The Supply Chain – A Problem and Opportunity

The Supply Chain - A Problem and Opportunity

You might’ve heard how this holiday season, it might be more difficult for readers to get the books they want. Blame the international supply chain.

A supply chain is a system that a product goes through to go from raw materials and labor to a product delivered to the end customer. With a book, a manuscript is turned into physical books and ebooks for readers. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this process has been complicated.

The exact causes vary, with CNN and Vox having comprehensive articles. In summary, there’s a book shortage because of the following reasons:

  • increased demand for at-home delivery due to more shoppers staying inside and ordering online
  • increased demand during the holiday season, an already busy time of year amplified by delivery being at all-time high levels
  • increased demand for books because of consumers staying indoors and returning to literature
  • shortage of paper because of environmental concerns and increased need for cardboard in multiple industries
  • shortage of workers because of the pandemic, especially in transportation
  • lack of printing plants in the United States, especially after years of factories closing
  • commercial ship congestion at seaports. And yes, that includes the one ship that went viral after getting stuck in the Suez Canal.

The result? The supply chain has a traffic jam. Demand is high, and supply is low.

Book publishers wait in line for their titles to be printed and shipped at a time where readers want books more than ever. Booksellers and book stores can’t stock enough copies, publishers are postponing releases, and readers contend with delayed deliveries and more expensive shipping and handling.

Ask publishing professionals, and they’ll say it’s hard to overstate how much this is A Big Problem.

But even with these issues, you as a self-publishing author can find opportunities to adapt.

For instance, self-publishing authors can still get their books out there in ebook format. While electronic books still require work to convert a manuscript into a readable format, they don’t require paper, they can be read on devices that most people already own, and readers can buy and download them in seconds.

With these benefits, you can essentially skip the supply chain line and get your book to readers months before traditional publishers. This is an opportunity for new authors, because there’s an influx of new readers looking for stories to fall in love with.

What if you still want your book in print? While the publishing industry thought that ebooks would supplant physical books, printed books continue to outsell their electronic counterparts, even as ebooks are here to stay. With the two formats coexisting, a successful author shouldn’t rule out either.

Self-publishing authors can still get paper copies through print-on-demand (POD) books.

Traditionally, books were manufactured in large print runs, requiring a lot of money up front and a lot of sales to justify the endeavor. This gave traditional publishers an edge over self-publishing authors who couldn’t secure both, with the latter only entering the industry with the rise of computers.

More recently, print on demand has emerged as a profitable printing method. With POD, single copies are printed and shipped as individual customers order them. Furthermore, self-publishers can outsource distribution and fulfillment to an outside vendor and focus more on writing and marketing. POD titles can be restocked on a moment’s notice, and self-publishing authors don’t have to risk wasting money on unsold copies.

Because self-publishing authors retain a larger share of their titles’ revenue, they can take advantage of their leaner profit margins to get paper copies to their readers at reasonable prices. Pair POD with a primary ebook model, and self-publishing can thrive even in the middle of the book shortage.

Now, don’t forget about pre-orders.

Traditional publishers, authors, and booksellers are pushing readers to order in advance to more accurately gauge how many books to print and order and better plan around delays.

Self-publishing authors can also find much in making their books available for pre-order. The other benefits of pre-ordering stand, such as giving you time to do book promotion, allowing you to lock in sales before release day, and getting reviewers sooner.

On top of that, pre-orders can help readers receive an e-book automatically on release day or to shorten delivery times for physical books since you can produce and ship a physical copy beforehand.

Finally, the book shortage is one more opportunity for self-publishing authors to connect with readers. Some readers may not understand the book shortage’s severity, so you can use your social media platforms to practice transparency with why you may encourage them to be flexible with pre-ordering or buying ebooks.

If you’re honest about your situation, your readers will gain a higher appreciation of the publishing process, and your readers will be more invested in your career.

It’s easy to panic about the messed-up supply chain, but don’t let it scare you from self-publishing. The book shortage will remain in the short term, even as experts predict that supply chain congestion will decrease in 2022. The publishing industry has proven itself durable over decades of downturns, and it will survive the pandemic.

In the meantime, see the shortage as a challenge that will push you to grow as an author and a self-publisher. With a growth mindset, you can frame the supply chain problem as another interesting time in which to write and publish.

Pitfalls of Grammar Checkers

Grammar checkers, sometimes known as spell checkers, have the power to correct typos (misspelled words) and grammar errors in your writing. These days, you can find grammar checkers with almost anywhere where you can type words: word processors like Microsoft Word, online apps like Google Docs, and even online browser extensions like Grammarly.

But while grammar checkers can be for zapping typos in your texts or personal messages, don’t over-rely on them in your professional writing. Grammar checkers are not enough when self-publishing a book.

Your self-publishing author career relies on you building a team of editors and other professionals to assist you and your book. In this endeavor, it’s good to understand why computers are yet to replace human editors, and why it’ll likely stay this way.

Here are some pitfalls of grammar checkers that you can fall into when you rely solely on them, instead of hiring an editor.

Grammar checkers can miss grammatically correct errors.

You may use the wrong word, and because that word doesn’t cause a grammar issue, your grammar checker won’t flag the culprit.

Assume that you have a character named Mr. Petersen, not Peterson. You may write this sentence:

“Mr. Petersen will read the proposal and get back to you by Friday.”

Here’s a rewritten version that uses a different but incorrect spelling of his last name, but doesn’t trigger my grammar checker:

“Mr. Peterson will read the proposal and get back to you by Friday.”

See the difference? What if a reader notices that you spelled the same character’s name two different ways? You may get a bad review for poor editing.

While modern grammar checkers may flag the most misused word choices, you must check between the gaps for mistakes that the grammar checker misses, because you know your manuscript better than your computer.

Grammar checkers can interfere with your writing voice and style.

How many times have you typed a real word, only for the grammar checker to flag it as a typo?

Grammar checkers can wrongly flag new words, alternate spellings, and uncommon names. Names can be a particular sore point, as it’s not a good feeling when your software claims that your first or last name is spelled wrong.

You can address these situations by adding words to your app’s personal dictionary, or right clicking the word and selecting “Ignore.” Even then, your checker’s inaccuracies can distract you with its misplaced colored underlines.

At worst, grammar checkers can nudge you to “correct” sentences and push you from your personal style and toward the app developer’s biases. A skilled writer knows when to put style over “correctness,” and grammar checkers can sabotage these decisions.

Even the best editor needs a second pair of eyes.

Here’s a saying among lawyers: He who represents himself has a fool for a client. You can say the same thing about authors without editors.

Editors who publish their own book have an editor too, because they know that even the best editor needs a second pair of eyes.

A writer can be vigilant with using a grammar checker while editing. That said, a writer’s proximity to the work is a double-edged sword, as it’s easy to pass over mistakes that a second reader might spot.

Do yourself a favor and get a second reader to double-check your edits. And sometimes, even more.

Grammar checkers can’t do high-level editing.

Maybe you are the best grammar checker in the world, and you can check your writing perfectly. That’s not enough.

“Editing” can refer to different levels. Typically, a grammar checker only handles mechanical editing / light copyediting, checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Other levels of editing include:

  • proofreading to check what the manuscript will look like in print and ebook formats
  • heavy copyediting to correct non-grammatical errors and inconsistencies, such as style and word choice
  • line (or substantive) editing to check the tone and flow of paragraphs and chapters
  • fact checking to uphold creditability in non-fiction books and verisimilitude in novels
  • developmental (or structural) editing to revise a book’s more “macro” elements, like chapter order and the book’s big ideas

Some professional authors hire one editor for most of these editing levels. Others may hire separate roles, such as a developmental editor alongside a copyeditor.

You may also need other readers that don’t necessarily edit, but help you shape your story. For example, you can hire a sensitivity reader to check your manuscript for potentially offensive and inaccurate content, like with race or indigenous culture.

No matter what, even the most well-used grammar checker can only handle a narrow section of editing. For other levels, you must get an editor or other reader.

While technology is pivotal to the modern writing process, no app or tool can replace the human touch of an editor.

When you give your book to an editor, don’t think of it as admitting failure, but as your showing respect to your professionalism as an author and your manuscript’s potential.

Leave the grammar checker for your personal Facebook profile and give your book an editor.

What’s your experience with spell checkers and grammar checkers? What are some other pitfalls you can think of? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

In Your Corner: Getting Started With Amazon Sales Rankings (Part II: Pre-Orders)

online sales rankings ratings reviews

Last time I wrote, I sought to answer one very important question for self-publishing authors: What are online sales rankings, specifically Amazon sales rankings, and what do they mean for you, a self-publishing author? I spent some time tackling the definitions of and usefulness of sales rankings to the average indie author, and set out to debunk another question as well: What about the stuff that Amazon isn’t saying about its sales rankings? Which, as it turns out, is a lot. Pretty much everything, in fact!

In summary, Amazon is a business and its sales rankings, like its search algorithms and its “if you liked [x] you might also like [y]” algorithms, are both private and proprietary. Which means they don’t have to disclose what human and algorithmic assumptions are built into the process—what fundamental things Amazon believes about the way you, and all people, work. Quite apart from the potential for unconscious (or sometimes conscious) biases to perpetuate things like racism, sexism, and other -isms—especially if leadership and oversight isn’t constantly and thoughtfully looking out for such things—the fact remains that algorithms such as those used to determine sales rankings can be helpful, but require a significant human component in order to work in your favor.

This week, I’m going to ask (and hopefully answer) another important and related question:

What is the relationship between pre-orders and your sales ranking—and how can you make this relationship work for you?

preorder

Pre-orders can actually have a negative effect on your sales ranking—at least during the first week or so after your book launches. This is because pre-order sales are more spread out, and their dates of transaction will not be lumped together with the other books sold during your first week, even though the actual physical or digital books will be distributed at the same time as your first-week sales. And the more you sell in a short amount of time, the higher your sales ranking will be during that period. Others have written and spoken very eloquently on this first-week problem, so I won’t go into detail about it here, other than this quick summary.

There are other reasons why pre-orders are a good idea, and these deserve a little bit of your time and attention as well. Just to name a few, opening up your book for pre-orders provides you with a promotional opportunity that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and provides an actionable way for readers to purchase your book right away when they first hear about it, rather than requiring them to wait and plan to buy your book later—as we all know, instant gratification may not be a human ideal, but it is a very human reality. If readers can’t buy your book the first time they hear about it, many of them are liable to forget about it altogether. A pre-order option means that during your heaviest promotional period before your book launch, you can get your readers to commit to a purchase even though they’ll have to wait for delivery. You can then spread your pre-order link around all of your various social media platforms and digital presences, ensuring that it’s easy to find your book paired with your name everywhere it appears.

And yes, a pre-order period also allows you time to refine your promotional materials. It’s one thing to edit and edit away before your book launch, but a soft release like a pre-order allows you to test your language in the field and see how readers and potential buyers respond … and then make changes as you go to better appeal to them. This holds true for any advertising or website monetization you might run during the pre-order period, as well.

The biggest benefit to a self-publishing author of making pre-orders available is the reviews! Normally, a book can’t be reviewed on Amazon before it’s available for purchase, distribution, and arrival. (Goodreads allows reviews as soon as a book is listed.) But with pre-orders, a huge chunk of your readership will receive your book on the first day it’s out, and you’ll start getting reviews immediately. Reviews are the most powerful marketing tool of all!

So, while your pre-orders can negatively affect your Amazon sales ranking, it’s only for a few days, and it will only truly make a difference if you don’t make use of the pre-order period for the aforementioned optimization. Pre-orders can in many ways prove a useful training ground for promotion and marketing, meaning that your book launches to higher acclaim and attention than it would otherwise. It’s wise to see the larger relationship in context.

Next time, I’m going to look at what we know about Amazon’s other algorithms—so check back in two weeks for more on this fascinating and important subject!

online sales shopping cart

You are not alone. ♣︎


Elizabeth

ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 20 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Director of Sales and Marketing for Outskirts Press. The Sales and Marketing departments are composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

Book Publishing and Covid: Be Aware, Be Nimble, Pivot

Lots of authors feel pulled to write to trends. When the Harry Potter and Twilight series were hot, slush piles (the towers of manuscripts at publishing houses for editorial assistants to read) were filled with wizards and werewolves. During the heart of the pandemic, did you feel compelled to put aside any dreams of writing a travel guidebook and instead start wondering if you could pull off writing a breadmaking cookbook? Did you think, “Finally, my book on mulching, now that people have time to think about mulching, will find an audience!”

Homemaking books, children’s books (both for escapist fun and for at-home education), and “‘fat’” books, “‘those books that everybody is supposed to have read but perhaps hasn’t,’” all saw great sales during the pandemic, while few were buying books on foreign languages and business, at least, not on business as usual.

But here’s the thing with trends, be they fashion, pedigree dogs, or books: as soon as they exist, they’re already out the door. Consider travel guides during the pandemic. While sales of those had declined 40 percent year to date in May 2020, sales also saw four consecutive weeks of growth that same month. Not as many travel books were purchased in January to May 2020 as in that same period in 2019, but the 2020 numbers didn’t continue to fall. Instead, people started buying guides for the travel they could do—like regional travel by car or bike. Guides to parks and campgrounds saw their sales increase by 123 percent in May 2020.

So, the key is not to write to some vague trend but to be aware and nimble, willing and able to pivot quickly and assuredly.

According to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales through retailers, “it won’t be demand that determines the industry’s future.” Instead, book publishing will be thinking about the stability of the channels that sell (for example, bookstores, online booksellers) and deliver (for example, print-on-demand facilities) books. It will even more closely monitor any crises in the world, and it will think about how its current capital and resources can be put to the best use during the next rainy day. In other words, the book publishing industry is thinking not in trends but in big-picture solutions that can apply under any condition—it is thinking how to be aware, be nimble, and pivot.

Here are three broad areas you as an author should be making A, B, and C plans in:

  1. What’s your topic? If X, Y, or Z happens and negatively affects your topic, how could you easily adjust while staying true to your expertise and interest?
  • Are you open-minded about formatting? EBooks have become standard alongside print, and some books are published only as electronic books, but should you consider making an audiobook as well? Audiobook revenue in the US rose 12 percent in 2020 over 2019 sales figures, but that wasn’t a pandemic blip. The audiobook industry has seen double-digit increases for nine years in a row. There’s a lot to consider about taking that plunge, but it’s worth the consideration, at least.
  • Are you comfortable with all kinds of sales and marketing approaches? Can you give a successful reading in-person and over video calls? Do you know your local booksellers, so they can sell your title, even without the benefit of customers in their stores? Are you familiar with all the different types of people who are putting your books in the hands of readers? If independent stores, libraries, or big-boxes (both bricks-and-mortar and online) stumble for any reason, what do you need to do to direct readers to one of the others? (And don’t forget relative newcomers including Bookshop.org, which picks up all books distributed by Ingram. It did $51 million in sales in 2020—which just happened to be its first year.

Book Publishing and Covid: Quick to Fear…and Quick to Rebound

Back in March 2020, the book publishing industry was scared.

Of course it was—the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was scary in general. Many of us were washing our groceries, and we were told not to see even our closest of friends. No industry but those that produced toilet paper and hand sanitizer seemed certain to survive.

No one knew if there would be supply-chain issues for paper or if people would have money for books or even the capacity to leisurely read them. Not even the World Wars closed bookstores, yet suddenly in 2020, all the shops were shuttered.

In May 2020, the New York Times reported that total US book sales in March of that year were down 8.4 percent from March 2019. Bookstore sales were down by more than 33 percent.

But just as quickly, the industry was rebounding. In that same Times article from the pandemic’s early days, we could already see signs of recovery, with readers buying up commercial fiction and children’s nonfiction. The downturn was largely from a decrease in educational sales, the Times said, but that made sense—schools were closed. Even with indie bookstores closed, people bought books from big boxes deemed essential and remaining open. And sales of paper books for the week ending May 9, 2020, rose 10.5 percent over the previous week. A year later, the World Economic Forum reported that the US trade and consumer book industry grew 9.7 percent in 2020.

A lot has happened in this past year and a half. It can be easy to forget some of the details of what was normal, what wasn’t normal, and what became normal. Now that you’re lightly up to speed on what we just lived through, look for tomorrow’s post on being proactive, not just reactive, as an author in the book publishing industry. If anything is for sure now, it is that we can’t trust anything, not even our trusty books, to stay exactly the same forever.