Remember the good old days, when you could walk into a bookstore and browse? Remember walking up to the magazine rack, looking for the latest issue of a particular journal, then retiring to the bench facing the rack and reading the key stories just to see if you wanted to buy it? Remember walking up and down the mystery aisle, or the romance aisle, or whichever aisle your favorite literature inhabited and taking a book off the rack, reading the back cover blurb, then putting it back and taking down the next one? Well, in most locales, you can’t do that anymore.
Whether we like it or not, the fear of Covid-19 has changed the way we do almost everything in our lives. That little ubiquitous mask has become the new “no shirt, no shoes, no service” emblem. The “new” normal is still in the process of developing around us. One of the ways it has changed us is in the way be buy books. Bookstores are closing all across the country. Continued lockdowns are bringing foot traffic to a screeching halt. According to the American Booksellers Association, 20% of independent book stores are shutting their doors. That’s roughly one store per week. The independents are doing everything they can to stay alive, though, because they know that people need books for escape as much as they do for general information.
But there may be a little light at the end of an otherwise bleak tunnel: A new paradigm is emerging.
Since people cannot go to bookstores, bookstores and other literary venues have enhanced their online presence to meet their costumers head on. Some stores who were not online have expanded their stores online to reach their customers; libraries have released more online versions of their catalog so readers do not have to venture far from home. The potential customer may not have been able to pick up and handle the book, but they were able to access books nonetheless, reading the back cover and perhaps a sample chapter or two online at their favorite stores – and not just on Amazon. Booksellers also took advantage of an Amazon marketing decision: They are not prioritizing their book sales and deliveries. Books have not been considered “essential” during Covid-19, but that did not stop booksellers from stepping up to serve their readers.
And since they have, overall, online sales have skyrocketed. This online presence, in many cases, has saved some independent bookstores from going completely out of business. This “new” model is the antithesis of what bookstores used to be. Creating and old-store feeling of community – spaces where people could come face-to-face with others and talk about ideas – is giving readers exactly what they need, a feeling of belonging and companionship that takes them out of isolation and depression. Online gatherings of reading communities is the new safe space for readers.
This pandemic has also affected how books are marketed. Before, most authors marketed face-to-face at events, book signings, book fairs, workshops, lectures, and other public-centered events. However, with the pandemic, people are not allowed to congregate for these type of events. This has left authors in a world of insecurity. Luckily, new found ways of marketing to the public emerged, with authors turning to “stay at home” book tours via video conferencing. Now, more than ever, it is imperative for the author to engage readers online through video conferencing, which includes Zoom gatherings or LIVE videos on social media. Though free on some accounts, it is a slight hassle for anyone who is not tech savvy. Those who have the knowledge of video conference will be able to reach their audience but those without that knowledge will slow to a crawl in sales. This is the bane that marketing faces. How do books – and independent authors – reach their readers now that public, real-life events are down?
There may be hope on the horizon! E-book and audio book sales are on the rise. If authors can reach their audience through the online means of marketing, and thus create a community of readers, they just might land themselves in this nice medium. But, of course, that would mean that authors create e-books, not paperbacks or hardcover books, and hiring a narrator to produce an audiobook. For the Big 5 publishers, this is not new business, but for independent authors of self-published books, this is a giant leap, especially for those who have never created an e-book before. An e-book through Amazon is not completely difficult, but on other platforms, it can be a hurdle so high that some cannot manage. Creating a paperback on Amazon, however, is easy. So the premise again is for independent authors to learn more online forms of book selling. According to the American Booksellers Association, bookselling sites have seen 250% increase in traffic since the shutdown began. Publisher’s Weekly reports that most e-book distributors and publishers have seen sales rise by, at least, double digits since the stay at home orders have gone into effect. This is the changing paradigm in large view.
Yes, e-books have been a mainstay for a while, but the difference is that their sales are up to an all-time high. Authors (and publishers!) must answer that increased call for merchandise, and must create safe communities for their readers. Will the paperback or hard cover disappear? Not likely, but it is definitely more convenient in today’s world to reach for a digital book than a tangible one.
The point of the matter is that reading and storytelling are not going away. Neither is Covid-19. So, we need to figure out how these two entities will co-exist. We need to step up to the challenge of finding a new “norm” for how authors and readers will communicate and network. And now’s the time to react. With Covid-19 cases currently surging, it is likely that normal life will not emerge in early 2021 as everyone had hoped. Who knows when the lockdowns will end? An action plan of how to navigate the rest of the down time is upon us – and we must answer that call.
What will the new world look like post Covid-19? It’s unsure at this point, though we can predict some of the possibilities. Book trailers are an absolutely need, and they must be circulated on social media for a long-range reach to readers. Authors must use live videos for book tours or Zoom for opportunities to communicate with their readers. Self-published authors need to think beyond Amazon and connect their books to new formats, which includes audiobooks; in fact, they should create a reading series where they read their book to listeners in live videos on social media and YouTube (THINK: listening to Tolkien or King read their stories live). And most importantly, authors need to work with other authors to uplift each other – and not compete for sales. If authors worked together to create a venue for readers to come together, all authors would benefit, which would also give readers a place to gather in a safe community. A win-win for everyone involved.
Times are changing and we will have to change with them. TDS is on the job and will help our authors, poets, and artists navigate this new world of publishing. Stay tuned as we put our plans into action and answer the call with our paradigm answer to the bleak darkness ahead.