We Need a Plan B for Overlooked Books
Catastrophic release dates are increasing, so what are we going to do about them?
Last spring was reportedly the worst season for book sales in publishing history — especially for fiction like my latest novel, published in May. The losses outstripped those of 2003’s Shock and Awe period, the publishing vortex into which my third novel plunged. In fact, early pandemic releases tanked almost as precipitously as novels published on 9/11.
The situation was especially dire for small-press books and fiction by emerging authors. According to the New York Times, “The pandemic altered how readers discover and buy books, and drove sales for celebrities and best-selling authors while new and lesser known writers struggled... about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”
This fate even befell debut novels that received a lot of advance buzz last spring, like Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark, Celia Laskey’s Under the Rainbow, and Callan Wink’s August. This happened and will continue to happen because the publishing industry has no contingency plan for books with catastrophic release dates.
Bad News is Killing New Books
Each time a national catastrophe seizes the air waves, we can predict that promotional tours for new books will be canceled, reviews will be bumped for more topical coverage, and readers will be waylaid by the news cycle. Nonfiction can sometimes weather these storms, especially when it dovetails with current events. But fiction is less resilient. With natural and political emergencies becoming ever more frequent, we urgently need a Plan B.
Historically, publishers have written off titles whose release dates coincide with catastrophe. They calculate that it’s cheaper to eat the losses than gamble on a relaunch. But authors stand to lose more than money.
Without a Plan B to revive their books when the crisis subsides, writers also have to write off the months, years, even decades of work that went into those titles. And since future book deals will factor in sales of an author’s last publication, one calamitous current event cycle can destroy an author’s entire career.
The stakes are too high to stand by as the news cycle keeps burying whole generations of books. But what can we do?
Virtual book launches are not the answer
Early in the pandemic, I worked with my publisher, publicist, and fellow authors to shift my publicity tour online, arranging virtual book club visits, offering signed book plates to readers, engaging my favorite independent booksellers in special online events.
These efforts made us feel proactive, but they could not make up for the fact that COVID shut down so many links in the distribution chain that some novels only became available weeks after their publication dates; or that Amazon canceled all pre-orders during the period when books were deemed ‘nonessential’; or that shuttered bookstores and libraries across the country stopped ordering any titles at all last spring. Even if early readers wanted to buy our books, the barriers were so formidable that many just gave up.
We also learned that far fewer copies are sold at virtual book events than at live events. By one estimate, book sales at virtual events amount to about 7% of sales at live events. And attendance has only fallen as the pandemic’s groaned on, events multiplied, and everyone’s gotten Zoom fatigue.
Bottom line: Readers want to meet authors and get their books signed in person. As long as live events are prohibited, we’ll lose book sales.
Without book stores to showcase new titles, it’s been difficult for readers even to learn about the latest releases. Again, the New York Times explains:
Unlike the serendipitous sense of discovery that comes with browsing a bookstore, people tend to search by author or subject matter when they shop online, limiting the titles they see. Often, they see whatever a search or algorithm delivers, or find themselves steered toward titles that retailers push because they are already selling well. As a result, many of the new books that were released in 2020 languished, as panicked retailers focused on brand-name authors and readers gravitated toward the most popular titles.
The challenge of time-shifting
If pivoting in real time didn’t work, what about time-shifting? When the lockdown was first announced last March, my publisher offered me the option of pushing back my release to the fall. That would have meant competing with the Presidential election news avalanche, not to mention the books already scheduled for release in the fall, plus others that were pushed back. I opted to stay put with a May release.
Book sales did start to perk up somewhat after June. But the pandemic kept us in its grip all year, so short-term time-shifting was no panacea for anyone. And it won’t be going forward, either. What we need is not a guesswork approach but an industry-wide agreement to re-launch lost books when conditions return to normal.
What would Plan B look like?
This is not a simple idea. For it to work, the entire literary ecosystem would need to get involved, from agents to booksellers and readers themselves. But everyone in this system would benefit from a Plan B marketing option for the future.
Here are a few initial suggestions for this emergency game plan:
- Introduce the promotional category of Overlooked Books to steer readers toward titles they might have missed
- Launch Book Anniversary campaigns one year after Overlooked Books’ original (thwarted) release dates
- Engage reviewers and booksellers in Rollout Revivals of Overlooked Books, paving the way for later book reviews and author events
- Promote Lost Generation Spotlights in bookstores, book sites, and publications to celebrate Overlooked Books
- Develop State-Of-Emergency Book Promotion as a specialty, so authors and publishers could identify publicists with this expertise when they needed it
- Encourage bestselling authors to Adopt An Overlooked Book by giving it a blurb for its revival
There’s no limit to the impact Plan B could have if the entire book industry embraced it. But first, publishers need to remove the stigma of failure that hangs over books whose only flaw is an unfortunate release date.