This year has been difficult across the globe and across the book business with the pandemic and its consequences causing disruption for all. In this year in which millions have been made redundant, found themselves quarantined and locked down, been put into financial difficulties, fallen ill, and lost loved ones. Meanwhile, digital reading, writing and publishing all expanded. This is the Alliance of Independent Authors Self-Publishing Review 2020.
This year was anything but average. It was, in the word of the year, (all together now!) unprecendented.
Home life, work life, social life, travel plans: all were disrupted at best, often thrown into turmoil, as societies locked down and economies plunged. New habits and routines had to be established, adjustments to family dynamics had to be made, and for a time many of us struggled to cope with the new conditions and the pervasive feeling of anxiety.
In a lockdown lessons post earlier this year, we concluded:
“As an indie author, you will always need to beg, borrow, or steal the time and space to write and publish. Whatever conditions you need, [you must] do what you need to do to get them, within the confines of your own circumstances.”
No curse or blessing is ever unmixed and as well as setbacks and challenges this year, there have been gains and successes. Some author-publishers have found the lack of distractions a boon for their creativity and production. And digital publishing is one sector of the economy that has seen–ahem!– unprecedented growth.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: Coronavirus Impact
The biggest publishing story of the year was the explosion in digital book sales. Around the globe lockdowns and bookstore closures forced publishers, booksellers and readers alike to look at digital working, digital products and online sales in a new light. Authors who were only selling print books, or only distributing from consignment print runs, had to quickly adjust their business plan to branch out into digital.
Unsurprisingly, physical bookstores took a significant hit, as Jane Friedman reported mid-year.
“The US Census Bureau publishes preliminary estimates of bookstore sales, and even though print unit sales are up according to NPD BookScan, the government report shows bookstore sales declining by 33 percent in March, 65 percent in April, and 59 percent in May. The most obvious explanation for why book publishing continues to perform well as an industry: print sales have drifted to online channels, such as Amazon or Bookshop, and to big-box stores.”
Jane was writing about the US but the same trends were evident worldwide and libraries as well as online retailers saw digital reading explode. One report claims a Parisian library went from 200 borrows a day to 1000.
Kinga Jentetics, CEO of PublishDrive reported a 58% increase in sales for indie authors in October 2020.
“In August, we reported a 69% increase in a one-year time period – 70% of those sales from global markets. As we approach the end of this year, we’re still seeing positive growth rates.”
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 1: Now more than ever, it's important to focus on long-term, digital-based strategies for your author-publishing business and take advantage of the excellent distribution tools available to authors today.
But it's also important to acknowledge that not everyone can just jump to it, and the coronavirus consequences have not affected everyone equally. Those caring for children, vulnerable others, those who are disabled or less able for any reason, have struggled most. Says Dan Holloway, ALLi Self-Publishing News Editor
As a disabled person I found 2020 really difficult. Everything else aside, so much of the advice I’ve seen has made it really clear just how different many people’s lives are from mine.
So what I really want to use this end of year reflection to reassure other people in the same situation. I’ve seen so many “how to keep writing during lockdown” and “how to stay creative in a pandemic” posts. But for some people, any thought beyond “can I make it through today?” just isn’t possible.
The indie writing world can, at any time, be a harsh place for those of us Roz Morris calls “slow writers”. What I want to do is reassure people who’ve had so much to deal with this year that they’ve written nothing. That doesn’t make you any less a writer.
Don’t feel shamed when you look at what anyone else has done. Take from advice columns only what advice nourishes you. And the advice from this column is if you want to write a really great book in 2022, or maybe 2021, then it’s absolutely OK if the best way you can prepare for that now is just by getting through.
ALLi has a coronavirus resources post about the help and support available to indie authors in light of the coronavirus and the impact on author-publishing business and mental wellness. Read more here.
We also have a mid-year post that reflects on the lessons learned from the coronavirus impact. Protecting your mental health as a creative is key, the longer the coronavirus impact continues, the more exhausted we are a species. That's a global exhaustion. We're all running on fumes, and creative practice requires energy.
From a publishing, rather than a writing perspective, we've observed that authors with good business foundations are doing best at this time:
- A website (ideally transactional) (we ran an in-depth post on selling from your author website here).
- An active mailing list (we ran a three-part series on building and sustaining a mailing list which you can see here, here part 2 and here part 3)
- An author-business plan that covers production, promotion, and profits. If you'd like to start taking your business planning more seriously in 2021, you can find out more about a paid creative business planning program on Patreon here.
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 2: Do what you can, but be kind to yourself. Unprecedented conditions are likely to require unprecedented behavior from you.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: Community
Digital didn't just provide ways to sell more books and reach more readers, author and reader communities also had to move online. Zoom is another company that had a great year, as had any company that facilitated online connection.
I'd been looking forward to 2020 as a fresh and exciting start, with a full diary of events and an ambitious writing schedule. All real-life engagements were soon postponed or cancelled, including the annual lit fest I run each April in my village (http://www.hulitfest.com) and numerous speaking engagements away from home.
The author groups I run each month in local bookshops, like so much else, were transposed onto Zoom, but as a tactile extravert (not all writers are introverts!), I really missed the real thing. Although I've been working from home since 2013, the constant undercurrent of stress made me restless and unable to concentrate well into the first lockdown here in the UK.
When my WIP stalled, I reached for a rash solution: I set up an imminent pre-order date on KDP. As a natural last-minuter (nothing increases my productivity like a deadline!), it did the trick, and I published my second novel of the year in July. Then, feeling drained, I curtailed a non-fiction project as I just couldn't get going with it, preferring the safer space of my fictitious worlds where Covid doesn't exist.
Ironically, I also missed isolation. Although temporarily a hermit due to being medically vulnerable, with a husband and teenage daughter in the house I am never alone. I missed my weekly “create-dates” (Orna Ross's recommendation) of taking myself somewhere inspirational to recharge my creative energy. So I was thrilled when my husband took the hint to build me a writing hut at the bottom of our garden – an offline escape capsule where I can be completely alone. He and my daughter both have sheds of their own too, and we all realise how lucky we are to have them.In the meantime, there's the open-all-hours ALLi Facebook forum for those essential water-cooler moments when I crave the society of other authors. Being able to help others while I'm there also lifts my spirits – and reminds me that together we can get through this!
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 3: Don't be alone. Use online resources to get the support and accountability structures you need to survive and maybe even thrive.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: COVID's International Impact
As Mark Williams reported throughout the year in his International Insights column, many emerging markets also began looking seriously at digital publishing for the first time. The pandemic-induced shift to digital has changed the way publishers work, the way booksellers sell, and the way consumers get their reading fix in every corner of the globe, says Streetlib's Mark Williams, editor of The New Publishing Standard and ALLi's International Insights column.
Digital-naysayer nonsense about screen fatigue has been shown to be a fantasy as consumers voted with their feet. In the Nordics, Sweden led the way, with digital now outselling print across the board. Big Bad Wolf, the global reading advocate, went from attracting hundreds of thousands at its in-person book sales to attracting millions to its online sales events.International and national book fairs initially forced to pivot to digital out of desperation suddenly found they had massive new audiences that had been previously locked out. Not least the almighty Buchmesse, where Frankfurt initially insisted only an in-person event would do, then went 100% digital, and immediately after started planning for a hybrid in-person and digital future.It’s hard to find any reports where publishing stakeholders are intending to fully revert to the Old Normal as the pandemic subsides. The digital genie is not just out of the bottle. The bottle has been smashed, the broken pieces swept up, and the genie is partying like it's 2029.
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 4: Authors should go niche and go global to take advantage of this global digital trend. Get outside your own publishing territory and comfort zone. There's a big wide world full of opportunities, it's up to you to find the one that works for you.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: ALLi Publications & Podcast
ALLi created a new membership category this year, for the first time since we launched the organization almost a decade ago. This Organization Membership program is designed to more formally partner with author organizations around the globe, helping us all to better serve our member authors.
We launched the next title in our Publishing Guides for Authors series: 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered: ALLi’s Writing, Publishing, & Book Marketing Tips for Authors and Poets brings author best practice as honed by the experience of answering questions of our members and the thousands of authors, novelists, nonfiction writers and poets who visit ALLi’s Self-Publishing Advice Centre each month.
ALLi members can download their complimentary ebook copy of 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered in the Member Zone. Navigate to allianceindependentauthors.org and log in. Then navigate to the following menu: BOOKS > GUIDEBOOKS. Other formats are available to members and non-members in ALLi’s Bookshop
We also launched a number of short guides, on getting books into libraries, getting more reviews, and using ISBNs correctly.
And (members only) we provided contract agreements to help authors run their businesses.
ALLi's member magazine, The Indie Author(affectionately known as TIA) has gone from strength to strength this year. All ALLi members receive free digital copies of the magazine, three times a year.
At TIA, the keyword is opportunities. Recently, we’ve showcased the many ways that authors are using their membership benefits, and highlighted exciting new alliances with an NYC literary agency in New York and the Publishers Association in the UK, and a new tier of membership that will create links with other professional writing bodies. Plus news, views and interviews from the ALLi team, podcasts, live streams, blog and
To access your copy, log into allianceindependentauthors.org and navigate to PUBLICATIONS > MEMBER MAGAZINE.
We’re already planning the first issue of 2021, which will be packed with advice on increasing your author-business skills.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: SelfPubCon
The annual Self-Publishing Advice Conference (SelfPubCon) took place in October 2020. This year’s theme was Tools & Tech for Indie Authors and included 24 sessions from amazing speakers. ALLi members can access the conference for six months as part of their membership.
The next SelfPubCon will take place on the 3rd and 4th July 2021 alongside The London Book Fair. This conference will centre on Writing Craft and will be our most interactive conference to date! Register for your FREE 3-Day pass here.
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 4: Non-members, stay up to date by signing up for our weekly blog bulletin. We provide authoritative, up-to-date, best-practice advice.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: ALLi Campaigns
This year saw Amazon's Audiobook arm, ACX/Audible called out for the unacceptable lack of transparency with data and the encouragement of audiobook returns which were being charged back to authors. ALLi downgraded Partner Member ACX from “recommended” to “under investigation” then to “caution”, as evidence amassed by author Susan May revealed a pattern of obfuscation and improbity.
Authors and author associations from around the world joined forces to lobby for change and sign an open letter to Audible prepared by the US Authors Guild of America. While Audible did move their position to ensure that returns after 7 days would still be paid to authors, it didn't begin to go far enough. The company needs to:
- Cease the practice of clawing back payments from authors’ accounts when a return is received. This should never come from the author’s (already very low) percentage.
- Make transparent the total number of purchases/returns on author payment dashboards (not net sales silently adjusted for returns).
- Apologise and make reparation
ebook Tax Campaign
Earlier in the year, we heard that the UK government had finally remove the VAT on ebooks and publications. This change was due to come into effect at the end of 2020 but was scrapped seven months ahead of schedule on May 1st in a bid to help those locked down due to coronavirus stay reading.
In real terms, it means that indie authors will see a small increase in royalty earned for all copies of digital books purchased in the UK. Read more about the VAT removal here.
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 5: Support the campaigns of author organizations that are trying to win more kudos, recognition and practical help for indie authors.
Self-Publishing Review 2020: Selective Rights Licencing
The Indie Author Publishing Rights Program was an Alliance of Independent Authors program that aimed to educate and encourage authors to selectively license publishing rights to trade publishers at home and overseas, TV and film producers and other rights buyers.
The program also aimed to open up the rights industry to indie authors through publicly accessible education and coaching programs and services. ALLi’s panel of authors and experts, including Ethan Ellenberg—literary agent—met once a month from September 2019 to March 2020 for coaching sessions recorded on video and posted on YouTube.
It was all supposed to culminate in a meet-up and right pitch session at London Book Fair but COVID intervened.
Self-Publishing Review 2020 Takeaway 5: Indie authors are now selectively licensing rights to trade publishers, with the help of indie-minded agents and by going direct to rights buyers themselves. Check out our guide to how you can do this too
Self-Publishing Review 2020: ALLi Team
Everyone at ALLi is a working indie author as well as a contributor to our non-profit organization. Some also have day jobs, children and other dependents. They are an inspiring bunch, practicing what they teach. For them too, 2020 has been challenging.
Michael LaRonn, ALLi Member Q&A Podcast Co-Host and Outreach Manager
This year has had quite a few ups and downs for me, like most dealing with these hard times right now. While my sales increased, it was difficult to manage work, family, and the writing life. I appreciate ALLi’s resources including SelfPubCon and its 100 Top Tools for Indie Authors. This is a perfect time to improve your skills as a writer and publisher since we’re all stuck at home.
John Doppler, Services Watchdog
It's always a joy to be able to help authors avoid a convincing scam or substandard service, or to resolve a dispute with a company. As authors in lockdown have been working more on marketing and new projects, ALLi's Watchdog Desk has seen a huge uptick in the number of inquiries about publishing service providers. It's been a rewarding year in that regard, with many checkmarks in the “win” column.
On a personal front, it's been a tough year thanks to a difficult bout of COVID-19, but that's countered somewhat by the unexpected success of a hobby-turned-business side project. (Multiple revenue streams for the win!)
I'm looking forward to new opportunities in 2021, and new challenges that don't involve pandemics.
Tim Lewis, ALLi Twitter Chat host
2020 has been a year of frustration, but also of learning. Frustration as I was intending to refocus on in-person conference reviews and services and obviously COVID-19 put paid to that. But also a year of learning as I took the first lockdown as an opportunity to focus on improving, documenting and automating my regular processes, especially on social media. This is something I'm looking to expand into writing and publishing.
I began the year 2020 having just recovered from cancer, so to celebrate, my family and I went on a vacation to the western United States in February. At LAX, just before our flight home, we noticed more and more passengers wearing masks. Turned out, 2020 had other plans for us. By the time we got home, the pandemic hit and we were all locked down for the duration. We still are, with my two sons going to school from home and with both my wife and I working from home. It turned out, though, that many authors decided to work on their manuscripts during lockdown, which was good news for my editing business.
In addition, as host of the Inspirational Indie Authors podcast for ALLi, I found more authors available for interviews as everybody adjusts to life and work at home. I suspect that even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, I will continue to expand my work at home.
Then, again, as much as I love my family, it is possible they will insist I go work at an office!
This has been a strange old year for me. My son was off school from March through to the middle of September because we relocated 70 miles away from where we lived and couldn't get him into a good school. We played a game of risk with the authorities and thankfully it paid off and we got him into a lovely school in mid-sept. But that also meant having him with me 24/7 for more than 50% of the year—something that isn't exactly a conducive situation for work, especially creative work. That said, and to my absolute surprise, I've written and published twice as many books this year as any other and I've seen my business grow financially as a result. When I look at the chaos of this year, I'd never have predicted that outcome in a million years. I tried very hard to focus on the creating and dropping anything that wasn't vital to income generation. Despite the financial pressure, I hired a VA and it's freed up more of my time to create. This year, I've also spent a long time working out what systems work for me, changing my routines and habits to ones that produce the most amount of creativity and taking some long hard looks at how I personally work best rather than trying to do what “I think” I should do because that's how other people work. I've realized I'm very much a burst worker. I need to clear my decks and vomit out a book in a short intense period, or edit it in the same short period. And then I need creative fallow periods where I spend time catching up with business and inputting and filling the creative well. Expanding my income streams has helped to ensure my business stays afloat and so has working on my business foundations, like mailing list, website and web shop. This has been a super tough year for me as a parent and creative, but I'm thankful for all the positives that have come out of it.