Publishing is a world of constant peaks and valleys. It’s one of the things that makes this industry tough to live in–one month you’re making a living wage, the next you’re eating tuna from the can for a week solid just to keep the lights on. For those of us who live here full time, be it writers, agents, editors, or even publishers, we come to expect this. We know there will be lean times and we plan for them as best we can. One of the things that can cause a nose dive in sales (both retail and sales to publishers) is an election.
Basically, every election year we have a solid three months where the public is bombarded with campaign ads, speeches, political rallies, and sometimes even a scandal or ten. It eats every second of our existence both online and IRL. This isn’t a bad thing. It means we’re engaged and attentive to the process of our government and that’s hugely important. But it’s also why smart folks never release new books near election time (unless they are about the candidates). Because–to be very blunt–there’s no room in the media for it. And without media attention, it’s nearly impossible for a book to really take off (unless it’s by an already hugely popular author like Dan Brown or JK Rowling–and sometimes even then it can be tough).
But usually the election comes and goes, the new president takes office, and things begin to settle back into normalcy. Book sales bounce back, publishers begin acquiring again, and the media once more looks to the arts (books, music, etc) to entertain the masses.
Only this time, that never happened.
This time, after the election the media became even more engrossed with the president and the new administration. Here we are, nearing the end of 2017, and it’s almost impossible to get any buzz going about anything not political. We are overwhelmed with various social movements and online political trends, and it certainly doesn’t help that every day the commander-in-chief tweets his morning BM and manages to say something that causes at least some kind of stir (Covfefe, anyone?).
Even the few amazing (and socially timely) books that did release this year didn’t get nearly the attention they deserved and therefore didn’t achieve nearly the sales they might have otherwise. Any other year and people would still be buzzing about these, but as it is, they ended up with moderate coverage and humble success compared to what they might have gotten even a year ago. Why does that matter? Because publishers rely on those huge blockbuster books to fund the other, smaller releases. It’s how they can afford to invest on a new author or a quirky title that may or may not find an audience. And without it, those smaller books (and by extension authors) dry up.
Not to be all doom and gloom but it seems even mother nature was stacked against us this year with record breaking storms and countless voices crying out for help and aid. I watched as authors, some who I know are struggling themselves, worked tirelessly to raise funds for those in need, and I’ve never been so proud of my community. I have spent a great deal of this year feeling bereft, wanting to help but unsure how, wanting to scream and rage and also to curl up in a ball and cry. But I took those feelings and did what I do best. I made them into words. I put those words on paper and held them out for the world to see.
And I was very, very lucky.
When you release a book, it’s always a gamble. Will people respond to the book, will they see it, will it matter? There’s no way to know. You do your best, you exhaust every avenue that might help people discover your book, but at the end of the day, there’s no guarantees. There’s just you and your book, and more and more book promotion feels like screaming into the wind.
Assault scandals, social movements, political protests, are all very important things, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be focusing on them. We SHOULD know from day to day whether North Korea is threatening to nuke us (again). We SHOULD be using our voices and taking stands against injustices.
But in a Trump-ed up world, is there no room for anything else?
It can’t be healthy for us to be so hyper focused on those negative things that we muffle the sound of emerging art, becasue art is too important for us to allow it to be blocked out. Books and music are a few of the outlets that offer an escape, albeit a brief one, from the constant noise of the world. Our job as writers is to inspire, entertain, and even, on occasion, to challenge the way you think. I, for one, believe that we still need that as a society, otherwise I wouldn’t do what I do. I’m sure we aren’t the only industry impacted by all this, but unfortunately it does make me wonder.
Without the support of the media, can books even survive?
This year we’re seeing across the board drops in book sales, both digital and print. Bookstores are scrambling to maintain their increasingly precarious footing while even digital giants like Amazon are having to reevaluate their sales platforms (and what they pay authors). The competition to get crucial advertising is at a frenzied high, often pitting authors and publishers against eachother in a dangerous game of bidding for shelf space and buying blog posts. Is it any wonder that authors are desperate and feeling the crunch? That indie authors who were once able to rely on their income are now retiring from writing to return to the work force? Just last week I had dinner with an (NYT Bestselling) author friend who admitted that though his publisher was sending him to London for a book event in November, that he was going to have to start driving for UBER at night to make ends meet once he got back.
Color me depressed.
Now, as we head into what is traditionally a ‘busy season’ for book sales (at least print sales), It will be interesting to see if we are able to finally begin pulling out of this rut which has lasted far too long already.
So, for those authors who are struggling, who are scraping for any media attention and visibility they can get, I say…
I honestly don’t know what to say.
I hope that it will get better for you. I hope it will get better for us all. I hope that someday we will again live in a world where we get as much good news as we get bad, have as much fun as we have worry. I hope that people who need your books will find them and that you will continue finding new avenues and means to connect with readers.
And I hope it happens before we all starve to death.