As an indie author, I live and breathe numbers. Did I sell enough books yesterday to support my Facebook ads habit? Do my Kindle Unlimited page reads suggest my AMS ads are working, or shall I consult the Magic 8-Ball for answers? Can I afford to stay in the game, or did my latest promotion tank and send me so cash flow negative that I’ll be taking out a second mortgage to finance publication of my next book? Believe me, if Big Pub comes knocking with a lovely advance in one of my weak moments, I’ll be wheeling and dealing my 18-mystery backlist in a hot second if only to get away from all the numbers and back to the words.
So along into my indie bubble came a little thing called quarantine. Novel coronavirus. COVID-19. And with it, a phenomenon. Digital sales—already huge—skyrocketed, as people sought literary oblivion, and did it without navigating the usual buyer traps at the front of their local Barnes & Noble. I won’t lie, I’m feeling an enormous amount of survivor’s guilt as I write this, because my royalties across all formats have more than doubled since March 1st. And they’d already been climbing since mid-January, in lockstep with rising public fear.
The numbers have been interesting. I’ve watched sales moving in their various bar graphs by format across my screen like the Loch Ness monster as buyer behavior has evolved over the days of social distancing and sheltering in place. First, sales of my individual novels shot up. Many times, all my fiction to a buyer in one fell swoop, led by my newest releases, but including my entire ten-year old backlist. Audio downloads rose and stayed robust. Next, paperback sales took over a larger share of the total as traditionalists moved from Main Street to online ordering. Then, Amazon offered a two-month free trial period of KU. Bored students taught grandparents to download the apps to their devices, and page reads climbed and climbed and climbed. As I write this, savvy KU subscribers are scooping up my three-mystery box sets as part of their allowed nine-title library, effectively tripling the number of books available for them to binge without the need to go re-hunt for things they like, and running the table on what I have to offer. Happily, I can sleep at night, because I’m not making out like a Prohibition bootlegging profiteer. My prices are modest. Downloads from a KU subscription are free.
An addiction to numbers means I move money between ads daily to invest in the surges. My organic newsletter game is strong as new readers respond to the calls-to-subscribe in my books. Meanwhile, authors of every stripe are book touring via blog and Zoom and podcasting and videocasting their introverted and currently germaphobic little hearts out.
The only thing I’m closer to than numbers is readers. If I don’t know them intimately (you’d be surprised how many that means “by name”), I can’t reach them with my stories. It’s from their ranks that I crowdsource my proofreading, advance reviews, and “emergency response” in case of a troll one-star bubbling to the top on Amazon days before a BookBub promo. I answer every email and Facebook comment personally, because I need these people. Each and every blessed one of them.
Because I communicate (and communicate and communicate) with my readers, I’m privy to their thoughts, and readers are thanking me like I’ve donated a kidney.
“I discovered you on a Sunday. It’s Friday, and I’m on book 12 of 18. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the escape.”
“Your books are keeping me sane during this lay off. I love them. Thank you.”
While it’s strange, since I didn’t do anything except have the books ready, existing, waiting for their moment, I feel an importance as an indie genre writer for the first time in the history of ever. Revel in this, my fellow authors—moving past providing mere enjoyment to being involved in something that feels, dare I say, more noble—contributing to our society’s ability to keep each other safe by giving them sanctuary from loneliness, sadness, and fear.
How long will it last, this egalitarian digital explosion? Certainly, it will decline somewhat when we’re released back into the wilds of our preferred brick and mortar stores (shout out to a short list of my favorites: The Brenham Book Nook, Sheridan Stationery and Books, Vroman’s, ABC Books of Springfield, Russell Kansas Specialty Books, River Oaks Books, and Murder by the Book). But I don’t think we will ever completely cap the bottle on this genie. A gleeful Robin Williams cartoon-voice will be looping a catchy tune in our heads, driving hands over keys. It’s easy. Buy online. It’s fast. Buy online. It’s safe. Buy online.
Magic 8-Ball says that the immediacy of digital gratification will be harder than ever for readers to resist, and the numbers don’t disagree.
Pamela Fagan Hutchins is the USA Today bestselling and Silver Falchion Best Mystery winning author
of Switchback, Saving Grace, and a whole lot of other novels, a fangirl video/podcaster, and a big dog and rescue horse enthusiast who splits her time between Wyoming and Texas. Join her June 24-26 for a virtual indie publishing success retreat. Space is limited; details at http://pamelafaganhutchins.com