When COVID-19 hit pandemic status in March 2020, no one was expecting a global lockdown. Life changed dramatically, forcing millions to stay at home, disrupting work life, social life and travel plans. New habits and routines were needed, adjustments to family dynamics had to be made, and many found their creative processes were flung into turmoil. Now, as countries across the world tentatively emerge from lockdown, at the Alliance of Independent Authors, we thought we should see the takeaways authors have taken from this time: coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed the landscape of life. All sectors are affected—the publishing industry, parents and schools, day jobs in every single field—even the pets are sick of us at home! It has also provided a huge stop-moment for society and that's created pause both for the earth and for society (if you haven't seen the before and after pollution photos, they are quite the shocker). There is so much to be said but what we're interested in today, is what lockdown has meant for you up to now–and what it might mean for you going forward. We know that the impact on authors has varied greatly. While some have prospered, others found their creativity draining away. But what are the coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors, at this stage, as we cautiously emerge?
As we will see below, there is a huge variety of responses to the pandemic and lockdown from ALLi's members. What is emerging now, as lockdown lifts, is an understanding of what it has meant, in terms of business conditions and reader behavior changes.
We are seeing trends that have been slowly progressing over the past few years suddenly upon us all at once.
Before we dive into the body of this post about coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors, the AskALLi team wanted to draw your attention to a number of resources we've produced for authors since COVID-19 first hit.
- We continue to update this overview, first compiled in March: COVID-19 Assistance, Advice and Resources for Independent Authors.
- In an Advanced Self-publishing podcast Joanna Penn and Orna discussed how to continue productively writing and publishing.
- Howard Lovy ran a special Inspirational Indie Author Interview show in which he asked a number of authors about how they were coping with lockdown
- On the Member Q&A, ALLi director Orna Ross and Outreach Manager Michael La Ronn answered questions about how to prepare for what's ahead
- Our news editor Dan Holloway has persistently raised the issues for marginalized and disabled authors. (See Dan's talk in this online webinar about disability in the context of the virus
Coronavirus Lockdown Lessons for Authors: Creative Conditions
As the world effectively went into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we wrote about the mental and emotional challenges these new conditions were generating: fear of the disease, distraction, lack of stimulus, disrupted routines and rituals, the effect of a diet of constantly depressing news. Having good creative processes that limit the influence of other minds is always a challenge for creatives –and never more than in these times.
Working in close quarters with our families, without our usual social outlets, has been challenging for many, especially those with young children and older relatives, vulnerabilities, and anyone who needed care or felt unsafe at home. For many of those with disabilities, challenges are exacerbated.
And just because lockdown is easing, doesn't mean the challenges have vanished. For many parents, their children are still off school or on school holidays, which means countless interruptions for snacks and food, bottom wipes, game playing, questions, lost toys and the plethora of other requests children throw at their parents.
Authors, like all creatives, have established habits, rituals and conditions which best feed their creativity. Many of us are now happily returning to cafés where possible –but others have found they still need to stay at home. Contrarily, having got used to a certain way of life, relaxing of lockdown rules can fuel resistance to changing a newfound routine, continuing fear of the virus, and loss of control over what others do.
Some may have return anxiety, not wanting to relinquish a way of living they’ve gotten used to during lockdown. Others are happy with a new normal, others may be desperate to break out. Our risk thresholds vary according to our character, experiences, and circumstances.
When it comes to creative conditions, the coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors is that we will always need to beg, borrow, or steal the time and space we need to write and publish. Whatever conditions you need, do what you need to do to get them.
Coronavirus Lockdown Lessons for Authors: Commercial Conditions
As creative condition became difficult for many, commercial conditions improved for the indie author who relies on Internet commerce and social media. As the world went into lockdown, people began living online. Shopping and entertainment channels shifted to digital channels. Closure of non-essential stores caused online shopping to surge. Looking for human connections while practicing social distancing, people turned to social media more than ever before. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have all seen massive spikes in daily usage and engagement
As the physical industry ground to a halt, with consignment book printings on hold; conferences postponed, and bookstores shut, lockdown has accelerated what was already underway in our sector: a shift towards digital reading, digital publishing (e-books, audio and print on demand) and online bookselling.
For most indie authors, the business model of selling print books through bookstores has never been commercially viable. Economies of scale mean that few of us, and none at the mass end of the market—fiction, poetry, standard non-fiction—can compete on price with trade publishing in the print-book-to-bookstore model.
Since the pandemic and numerous shutdowns worldwide, international distributor PublishDrive has been are paying close attention to the book market. Their data has constraints but they have analyzed over ten thousand ebook sales within PublishDrive, selling in over 400 stores and thousands of digital libraries, plenty of data to draw statistical conclusions. Having compared data to the same quarter/month in 2019 as well as the previous month, their conclusion is that digital books are in demand in all formats with a striking growth in ebook and audiobook readership.
- March 2020: those selling ebooks via PublishDrive saw growth by at least 20% across markets and stores.
- April 2020, they reported another 23% growth.
- May 2020, they reported how sales have increased by 60% across the year.
Other observable trends were that non-fiction and books for younger readers are selling more than ever, international book sales are on the rise and there are spikes in subscription services, library providers, and regional stores.
Watch out for PublishDrive's reports on the 20th of each month, here.
Positive reports have emerged from trade publishing too. Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet reports:
“As we’ve been reporting throughout the summer, traditional book sales are currently in a growth position versus 2019 across all formats.”
But it's not a uniform picture for the trade.
..adult nonfiction is down by 3 percent year to date versus 2019…Categories such as business, health and fitness, history and political science, self-help, and memoir all dropped off the map during lockdown as juvenile nonfiction categories surged (up 26%).”
“Right now, backlist share is at 69 percent. [Up from 57% in 2015.]”
This is good news for indie authors selling online. It's the physical bookstore model that favors frontlist, newer books, but readers don't think about books in this way. A book is new to a reader the day they discover it. If it's evergreen in content, as so much fiction, poetry, memoir and other genres are, the publication date is irrelevant.
Other reports confirm a surge in reading and booksales. Since the beginning of the pandemic, e-books have been selling at “about the level we would [normally only] see during the holidays,” Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Kobo, told Publishers Weekly. Libro.fm, which sells downloadable audiobooks through independent bookstores, also reported “record sales” since the start of the crisis.
In short, it seems that lockdown has accelerated digital behaviors on some readers, writers and publishers who were previously reluctant to transition. One of the clearest coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors is to go digital.
While every indie business is different, and coronavirus lockdown lessons for authors vary widely, what the crisis has confirmed is the business foundations that ALLi recommend all authors should have, the essentials without which an author enterprise cannot flourish.
- A website (ideally transactional)
- An active mailing list
- An author-business plan that covers production, promotion, and profits.
The question of how authors can best reach and connect with the right readers is more live than ever, in an online world where marketing departments in large companies are now thinking of themselves as “content creators” trying to create unvarnished and personal brand experiences.
People are creating and sharing photos and videos across the social web in record numbers. This user-generated content, in our case reader-generated content (RGC), is what people now crave and trust, across all sectors, and what motivates them to buy. You may think of RGC — responses to your books — as a nice-to-have reward for your hard work but actually it’s now become a need-to-have, thanks to the trends set in place by the COVID-19 crisis.
People seek to come together in times of crisis. If you can act as a trusted leader or partner in bringing people together, it can help to deepen your connection with readers and strengthen their loyalty. According to Sprout Social, 91% of consumers now believe social media can connect people, and 78% want brands to use social media to bring them together.
Leverage social networks or create your own space for your readers to interact with you and each other. Allow their voices to be heard and make sure they know you’re listening. Your better understanding of them will not only develop a more personal bond, it feeds back into your writing.
Ask yourself. Do you need to:
- Set new creative intentions and goals?
- Evaluate your channels, content & tactics for online bookselling
- Rethink reader communications & interactions? Do you know your message? Do you clearly, consistently and continuously communicate it?
- Make more authentic human connection with your readers and strengthen reader relationships by providing social proof and creating community?
Keep in mind that tools and tactics that have worked in the past might not be effective in the future. Reader behavior is dramatically changing and the most significant coronavirus lockdown lesson for authors is to shift from marketing your books at your readers to marketing with them.
ALLi Members on Lessons Learned
We asked what our members had learned and what they'd do differently going forward, here are a selection of their answers. Thank you, ALLi members, for sharing how covid-19 has impacted your life, businesses and creative output.
Kate Holdsworth “Lockdown highlighted the flaws in my writing process. It had become about working in a particular place at a particular time and the changes caused massive resistance. I hadn't noticed that happening.
Post lockdown, I've counted my blessings and given myself more freedom. I can write, or not, wherever I want to and whenever. As long as it gets done. I've learned to say no thanks to the things I took on out of an inability to turn them down. I've given my old routines a time of death of 25 March 2020 and created better ones. And I'm smelling all the roses.”
Kevin Partner “The pandemic had a big impact on me mentally at the beginning, but the main practical impact is having my wife and son at home all the [expletive] time, so my writing routine became severely disrupted. After a few weeks, we all settled down so I was able to hit my deadlines, but I'm looking forward to them both going back in September. I have, in the meantime, discovered how many different places in the house I can write from when push comes to shove…”
Lois Paige Simenson “A year ago in my local writer's group I had set May 31 to launch my first novel. I had struggled with it so much in all the phases. When the pandemic hit I panicked: I'm in the older age group, what if something happens? It spurred me into action. I wasn't about to leave the planet without publishing my book! So I dug in and reworked my calendar to set hard deadlines for editing, proofing, formatting and the rest. I made it. I did it. It wasn't easy with all the anxiety and distraction, but having this goal has kept me sane through everything. This week my book hit #4 in Canada for romantic suspense, #5 in Australia and climbed from the bottom up to #218 today in the U.S. romantic suspense market! Quite frankly, if it weren't for quarantine and lockdown, I'd still be editing!”
Chrissie Parker “I was confirmed as having Covid in April. I spent eight days in bed and when awake (which wasn’t often), I re-evaluated everything. I made a decision to stop putting off things in case they didn’t work. Once better (although I’m still not 100%), I started reorganising the way I do things, did advertising I’ve never done before, bought a new planner that’s helping me focus and I’ve set up a Patreon account and streamlined other social media. It’s really made me focus and feel quite positive about the future.”
Mariah Kingdom “Lockdown taught me how important my work is to me, and how much I need personal space to be creative. I’ve had to prioritize care for very elderly parents who were shielding at their home, and Mr. Kingdom has been at home all the time, so it’s been “bye bye creativity”. In normal times I’d try to make the space away from home by café surfing or using the local reference library, but both have been unavailable during lockdown. I’ve tried to focus instead on operational stuff – paperback formatting, ad work, and so on – that I could just pick up and put down. But there’s a whole lot of “story” in my head that is desperate to get out, and frustration is building. As to what I’ll do differently – I think it’s a question of firmer boundaries between work and home-life, possibly even rented office space or spells away in a hotel, if that’s what it takes.”
Liz Harris “It reminded me how lucky I was to be doing a job I love, that wasn't dependent upon being with other people and upon leaving the house. I missed seeing my friends in person – zoom, skype, facetime are all very well, but they're not a substitute for seeing the real thing.”
Debbie Young “What lockdown taught me about myself: that although I am used to working from home, and prefer to write at home (can't do coffee shops etc – too distracting), I need to get out of the place regularly to recharge the creative part of my brain (I love Orna's philosophy of a weekly “create date with self ” though haven't always managed it). Yet strangely, although I am very much an extrovert, it has made me realise how much I also crave solitude sometimes – my husband is retired and at home all the time, but my daughter (17) has been home since March and we've all been pretty much shielding as all classed as vulnerable for medical reasons. It's also taught me that Zoom is no substitute for real life meetings and events – I've taken part in a few online litfests and there is no way I'm taking my village one online as the physical presence and the unruly buzz between sessions if a large part of its charm.
I found it really difficult to settle down to work the first three weeks, then lowered my productivity standards as it seemed impossible to get much done no matter how hard I worked. Finally set up a preorder for 1st July of a book I hadn't finished writing (I don't usually do one until it's with my editor) to make me do it. I did it, but it did rather add to the already heavy stress of lockdown. (There is so much invisible stress living through this – I now count each day as a win if I manage to get one constructive thing done.)
What I'll do differently going forward: ensure I have a regular weekly createdate with self once lockdown is lifted. And my husband is now building me a writing hut for solitude at the bottom of the garden!
Throughout, though, I'm conscious of how very lucky I am to live in a spacious house with a big garden, no real money worries, and in a happy family unit. Counting blessings every day.”
Hr Kemp “I found it hard to concentrate at first. I released my debut novel just as the pandemic came to South Australia and cafes etc shut. I had been procrastinating about having a launch and had just decided to go for it, then it couldn't happen. All my plans to get my book out there (paperback) were unavailable. It was a stressful time, with glitches re the price of my book on Amazon Aust, and people weren't easy to contact. To top it off my husband had had surgery that made him vulnerable so we kept ourselves away from family and friends. What I've learned is:
1. I need my writing time in cafes and other places to keep my creativity. I got so easily distracted sitting at the desk and on the computer – research, emails, social media etc.
2. I need time out of the house, social time and events to refresh me. I really missed them. They charge my battery (I'm an extrovert).
3. I have been using the time to learn more about marketing and promotion, and trying to use technology for networking and connecting. It's been valuable but intense.
4. I much prefer face to face meetings, zoom can help but it's not as good.
I think I also realised that releasing my book didn't mean I had to have it all worked out already. It's OK to still be working on the promotion and marketing, and on developing my author platform further. I've also been thrilled that local bookshops have been supportive once they opened.”
Walter Boomsma “I was powerfully reminded that writing centers me. It actually became more important to write. Unfortunately, I was not always writing from a “writing as a business” point of view but that was probably necessary for my own mental and emotional health. In time, I realized that (contrary to the usual writer image) human contact is also important to me–and it took a while to realize how much I was missing that. Third, I became acutely aware of the importance of technology moving forward. Fourth–and probably most recent–I have found myself focusing on what hasn't and won't change, something that has helped greatly with the “uncertainty” we are experiencing. Perhaps as a sub-point, I believe we each have the ability to largely control our “new normal.” We do not have to be a victim of COVID-19.”
Margaret Skea “The pandemic forced me to completely re-think my author strategy. I was almost completely focused on speaking events and my paid mentoring role with a collective of writing groups, and in terms of book sales – on paperback sales at bookshops, focused outlets at the gift shops in historic houses and personal attendance at craft fairs. All of which stopped instantly and haven't re-started, and probably won't until next year. So I quickly put up POD versions of my print, to try to catch some online print sales at least – normally they are produced in trade runs of 500+, started to learn how to do Amazon ads and commissioned audio of three titles. The Amazon ads are going well, at my relatively low budget spend. Currently I have the first audio uploaded to ACX and Findaway and am awaiting approval. I also decided, as writing wasn't coming easily, to learn to touch type – in the long term it should make my typing quicker – eventually! So it has been a case of 1) focusing on new skills that will stand me in good stead in the future – 2) not fretting over what I'm not getting done and 3) learning the lesson re not putting all your eggs in one basket…”
Lk Hunsaker “I learned that being unable to get much writing done, and nearly zero marketing, due to all-of-a-sudden having to home school two of my grands and suddenly having no space/time of my own really isn't the end of the world, and I can adapt. Again. I'm good at adapting. Going forward: with the masks, temperature taking, and distancing the school will require, my babies will still be here at home with me, cyber schooling, so that two months was good practice. The babies have always come first, and they will again. Books can wait if they take five times longer than normal, and little ones are wonderful inspiration.”
Sudhana Singh “During lockdown I was grateful that I had established by writing regimen. I write seasonally, during the British winter, so I was able to get my book done. In the spring I found that my other work, pro speaking and coaching, promoted my books which are based on business and coaching. During Covid I didn’t have clients or contracts so this element of marketing was instead channeled to blogs and podcasts. The thought of speaking online exhausted me. As to doing things differently, I want to try my hand at fiction. On a personal level I realised how much I enjoyed the face to face interaction after the rigid discipline of work counts and publishing deadlines. My other jobs are fodder for my writing and a way to hang out with friends and clients, after the solitude of writing.”
Kassandra Lamb “For the first three months of lockdown, I was having trouble with focusing. So I gave myself permission to do two things: One, just do 2 or 3 business-maintenance tasks a day and then forget about the business end of things for that day; and two, not try to edit much, just write first drafts. I discovered my love for first drafting again; they had become more difficult over the years as I put more pressure on myself to “get it right” the first time. I let all that go and just wrote, and had a blast. During those hours of writing, I could forget all about coronavirus. Now I'm editing those drafts and getting them ready for publication. Unfortunately, my husband and I are in the senior citizen high risk category and we live in Florida, so we are still in lockdown for the foreseeable future, but I feel like I've gotten my emotional equilibrium back now and I can endure for a while longer. So glad I have my writing business to keep me occupied!!”
Stephanie Connolly Reisner “What I learned during lockdown were two things. The first – my life didn't change much. My husband and I have been working from home since about 2011, and I hate shopping and have been doing curbside pickup and ordering almost everything online for almost two years already. But I also learned that I can get SO MUCH more done when I don't have conventions, conferences, writing group meetings, etc… to attend. I actually felt relief when everything was cancelled because I'm on a vigorous schedule this year. I've completed 5 novellas, 1 NF article, 1 NF book, and 3 novels already this year. Only two novellas and two novels to go and I'm taking December off. As for what I'll be doing differently during the unlocking phase — honestly, not much. It looks like we might be heading for another shutdown here in the US if things keep going like they are. Though I think next year, regardless what happens with the pandemic, I will ease up on the pre-releases. I work well under pressure, but it causes me insomnia and anxiety.”