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July 29, 2020
Mark Coker
Indie authors are well positioned to succeed in the post-Covid publishing landscape.

Indie authors sell to a global market, so it’s important to recognize the universally shared experience of the pandemic. The health and economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 has been nothing short of cataclysmic and has had an impact on every country and community. The world economy is in recession.

The largest markets for English-language books—the United States and United Kingdom—have experienced higher per capita infection rates and, therefore, greater economic dislocation than the other primary markets: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This is most likely a result of political leadership. The U.S. and U.K. governments failed to take the pandemic seriously early on, whereas Canada, Australia, and New Zealand enacted more competent and effective responses that mitigated the human and economic toll in those countries.

Against the above backdrop, I share five predictions about what indie authors can expect in the months and years ahead:

1. Consumers will become more frugal in the hardest-hit economies. When household income is reduced due to unemployment, a greater share of it must go to basic necessities such as food and shelter before it can go to books. Frugality is contagious. Unemployment and general economic uncertainty breed frugal consumers.

2. Economic recovery will be slower than expected. The global economy is unlikely to return to a pre-pandemic normal until vaccines or effective treatments are widely available. Once vaccines or treatments are available, it will take time to rebuild broken economies.

3. More people will stay home. For people to step out of their homes, they must trust that their fellow humans aren’t going to infect them with a deadly virus. This fear will influence how people live their lives, and how and where they choose to spend their time and money.

4. E-book sales will increase. With millions of newly minted budget-conscious readers stuck at home by choice, government mandate, or unemployment, readers will gravitate toward digital—some for the first time. Based on audited Smashwords sales data, indie e-book sales for the pandemic months of April and May were up 20% on average over the same months a year ago across most major e-book retailers. The growth is all the more impressive considering that most e-book retailers and indie authors experienced flat to declining sales for the prior five years.

5. More self-published books will be written. With unemployment comes more time for authors to write books. There will also likely be more workers deciding to retire earlier than planned, which could also lead to more people having more time to write more books.

Although the e-book sales bump will dissipate over time, I expect that most indie e-book authors will see increased readership and earnings for the next couple of years. These evergreen best practices are now more important than ever:

1. Commit to digital. Indie e-book authors have significant advantages over print authors, and, thanks to the pandemic, those advantages just became greater.

2. Commit to wide distribution. Authors should maintain diversified distribution so their next meal or home payment isn’t dependent on the algorithmic whims of a single retailer.

3. Build an author-controlled marketing platform. Authors should actively migrate readers to their private author newsletters so that their relationships with readers are not mediated by third-party retailers and social media platforms. Presales are a good incentive to drive sign-ups.

4. Focus on craft. Far too many authors spend excessive waking hours focused on gaming retailer algorithms and ad platforms rather than honing their craft to write better books. If a book takes readers to unimaginable heights of ecstatic joy, it will sell on the wings of reader word of mouth—algorithms and flash-in-the-pan “systems” be damned.

5. Adopt frugality as a publishing strategy. Though authors can’t control sales or the timing of an economic recovery, they can their control publishing expenses. Avoid investing large sums of money in speculative marketing campaigns. Never finance publishing with debt, and never invest money in publishing that otherwise needs to go to food and shelter. ■

Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords and host of the Smart Author podcast.

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