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.

In Your Corner: Getting Started With Amazon Sales Rankings

online sales rankings ratings reviews

What are online sales rankings, specifically Amazon sales rankings, and what do they mean for you, a self-publishing author?

This is the question I’m going to set out to answer, at least in part, for you today.

Amazon, of course, has their own page and definition dedicated to sales rankings:

Best Seller and Category Ranks are based on customer activity – sales and borrows – of your book relative to the activity of other books. A book ranking #1 in Mystery & Thrillers is the book with the most activity in Amazon’s Mystery & Thrillers category. Books can appear in up to three categories. The book’s rank in each category will show under the Product Details section. Activities that may not be an accurate reflection of customer demand, including promotional Amazon Giveaway sales and purchases that are later returned, are not counted towards sales rank.

Rankings are updated hourly but may take 24-48 hours to appear. Rankings reflect recent and historical activity, with recent activity weighted more heavily. Rankings are relative, so your sales rank can change even when your book’s level of activity stays the same. For example, even if your book’s level of activity stays the same, your rank may improve if other books see a decrease in activity, or your rank may drop if other books see an increase in activity.

When we calculate Best Sellers Rank, we consider the entire history of a book’s activity. Monitoring your book’s Amazon sales rank may be helpful in gaining general insight into the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and other initiatives to drive book activity, but it is not an accurate way to track your book’s activity or compare its activity in relation to books in other categories.

The ranking for books with consistent activity histories that have been available on Amazon for a long time may fluctuate less than the ranking of new books, or books whose histories aren’t as stable. One sale of a very popular book may not influence its rank much at all, but one sale of a lower volume book may significantly improve that book’s rank.

Note: Each available format of your book (eBook, paperback) has its own independent Amazon Best Sellers Rank.

This is a lot to parse, but the main points to remember are these:

  • Your sales ranking is essentially an attempt to quantify your book’s popularity;
  • The release of new books, awards announcements, and book club recommendations (among many other factors) means that new books are always climbing the rankings, while others are dropping in the rankings at the same time—it’s a constant balancing act, and sales rankings are relative;
  • Even if you sell the same number of copies each month, your sales ranking will rise and fall dependent on factors outside of your control. As I mentioned in my last post, there are yearly rhythms to book sales that mean you need to sell more books at certain times just to maintain the same ranking relative to other months when book sales are lower for everyone;
  • Blockbuster books are constantly battling it out for the upper sales rankings in every category, and rankings mean less to popular books because they have other avenues to selling a lot of books. But for new books, indie publications, and self-published books? Sales rankings mean a lot more, because even one or two sales can boost an author’s sales ranking, and as a result, boost their visibility, which will itself boost sales. It’s a feedback loop that can work to your advantage.

Amazon also has a page dedicated to giving its sellers a larger-picture idea of what their sales figures represent, and that’s worth checking out as well if you sell on the website.

But what about the stuff that Amazon isn’t saying about its sales rankings?

Any number of websites out there at any point in time are happy to claim that they’ve “cracked the code” or “tamed the algorithm” or can help you “game the system,” but the fact of the matter is, most of them are offering something more along the lines of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) advice, which is totally well and good, but not quite the same thing as delivering on a promise to make Amazon’s system work for you.

At its core, Amazon is a business which is driven by its bottom line, which is to say, eking every possible profit out of both its customers and its third-party sellers. Their algorithm code is not fully public, and while we can speculate about ways to improve sales rankings, it’s entirely Amazon’s right to code their algorithm to ignore the little sales and boost the visibility of popular items, including those blockbuster book sales that I mentioned earlier. It’s not actually in their best profit-driven interest to be fair, even though it’s certainly in their profit-driven interest to discover new niche markets—which they often do by measuring how many readers access titles through their Kindle Unlimited offering—a service which rarely profits the authors themselves, as authors themselves often point out. All this is to say, we don’t actually know how sales rankings work, other than what Amazon itself has told us, and Amazon has more than one horse in the race to make money.

Next time, I’m going to look at what we know about preorders and how they affect sales rankings—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.

In Your Corner: An Unstoppable Summer

I promise not to get too Shakespearean in this post.

Promise!

This morning, I was puttering around in my basement watering some seedlings I’m getting ready for hardening off, and my cat started to get reaaaaally interested in one of the window wells on the side of the house. These are the sort that are lined in corrugated steel and are covered with metal bars for security (and to keep pets, etc. from falling in!). Like this:

This is not my basement. There’s no way I’m showing off all the boxes down there.

My seedlings are stacked on rising shelves by the window well receiving the most sunshine each day (in this house, it faces roughly east––just a quirk of the landscape around the house), and I have my work desk by another. A third is more or less inaccessible because someone (I won’t name who … but that person knows how I feel about it!) keeps every single cardboard box ever to hit our front porch. The fourth window well belongs to the cat. She will sit on the windowsill for hours at a time, looking up through those bars. I’m trying not to think too hard about the symbolism.

Small, scared kitten in a shelter cage. I promise my cat isn’t this sad, even if she sometimes looks like it. Why are cats so good at looking sad?

Now that I’ve set the scene (me, with watering can/repurposed juice pitcher; cat, at window) here’s what happened. My cat started getting that look about her (you know the one! it always spells trouble) and making those chirping noises cats make when they see birds. So I puttered on over and followed her line of sight–and it was a hummingbird!

Friends, I love hummingbirds. They were my mother’s favorite bird, and in the running for mine as well. (Also, there’s this scene in the new David Attenborough documentary on Netflix, Life in Color, where a male hummingbird is showing off for his lady friend that is just … shockingly good. As in, the quality of the filmmaking and the technology used for that documentary is wild. You can see individual hummingbird feathers! Up close! Amazing.) And this is how I discovered that a hummingbird is nesting in our basement window well, on a little ledge created by the window frame, just out of sight.

It’s also how I discovered the reason my cat is obsessed with that window.

The world is waking up around us for real, now. The evening news brings with it weather reports of increasingly unruly spring-summer weather out on the plains, the hummingbirds are out, and seedlings are up. High schoolers are on the cusp of graduation. Summer is, quite literally, just around the corner.

With summer comes new plans and changes to rhythms. It’s time to start thinking about big projects, both in and around the home as well as creative projects of the mind. What will you be writing this spring? How will you motivate yourself to sit down and plug away at the computer (or notepad, if you’re classy and not me) on a beautiful cloudless day? How will you schedule your goals and prep for publication?

What will you write? I think I’ll write about my mother, and hummingbirds.

I’d love to hear from you! What do you have going on this summer?

Thinking of you always. ♣︎

Elizabeth
Do you have ideas to share? Please don’t hesitate to drop us a line in the comments section, below.
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.

Self-Publishing News: 5.18.2021

news from the world of
self-publishing

There has been a lot of news lately regarding self-publishing and politics, specifically how it is providing a publishing haven for those individuals that have been rejected by the Big Four traditional publishing houses (Penguin Random House/S&S, Hachette, Macmillan, and HarperCollins as of May 2021; PRH has already begun the process of absorbing Simon & Schuster). At first glance, this news isn’t a surprise, as self-publishing has always been the place where authors previously seeking traditional book deals turn after finding them too constricting or flat-out unavailable. What’s different this time is how the choice, repeated regularly and often by high-profile politicians or those affiliated with politicians, has set up self-publishing to be cast as partisan: right now, those affiliated with the conservative right are self-publishing, while those affiliated with the conservative left are championing traditional publishing. Or at least, that’s how news outlets are covering the various happenings. This article from Fischer and Rummler of Axios outlines the sequence of events that has led up to this situation, and holds back from drawing too many conclusions. It is to be hoped that these same news outlets will also cover the critical role that self-publishing has played in providing a platform for diverse and marginalized voices of all kinds for decades, and steer clear of judging the many thousands of such writers who continue to self-publish today.

Time for a palate-cleanser! This article from Forbes contributor J.J. Hebert is not quite what it looks like, as it’s most definitely an argument for self-publishing. (Many articles that start with “Don’t X before X” end up being arguments against X.) Hebert, CEO of a self-publishing company and a self-publishing author himself, covers five critical aspects of the process that lay the groundwork for a solid start for those authors who have not yet taken the leap. His questions cover everything from quality control and editing to format options to identifying target readers to selecting a self-publishing platform that fits an author’s needs. It’s a fantastic and fairly concise introduction to much of the architecture required for a solid self-published success.

It has been a rough year for those who love (or whose success depends on) book fairs. Thankfully, many companies have been working hard to adapt to the post-pandemic world, and Publishers’ Weekly is hosting its inaugural PW US Book Show from May 25-27. They’ve updated their website with a list of participating virtual “booths,” and you can find out plenty more about pricing information and how to participate [ here ] and [ here ]. This virtual book show is intended to fill part of the vacuum left behind after the cancellation of so many in-person bookish events, and to provide librarians and booksellers (and those affiliated) with access to information to assist in connecting readers with their books. As with many other book fairs, though, the general public is invited to attend. It will prove to be an interesting experiment!

This much-needed article from Book Riot provides a straightforward and comprehensive explanation of what both traditionally and self-published authors make, on average, from their books each year. It also provides a nice breakdown of what all the complicated terminology means, which is just as important. And finally, it also profiles fifteen authors from all kinds of backgrounds and from both spheres of publishing who were willing to share data on what they make. Article author Sarah Nicolas refrains from sharing most of their identities (Jim C. Hines is an exception), and notes that none of the big “blockbuster” authors (think Grisham, Rowling, Quinn, etc) shared theirs. But even beyond the fascinating data we find the stories of how the finances fit into individual authors’ lives most revealing of all. Given the range of authors who participated, there should hopefully be at least one that can provide insight and context for new authors looking to break in to the publishing world. Would you need to pay for medical insurance out of your book earnings if you wrote full-time? Do you plan to write as a side-job? How much, after taxes, do you need to achieve your financial goals? What does your schedule look like? Each author Nicolas interviewed has something different to share.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is spa-news.jpg
As a self-publishing author, you may find it helpful to stay up-to-date on the trends and news related to the self-publishing industry.This will help you make informed decisions before, during and after the self-publishing process, which will lead to a greater self-publishing experience. To help you stay current on self-publishing topics, simply visit our blog each month to find out the hottest news. If you have other big news to share, please comment below.