I find that when chaos descends, knowledge can help you rise your head above water. In this case, I don't mean the knowledge that comes with checking social media and news channels every chance we get! I mean information specific to our situation as authors. By arming ourselves with knowledge, it can help us wrestle back some control by either putting our minds at ease or highlighting what actions we need to take.
So I've decided to address the specific worries we as authors are grappling with at the moment related to sales, worries which my fellow writers have shared with me in the Savvy Writers' Snug, the Facebook group I run for published authors.
Have people lost their appetite for reading during this crisis?
As with any crisis which has an economical impact, there's always the fear book sales will take a hit. Add this to the fact readers are trying to grapple with their own personal challenges so might not have the headspace to read, many authors have been wondering how this will affect sales.
As one author told me: "At the back of my mind there is the question 'Are people even going to be bothered about books any more?' It's hard enough in normal circumstances to get people's interest and to get noticed."
But the editors and agents I spoke to were very clear in their belief that while people are adjusting to this new way of life at the moment, reading is still the sanctuary they've always relied on.
As Isobel Akenhead, associate publisher at Bookouture, put it: “We feel very strongly that, like never before, people are going to need stories to provide hope, joy, and much-needed escapism.”
I've seen this for myself in the messages I've been getting from readers about my latest novel.
So yes, the appetite is still there. Even if we ourselves don't feel like reading, or the people we know don't, it's clear there are readers out there who are still reading, and reading a lot.
This was demonstrated the week before lockdown (wb 16 March) where book sales shot up as people went shopping in preparation for lockdown. Fiction paperback sales saw a third of an increase. In a recent tweet, literary agent Jonny Geller backed this up, writing: 'Interesting to see that the Fiction market is up by 32% on this week last year and, coincidentally, 32% on just last week. Sales coming from a range of titles. At time like this, we escape into stories.'
So let me say it again: let's feel confident the appetite is still there for many readers.
Will physical book sales drop?
The problem we face though is whether book retailers can feed that appetite. For readers who prefer to read paperbacks and hardbacks, I'm going to be honest: retailers are beginning to really struggle and I'm hearing we might see that reflected in physical book sales over the coming weeks.
It's not just that physical bookstores have had to close. Even retailers which remain open, such as supermarkets and WHSmith, are not prioritising physical book sales.
The same goes for online retailers. Take Amazon, for example. As I write this, buy buttons for paperback and hardback books are disappearing so the retailer can prioritise other items in our fight against Covid-19 (though I hear Amazon hasn't cancelled ordering physical books from publishers so this is a temporary measure). Waterstones is experiencing problems fulfilling orders of physical books and sites like Hive and Gardners are now closed, as reported by The Bookseller. This is due to concerns over worker safety and demands on the postal system.
So as optimistic as we try to be, there's no point denying it: physical book sales probably are going to take a hit, and all the editors and agents I've spoken to have confirmed this fear.
So let's not dwell on that for now. It's out of our control. Let's look at some positives...
Will digital sales be effected?
Yes... and in a good way. Remember, there are no barriers to download. It's an automated system once your book is available for download. No people are needed. No physical deliveries are needed. As my agent Caroline Hardman of Hardman & Swainson told me: "While a decline in physical sales is a safe assumption, hopefully this will be mitigated by digital sales."
The editors I've spoken to clearly anticipate this too, all of them confirming efforts are being made to make the most of ebook and audio sales.
Phoebe Morgan, editorial director at HarperCollins UK, told me: "We are working very hard to optimise our metadata on our key titles – so ensuring readers can find them as easily as possible online whilst the physical bookshops are closed. This means we are putting more work than usual into pricing and analytics, and at HarperCollins we have a dedicated team for this so it’s all working really well. We are putting more work into how we can make ebooks and audiobooks perform well, and how we can support retailers such as Amazon and Waterstones by driving our readers to visit their online stores."
Isobel Akenhead of Bookouture added: "The advantage of the digital model is that it can function broadly in exactly the same way as it ever has, so we do not need to implement any change right now to keep getting great books into the hands of the readers who need them."
What about overseas sales?
This depends what stage countries are at in their fight against this pandemic. If they're in lockdown like us with stores closed, we'll see similar issues for those physical sales.
However, Rights Director at Hardman & Swainson, Thérèse Coen, had some interesting positive thoughts on the digital market abroad: "Southern Europe has traditionally not been a big e-book market but that could change, which would be a positive, and would mean they keep buying books in order to publish with an emphasis on the e-market. Audio books are already huge in countries like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, so they are probably going to see a further increase in sales on that front."
So this is another positive to take away from this.
What about the long-term impact on sales?
Nobody really knows. But we're already seeing some promising news from China, which is now beginning to see life return to normal. In a letter to authors, illustrators and translators, Hachette c.e.o. David Shelley wrote: "We have just started receiving increased book orders from China again after several months of very low orders—so it feels hopeful that they are out of the worst of the virus, and that at some point we will be too."
Keep reminding yourself: this is temporary. Of course, the long term ramifications are still to be seen on the economy but as Joanna Penn said in her most recent podcast: this isn't the zombie apocalypse. People recover from Covid-19 and return to work. There will be a peak then a fall. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
So what do I need to do to help my book sales?
I personally think it's simple. 1. Write. 2. Focus on digital sales.
I'll look at finding the focus to write in another post. But let's look at how to make the most of digital sales now.
This doesn't mean feeling pressured to suddenly go all gun-ho when it comes to ebook and audio sales. You have enough on your plate right now and as Caroline Hardman told me: "Ultimately it’s the publishers’ role to deal with this so ask your publishers what they’re doing to shift focus on digital sales and promotions."
So that's a good start: ask your publisher what they're planning to do to make the most of your digital sales. Things they can do include:
Many of these tools will be saved for new releases so definitely worth asking if your book is about to be released. It might also be worth bringing this up in chats with your publisher even if you haven't got a new release. But remember, they too are working from home and juggling demands so be patient and kind. Don't bombard them with demands.
There are some steps you can take personally though. These include:
A final thought on mindset
For some authors, it'll be hard to accept your physical book sales may need to take a backseat for a few weeks. If you usually see strong physical sales, then you will want to hold on tight to that and not let readers who only read physical copies down.
But the fact is, it's getting harder and harder to get hold of physical copies at the moment and I predict we will see this reflected in the charts over the coming weeks. I may be wrong. Either way, there is a whole world of ebook readers out there who are waiting to discover you.
This means wrapping your head around the digital market. So if you've previously had a sniffy attitude to low ebook prices or free books (and by free, I don't mean pirated illegal free books, but books from your backlist carefully chosen to use as 'magnets' to draw readers to buy your other books), it's time to do some learning. These strategies work so well if done properly. They will get your books into readers' hands and money into author pockets to sustain the career we love... something I and many authors I know have learnt.
Also, there's no denying the economy is going to suffer and people are going to lose their jobs. This means our readers will have less money to spend. They will be looking for deals and bargains more than ever before and understanding the ebook market enough to realise a price drop or free book offer isn't going to destroy your career might just be the thing that saves it...