will flee.”
And that is simply not true—as you all know, because you’re readers as well as writers. True, if readers like your space opera series, they will want more space opera. But a good subset of them will also read your fantasy series. A different subset will read your mystery series. And a different subset (larger or smaller, depending on your voice) will read everything you publish. Every. Single. Word.
Becoming the biggest author in the world was always hard, but it’s become harder now that there are more available books, as well as easily accessible backlist.
But…you can have a healthy career with a core audience that slowly grows. You need to nurture that audience by releasing more work, and letting your audience know it’s there.
The hard part, for those of us raised in that post-World War II world, is letting go of the expectation of high sales right off the bat. We also have to remember that our sales will compound. Our latest book’s best sales year might be five years from now.
We have to nurture our backlist and make sure that our books are available in as many different formats and markets as possible. Then we let them grow, and let the sales accumulate.
That’s the hard part. And it’s going to be harder for everyone from now on, because the changes caused by 2020 will have an impact not just on indie writers, but on traditionally published writers. Only they’re kinda sorta screwed. Because the companies they signed on with were built with velocity in mind. The entire business model for those companies is based on a lot of sales of new books very fast.
I don’t think that most of them will be able to switch (easily) to the dribs and drabs model. Lots of books selling a handful of copies each week isn’t sustainable for them. So traditionally published writers have really joined what is, essentially, a system in which success is based on winning the lottery.
The pandemic changed the habits of millions of readers. Online sales grew 43% in 2020, as measured through October. Ecommerce (all things sold online) grew 32.2% over 2019 during the holiday season.
As those of us who’ve done online shopping for more than a decade know, once you’ve started buying online, you continue to do so. The convenience alone helps. But also, a world of goods is at your fingertips.
The problem has always been to get new people into the ecosystem. We had figured it would be a slow growth, as it has been for the past decade. But 2020 changed that. People who couldn’t leave the house because they were vulnerable learned how to order everything online, from books to groceries.
Economists see this trend continuing, particularly with those over 50. Their online purchases grew a whopping 49% over 2019 and — I love this number— their frequency of purchases grew 40%. In other words, they didn’t just buy one thing online (which would have put them in that 49% number). They returned and bought more things online.
Deborah Weinswig of Coresight Research told The Washington Post that she believes the ease of online shopping will keep those consumers online—with a slight twist:
There’s going to be a lot more mixing and matching: “Maybe I want to go to the store to squeeze my own vegetables, but I’ll get non-perishables and dry goods delivered.”
Or, as a friend said recently, everyone cooks at home, but that doesn’t stop them from going to a restaurant now and then. In other words, the brick and mortar bookstores will remain, but online shopping will dominate.
We have to change our dusty 20th century mindsets. If we want to survive as writers in the 21st century, our business plans need to reflect the new way that the world shops, post pandemic.
For years, I kept expecting the change happen slowly over this decade. But the pandemic accelerated it. The pandemic accelerated and changed a lot of things, some of which I can’t see yet.
But the one thing that has become clear in my cloudy crystal ball is this: We now have the opportunity to sell worldwide online (print and ebook and whatever format we can think of) to a wider audience than ever before.
I think the biggest roadblock to those sales isn’t the customer or even the online retailer. It is us. We have to believe that the new way of doing business is going to last. We also have to learn how the model will work.
Most importantly, we have to toss our 20th century expectations. The world has (obviously) changed. Our expectations need to change as well.
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“Business Musings: Uncertain Times,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2021 by Maria Mahar and Thomas Strich.