Who saw that coming?
The last time I posted anything, I blithely spoke about getting back to normal, picking up the traces, after being handed a life roll that flattened me for a while.
Then Covid19 reached Canada and the borders were closed and…
…I should probably back up a bit, because just like the dominos, above, there has been a run of events that have completely changed the shape of my life in the last few weeks.
First, my husband was laid off after working for his employer for twelve years. He got a small cheque in parting. This was a few days before the Corona virus was declared a pandemic and his lay-off was completely unrelated to the virus. Instead, it was a function of the downturning economy. No one has said “recession” yet, but I fully expect it to be announced with the quarter findings at the end of March.
Mark’s loss of employment left us reeling for a few days.
Make that a couple of weeks.
Mark has been easing into the fiction world for a few years, and has been editing my books and other authors’ books for even longer, and it was always our intention that one day he quit the day job and write and/or edit full time. We weren’t anywhere close to ready to make that jump, but it has been forced on us. Mark is too old for anyone to seriously consider him for full time employment.
Having Mark home meant some major shifts in my schedule, my thinking and my priorities. It has also required getting used to having someone not just in the house while I write, but also in the same room, because Mark’s desk is on the other side of the room from where I am sitting.
Sound-cancelling earbuds to the rescue.
Depression Era Thinking
Because we have no financial reserves, Mark’s unemployment has also required we slash our spending. We’re into depression-era cooking, food stashing and giving up even small luxuries. The whole-food diet we have been following has been adjusted. We’re now eating a lot of rice and beans and subsistence staples, simply to stretch the small stash of money we do have. I just can’t justify buying basketfuls of fresh produce each week…but come summertime (which is weeks away, here in the frozen north), we will also be growing produce in the backyard — another major first for me and my household.
Suddenly, I’m spending a lot more time in the kitchen, preparing dishes that take far longer to prepare, and long cooking times to be ready. I’m making a lot of things we were buying ready-made, including mayonnaise and bone broth/stock.
While this was happening and I was adjusting to the changed circumstances, I was doing very little writing. What time I did spend on the business was used for producing new books only. Everything else, including this site, I was forced to put to one side.
Just as I was feeling like things had returned to an even keel, and I wrote my last post about getting back to normal, two of my adult children were laid off–my daughter lost both her jobs. My son lives at home with us (long story), and we’re now providing his food and shelter as well as our own. When his wife returns from taking care of her mother in another province, we will be adding that to the bottom line, too, as she is unable to work.
Whether my kids were laid off because of the economy or the pandemic is pretty much academic at this time. It’s just a big knotty swirl of problems with interrelated causes.
While we were still adjusting to the new financial load, my province closed its borders and strongly advised everyone to stay home indefinitely. As we were already housebound, that wasn’t a difficult shift to make, but buying a month’s worth of food was. When you are used to buying your supplies and living from week to week, the amount of food for a household of adults to survive for a month takes a bit of getting used to. It’s not just the cost of buying a month of groceries, but also figuring out where to put them.
We’ve dusted off an old fridge/freezer in the garage and got it going again, and I spent two days cleaning out the kitchen fridge and freezer and the pantry, figuring out what we had on hand that we could eat, and rounding out those supplies with purchases, to last for as long as we can. Not only did I need to feed the household for a month, but I had to do it as cheaply as possible.
Pivoting Your Writing Business
I did a lot of research into frugality, eating cheaply and slashing costs. Along the way, I also did some research into hacks and strategies that indie writers can use to survive the recession. If the recession had not been certain before Covid19 arrived, the pandemic has made it an utter lock.
So, even after the virus has passed on, we indie writers are still going to feel the impact of a depressed economy.
A (non-writing) friend said to me, “Hey, you’ll be okay, though–people read more when there’s no money.”
But that isn’t accurate. In the 1930s, people read because that was the primary escapist entertainment of the day. The golden era of pulp fiction emerged from the Depression. But so did the Golden Age of Hollywood, another escapist form of entertainment that (at the time) was cheap.
And these days, consumers have dozens of cheap subscription-style entertainment formats to choose from, including live streaming TV and movies, subscription ebooks and e-magazines, and anything they can find on the Internet.
You can’t count on your sales increasing simply because people have more time on their hands.
You will have to help them along.
I used a word more than once, above, that you might have keyed in on: Escapist.
Escapist entertainment is anything that takes a consumer away from their everyday lives. Gritty, realistic dramas and elevated literature just won’t do it. Gripping stories and themes, plot-driven dramas with satisfying endings, though, do fit the bill.
For example, here’s the highest grossing movies of each year in the 1930s:
1930: Tom Sawyer (1930)
1931: Frankenstein (1931)
1932: Shanghai Express (1932)
1933: King Kong (1933)
1934: It Happened One Night (1934)
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
1936: Modern Times (1936)
1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
1938: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
1939: Gone With The Wind (1939)
Consider all of them. The only movies in this bunch set in contemporary, realistic settings (for then) are It Happened One Night and Modern Times…and they’re both comedies.
The ten best selling books of the 1930s looks a bit different, though:
1930: Cimarron by Edna Ferber
1931: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1933: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
1934: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
1935: Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas
1936: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1938: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The only cross-over in this list is Gone With The Wind. I suspect that the book list is not a true reflection of what people were reading for entertainment during the Depression, because publishing, then, was elevated. Editors’ and publishers’ tastes ran deeply into literary fiction. What people read for entertainment, rather than edification, was pulp fiction, and they read millions of pages of it every week.
At their peak of popularity in the 1920s-1940s, the most successful pulp magazines could sell up to one million copies per issue. In 1934, Frank Gruber, one of the more successful and wildly prolific pulp writers, said there were around 150 pulp titles. [source]
That’s one hundred and fifty million pulp magazine copies sold every single month, for years.
Think about that for a moment.
The New Pulp Fiction Venues
For the last ten years, since the Kindle and epublishing hit its stride, a great many publishing experts and authorities have pointed out that indie publishing is this era’s pulp fiction market.
I think it’s more nuanced than that.
I think Kindle Unlimited and other ebook subscription services such as Scribd, Bookmate, 24symbols, Playster and Kobo Plus, are the new pulp fiction venues. Why?
When an author publishes to those venues, they are forced to write to market and provide exactly the type of escapist, squarely-in-genre fiction that readers want and expect. If they do not, the reader doesn’t read their stories and the author doesn’t get paid.
If the author is publishing wide, then a slick cover and great cover description can make a sale for them, and whether the reader enjoys the story is irrelevant–in the short term (although long term, the author will experience falling sales). But that’s purely from the author’s perspective.
From the reader perspective, buying a book is expensive–even indie titles are priced, on average, from $2.99 to around $4.99. A savvy reader can watch the free listings and buy titles only on sale. If they’re using reading as their escape from the everyday slog of hard times, though, they can’t justify buying individual titles even on discount, or waiting for them to (maybe) become free.
They’ll subscribe for their entertainment, instead–just as millions of people subscribed to the pulp magazines during the Depression.
Amazon, last week, anticipated this shift by offering all US-based readers a 60 day free trial of Kindle Unlimited, instead of the usual 30 days.
Netflix, Crave, and Amazon Prime TV are all going to clean up in the next year, too. Is it any surprise that Disney and the other big Hollywood companies are launching their own subscription services?
We have, in our household, already regretfully passed on buying seasons of TV shows we follow, which is what we used to do. We will wait for them to show up on Netflix, in a few months’/years’ time. We’re also limiting the number of services we subscribe to, which has required heartbreaking decisions about which series and movies we must forego.
What This Means for Indie Fiction Writers
Have you always written to market?
I haven’t–not strictly, not purely. I’ve sort-of hit the genre, often on the edges, and until now, I provided a good-enough story to get away with it. I have noted through the years, though, that many of my reviews speak of “unexpected” plot twists, and “unusual” story concepts.
That isn’t good enough anymore.
The next few years are going to see the indie fiction market shake off the chaff that has dogged it since its beginnings. I suspect that even authors publishing wide will have to knuckle down and write pure genre-shaped, plot-driven stories that provide exactly the sort of escape readers want. It will be the only way indies will survive.
That doesn’t mean your stories have to be low-brow drivel. It is possible to write well, while still writing squarely to market. Some of the most jaw-dropping, stylish prose I’ve ever read is pulp-fiction.
Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost foglike, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.
One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane
You can hear, see and feel this scene. It’s brilliant. And it’s pulp fiction. Spillane was constantly derided by the “slicks” — the high-brow magazines of the day — for being a hack. One critic called him “nauseating”. But Spillane was a hack who sold millions of copies of his books, and millions more copies of the magazines his stories appeared in. Spillane himself said of the critics:
Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.
The New Direction For Me
All of this I’ve written so far is a very long preamble, explaining in detail the new direction I’ll be taking my writing–the direction I’ve already headed in. In the last ten days or so I have thrown out my schedules of titles for the year and rebuilt from the ground up. In my primary genre, Romance, I will keep writing only one series in one sub-genre, which happens to be the most genre-pure series I write and the one the sells the best (and that is not a coincidence). That genre, by the way, is historical romance–which is not set in present day, gritty settings. Too, romance is by definition a happy-ending genre.
I will keep my secondary genre, which I write under a pen name, but the new series and new titles I write will be more closely written to market, and I will keep up market research to make sure I stay within the tropes and expectations, instead of constantly striving for unique concepts and story ideas. I’ll instead aim to add to trope-inspired stories a sense of style a la Mickey Spillane.
I will be adding a third pen name and genre to the schedule. The genre is also escapist and trope-ridden, and I will abide by those expectations, when I launch the pen name.
I will rotate through those three genres and pen names, book after book, and for now, I’m sticking with a dead-easy (for me) book every four weeks pace. Later, I may step up the pace to one every three weeks, which is a little more challenging, but means I’m bringing out a book under a single pen name every nine weeks, instead of every 12. But that pace also requires support–admin, cooking, cleaning, stuff, that gets neglected while I’m getting the next book out. So for now, I’m staying with the pace that is completely and easily do-able on my own.
Why three pen names? Because I don’t want readers confused, or thinking they’re going to get a story in X Genre, but get Y Genre, instead. I’ve learned from years of publishing across multiple romance sub-genres that readers sometimes don’t look at the book at all. If it has their favourite author’s name on the cover, they buy it. I do not want anyone disappointed in my writing in the future and the three genres are on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other.
Also, three pen names is because I want to set up multiple streams of income, which is a hedge against economic hard times. I could build different revenue sources: editing, or pouring coffee at the local Starbucks, but I can write fast and well, and I will capitalize on that skill, instead. Outside jobs will be incredibly hard to find, anyway, and take me out of the house, and waste time with commutes. I can remain at my desk and write, instead.
I have spent the last few weeks transitioning all my titles and series over to Kindle Unlimited. I’m not a fan of KU. Prior to the pandemic and the bottoming economy, I believed KU to be the worst thing to happen to publishing in the long term. But we’re not playing on that field anymore.
I strongly believe KU is where fiction authors will make their money in the next few years, because that, and the other subscription reading services, is where the readers will all gravitate. If KU did not insist upon exclusivity, I would also make sure all my books were available to libraries, but that isn’t possible with KU.
It has been a few weeks of chaos. I’m learning to embrace change as a constant in a way I only gave lip-service to in the past. In just the last few days I have reached a place where I can pick myself up, dust off, and get back to work. Success is merely a matter of getting up one time more than you get knocked down.
So, I’m getting up.
I will keep reviewing this new direction and keep an eye on sales and page reads. I might be wrong–it wouldn’t be the first time–but the major advantage of indie publishing is that I can pivot again, if I need to. But…my sinking gut tells me I’m not wrong at all.
Consider Your Own Direction, Going Forward
The Stoics believe in hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, and the most famous of the Stoics lived through appallingly hard times (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, et al). Take your cue from them.
We’re facing a tough valley ourselves. A little thought, some planning, and perhaps a shift in direction will help offset some of those hard times.
Cut your spending. Pay off your debts and don’t borrow in future. Live on less and simplify your life. Writers only need an Internet-connected keyboard and screen, anyway. If things get really bad, you can adapt Ray Bradbury’s Depression era tactic: He rented a typewriter at his local library for a dime per fifteen minutes (which made sure he kept hammering the keys!). You can rent or borrow a computer at yours, and keep your files on a thumbdrive.
Embrace prolificacy. Take a half-step or a full step toward market-driven fiction. Adopt pulp working methods. Diversify your income streams.
Write your ass off…and thrive.