Business Musings: Searching For A Sense of Urgency
As of the writing of this post, I have not yet seen Season 4 of Stranger Things. I decided in May to wait until the entire series dropped so I could binge it. Then I found myself busier than I expected. Dean doesn’t watch Stranger Things, so I need to find time away from reading and writing to watch the entire series.
I skipped three of the most recent Marvel movies—Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder. I kept meaning to go to the theater, and never did. Now that they’re streaming, well, finding 2+ hours seems hard.
I did see Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion in the theaters, only because Big Things That Go Boom movies are always better on the big screen. But in the case of both movies, I saw them well after the opening weekend. In the case of Jurassic World, nearly a month after.
But…Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and For All Mankind have been appointment TV for both me and Dean. For All Mankind, for those of you who have never heard of it, is a terribly named alternate history TV show about the space race. The first two seasons actually deal with what might have happened if women and people of color actually flew for NASA, instead of getting sidelined early on. (Women were training in the early years; NASA sidelined them in 1962 or so.) See what I mean about the terrible name?
The show is amazing and tense and I can’t wait for the next episode. Certain shows catch me like that, just like certain writers do. I received maybe a dozen newly released books over the summer, but only read one the day it arrived — Mary Balogh’s Remember Love. Why hers? I was ready, I guess. And the first sentence caught me.
Otherwise, I’d been reading books that had been released in the early part of the century.
Obviously, this is all unique to me. You probably have other things that are out now or were out earlier in 2022 that you delayed watching/reading/listening to. And then you had things that you waited for and consumed the moment they arrived.
We have an individual sense of urgency about our entertainment. We have always had this. Before we could record live TV, those of us who watched those 4 channels decided which shows to watch live and which ones to skip. We bought books when they were released and put them on our to-be-read pile for later, because we were afraid those books would disappear before we could read them.
If we were library patrons, we put our name on a list for a new book release and hoped it would find its way into our hands before one of our friends spoiled the twist.
And we all flocked to movies that opening week because there was a chance (sometimes a good chance) that the movie might vanish by week two.
Time-shifting, as the industry called using some kind of recording device, changed all of that. Then we could record our favorite shows and watch them in order of preference. Some of us still watched live, but many of us watched when we had a chance. Watching the Nielsen ratings, which tried to get a handle on how many viewers a show had, switch from live to live +24 (as in 24 hours) to live +3 (as in days) to live + 7 and finally live +10 was an exercise in chasing ghosts.
Then streaming started and the big companies released their own statistics with no outside company to verify their claims. To make matters worse, they each used a different system for keeping trace.
For example, Stranger Things premiered on Netflix and both Netflix and Nielsen tried to report the viewership numbers.
Nielsen reports for the U.S. only, and it somehow figured that during the week of May 23, viewers watched 5.1 billion minutes watching Stranger Things. Here’s where the calculation gets weird.
That 5.1 billion just covers Stranger Things—all 3.5 seasons of it. Not individual episodes or even an individual season, although Nielsen reported “that the seven episodes of season four accounted for 4 billion of those minutes, nearly 80 percent of the total.”
Okay, well and good, I guess. Netflix used its unverifiable numbers to say that the show had the best premiere weekend of any English language show. Nielsen tried to put it in context with this number:
The Stranger Things season four premiere had an average viewership of 12.72 million over those three days, based on 966.6 million minutes of viewing time divided by the episode’s 76-minute running time.
That’s just confusing. What does it mean, really, except that your friends who are Stranger Things fans probably watched it. Although…a bunch of mine did like I did and waited until the entire season dropped.
And this might all vary by age and habits. For example, the average age of people who watch Survivor on CBS (the actual network) is 60, and the average age of people who watch it on Paramount + (CBS’s streaming service) is 37.
CBS executive George Cheeks says told Vanity Fair, “We are reaching that unduplicated younger audience in streaming.”
But streaming is changing. From the same article,
Increasingly, streamers are even rethinking one of their most lifestyle-altering inventions: the binge. Instead of dropping an entire series all at once, they’re rationing out episodes weekly as in days of yore, so that viewers have time to digest—and buzz about—each one. One television writer says his teenagers didn’t even understand the concept of appointment TV until the addictive Euphoria began streaming on HBO Max; now they watch it live en masse.
Note that: teenagers didn’t understand the concept of appointment TV until forced into it.
As we’ve been examining in this blog space for some time, the world is truly changing. I developed the blog over a decade ago to help myself understand these changes, and they continue.
Early on in the rise of indie publishing, readers rushed to the latest edition of the latest indie novel because there were so few of them to download on the brand-new Kindle.
Time and peak entertainment has changed all of that.
Now the sense of urgency is entirely with the consumer, and that’s completely frustrating for those of us producing the entertainment for precisely the reasons I outlined above.
No consumer is the same as another consumer. Those teenagers watching Euphoria as appointment TV? I’ll wager that they have friends who don’t give a rat’s behind about the show. Those friends probably have their own version of appointment TV.
Before the internet became a central part of all of our lives, entertainment was rationed by physical distribution. Only so many movies could be in the theaters at one time. Sure, by the end of the 20th century, there were video cassettes and later, DVDs, but that wasn’t the same as seeing a film on opening weekend.
There were only so many TV shows you could record at one time on your DVR or (going farther back) your VCR. You either had to watch something live or give it up entirely before some executive realized that people wanted videocassette tapes of their favorite shows as well as of their favorite movies. Even then, getting those tapes was hard because video stores had limited shelf space and special ordering wasn’t a click away.
Books, too, were limited by shelf space. There were only so many bookstores, and they had only so much room for books. Libraries tossed out titles all the time. If no one had checked out a book in the previous year or two, the book got sold at the discount library sale.
In other words, entertainment had its own built-in sense of urgency. Dean always called it the fake-produce symptom, arguing that books were not bananas. Books don’t spoil just because they’ve spent a few weeks on a shelf.
The problem was, back in the day, that those shelves were needed for new books, so there was a constant churn.
We as consumers got used to that, and we kept an eye on the entertainment press to tell us what was coming so that we could rush to the bookstore/movie theater to get the latest thing before it vanished.
Executives at media companies were the same way.
When the internet made everything available all the time—your favorite movie streaming whenever you want it, that book by your favorite author ready for download when you have some leisure reading time—that sense of urgency vanished.
For the producers of content. Not for the buyers.
The buyers relaxed a bit. They could make a literal list, either on their devices or with their favorite store, of the things that they want. Amazon has called their version of the list a “wish list” for at least twenty years, and if you want, you can set yours up so that your friends and family can see it and order you something from it.
Consumers don’t have to buy all the things at once. They can wait until they afford the things. Or until they have time to consume it.
I’ve been struggling with my inability to watch Stranger Things. Even commercials have tried to give me spoilers. I’m getting annoyed, but not annoyed enough to get six hours of sleep per night for a week just to watch the show. (Which I might have done if the show had been, to use that quaint phrase, “appointment TV.”)
Streamers are changing their behavior. They’re dropping 3 episodes and then going to weekly releases through the rest of the season. Why three? Because studies have shown that’s enough to get someone hooked on a series. By the end of episode three, you know what direction the show is going and who the characters are.
That does manufacture some urgency, but not really enough to put it back in the control of the content producers.
Instead, we’re all having to rethink our business model.
Let’s put this in writing terms only. For quite a while, the Amazon Kindle model worked very well. Kindle Unlimited gave readers an all-you-can eat buffet, if they read every month. Other smaller apps allowed writers to serialize works, so that their readers would show up on the day the next section of the book dropped.
But even those things have died off of late. Not because writers have gotten worse, but because the younger consumers—those who were raised in the era of binging and consuming what they want when they want—feel no urgency to buy at all.
They buy only when they’re ready. Or they binge read from their preferred all-you-can-read service when they get to that particular book.
It might not be the latest release. It might not be the latest anything.
There were some writers who made a small fortune in the early years of indie by milking old-fashioned attitudes about getting a book the moment it releases. There are still writers who do a big launch and then let the book sink or swim afterwards.
As I’ve mentioned other places, I think that’s a bad (and old-fashioned) idea.
We as artists can manufacture something of a sense of urgency. We can write in series, so that the new release in that series will get the true fans to buy and read immediately. We can offer incentives so that true fans will buy and receive the book ahead of its release date. We can even make certain books unavailable after a certain period of time.
But if you’re paying attention, you can already see the problems with those things.
True fans are spectacular, but there aren’t as many of them for any product as there are casual fans or new readers. The days when a book could sell multimillions out of the gate to true fans, casual fans, and new readers alike are gone with the limited shelf space. Now it takes time for the book to reach the casual fan, and finding the new reader takes word of mouth.
Limiting a book’s time on the virtual shelf only hurts the writer, not the consumer. Limiting time hurts the writer in two ways. The best way to make money as a writer these days is to play the long game—to have the book available from its publication date until the end of time (or the end of the internet, which ever comes first). Sure, a limited release might get readers to buy the book quickly, but those who don’t get the memo are going to be royally pissed.
Those readers will be vocal and will probably tell the writers in no uncertain terms how the writer has lost that reader forever.
The sense of urgency was in the favor of the content producers for over a century. Now, the sense of urgency belongs to the consumer.
It means that we content producers have to change our mindset. We have to figure out where the urgency still exists.
The streamers are groping their way through that right now. They’re dropping some shows all at once, so that viewers can binge. Mostly, though, they’re doing the three episode drop followed by a weekly drop. Hook the viewer, then have them watch when the episode comes out.
What happens after that? Well, the show remains available so that people who hadn’t heard of it or didn’t have time to watch it before can actually binge on it later.
I’m sure the bean counters in the various streaming services have already figured out a bunch of algorithms for their companies. When Show A gets released, they expect x number of viewers to show up immediately, followed by y number of viewers over time.
Shows that have the possibility of a large number of viewers (whatever the metric for “large” is inhouse) will get a larger advertising budget and might not even have the three-episode drop, especially for season two and three of a series.
I’m also sure that movies and other one-time events have a different metric than those with an already established fanbase.
Earnings will be based on the different kinds of viewership. The immediate viewers will be worth more to the company than the long-tail viewers, but they’ll be worth something too. Some companies, like Disney + and Paramount + are investing in other kinds of programming that will constantly refresh the already existing content. Disney is doing that with Star Wars and Marvel; Paramount + has put a hefty investment into projects associated with its megahit Yellowstone.
Some projects built in sense of urgency. Sports programming retains the highest level of advertising in the industry because most sports fans want to see the games live. Most of the games appear on streaming services, but with advertising. Those that appear without advertising come at a huge premium. Viewers pay extra so that they don’t have to watch commercials at all.
Writers need to plan their business with the same kind of delineation of product. There are the series projects or type of book (genre, maybe) that will get readers to buy immediately, with a long-tail of sales afterwards. Then there are the projects that are a slow build.
There are even projects with a built-in sense of urgency. We have one at WMG Publishing. It’s our Holiday Spectacular, which we’re building over time. There are readers who buy the Calendar of Stories, which appears one story per day throughout the holiday season.
We started it in 2019, and it’s been growing ever since. We do a Kickstarter, which gets people into the project. Once they’re in, they often buy the next year’s for themselves and for a family member or friend.
Still, we do have parts of the Spectacular for people who discover it late or who really don’t want to receive a story per day. Those folks can buy the annual compilation (which releases in July), or the individual genre-based holiday anthologies that we produce every year.
So the project itself has a sense of urgency, but it’s still not like that sense of urgency that existed pre-internet. Most content providers decry that change, because they’re not thinking about the long-tail.
Every book we’ve published since the rise of indie publishing has made more and had more sales than it would have had in old days. In those days, the book had limited earning power because its time on the shelf was limited.
Now, the book has an extended life, and that life isn’t all downhill, as Kate Bush showed us this past July. That book might hit the cultural zeitgeist a decade or more after the first release.
It’s up to us, as writers, to remember that we wrote a book about a topic that’s all trendy now. Then we might want to add a new cover, maybe freshen up the blurb, and even put some advertising muscle behind it, so a whole new generation of readers will find it.
I’m just coming to this realization that the sense of urgency has moved from content provider to consumer. For about eleven years now, I’ve known this shift was happening, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2022 that it really hit me—and that was through conversations with some younger consumers and comments like the one above about the teenagers.
Eleven years ago, all of us had been raised in a world with shelf-space limitations and a sense of buy it now or lose it forever. It took us a long time to let go of that feeling—and some of us never will.
But the generations that have come of age in the past eleven or so years? They never had that sense of urgency. And they’re becoming the dominant consumers.
Their very attitudes are changing the way that entertainment is purchased and consumed.
We can’t force them to buy on our timeline. But we can plan for the changes, recognizing that urgency, like everything else, has become niche. We can manufacture a sense of urgency with a Kickstarter or with a limited pre-release, but we can never achieve that universal sense that existed at the turn of the century.
So we have to plan our businesses accordingly.
We’re still groping for the best way to do so. I suspect that groping will continue for a while yet, as those of us raised in one world try to understand the current world.
I think we’ll figure it out, but it’ll be a group effort.
Or maybe, we just need to start observing our own behavior. My behavior listed at the top of this post isn’t that different from the behavior of someone forty years younger than me. The biggest difference is that I have changed mine. They’re just learning theirs.
It might not be obvious from the post, but I do like this world much, much better—both as a writer and as a consumer. I hated the buy-now-or-miss-it world.
I love that consumers control now. It means we’ll continue to have interesting content and too much of it.
And that, my friends, is a good thing.
If you have any ideas about the way writers can build a sense of urgency, please put it in the comments. If there are apps you know about that promote that urgency (and pay writers), again, put it in the comments. If there’s something that you’ve observed on this topic, add it to the comments.
We all learn from each other, and when the world is changing, we’re all seeing different things. Better to pool our resources than ruminate on it all alone.
Speaking of a sense of urgency, we’re doing a Kickstarter for the Fey right now. It will not last long, so head over and see what cool goodies you can get when you get the new book early. A lot of people seemed to feel the sense of urgency because we hit the ask and the first three stretch goals in less than 12 hours! I’m thrilled. Thank you all so much.
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“Business Musings: Searching For A Sense of Urgency,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / kikkerdirk.