Publishing

The reasons why so many of us just aren’t reading at the moment

I’m a member of a number of writing groups, both craft and marketing, and the overwhelming message lately is that sales are down and people just aren’t reading like they used to. I’ll caveat quickly, that this isn’t true for everyone, some authors are reporting no difference at all. But many, including myself, are seeing stark declines in sales and read rates.

When this crisis first started, there was a feeling among some authors that many people would be spending a couple of weeks in their homes with plenty of time to get on with some reading. It was a feeling that we’d be locked up for a while, but it wouldn’t be long and it would be more an exercise in containing boredom rather than fighting for survival. That was before they fully understood how serious this crisis was going to become.

Personally, I thought this was for the long-term and conducted a survey across some of my readers to test my theory. Of those I sampled, 88% said they didn’t feel like reading at the moment.

I wasn’t surprised.

A few weeks on and author after author in multiple genres are saying that sales are down and have been for a while, and it’s getting worse. Some are expressing confusion as to why people are no longer buying books and so I wanted to explain my own thoughts on what is happening. You see, data is my thing. Having worked in global finance, and marketing, I understand behaviours and trends at a macro level.

The first issue is an obvious one. People are worried, understandably so. There is a pandemic, something we’ve never experienced in our lifetimes, and don’t quite understand. So there is naturally a feeling of uncertainty in the air. While some people want to bury themselves in a good book, there’s also a lot of people who cannot get themselves into the mental mindset required for a book. Many people feel distracted lately, unable to focus on simple tasks. Its a lot easier to watch a television programme or a movie, and occasionally drift in your attention, then it is to pick up a book when you feel this way.

Next, is the issue of money.

It’s quite clear that some form of recession is coming, no part of the world is going to be immune from the enormous economic effect of this pandemic. Already in America, record numbers of people are applying for unemployment. With predictions that these levels will only rise, likely to be the highest in a generation. With this uncertainty over income, it’s natural that people can no longer afford books and other entertainment.

Supporting this theory is the fact that many authors are seeing an increase in Kindle Unlimited page reads, indicating that many readers are moving to a subscription-based model in order to continue reading while keeping costs down. KU pays less per book read than a sale does, so while some are still reading, the income derived will be less. The other question is, with so many people joining KU and experiencing all it has to offer, will they go back to buying books outright when this is over?

Then there is the issue of wanting to experience entertainment that is both comfortable and safe without taking risks. Many people have go-to books, TV series’, and movies that they go to when they feel sad, scared, and generally, in need of a pick me up. And so those old faithfuls are going to be read, possibly before new releases are read. It’s natural that people will want something they can take comfort in during this anxious time. Especially as it doesn’t matter so much if your attention starts to drift while reading a book you know and love.

There is also the point that this is a pandemic, not just affecting one or two countries, but most of the planet. It has been interesting as an author, and speaking with other authors, to see the ups and downs of the marketplace segmentation.

Sales from the United States for me, and many others, are down. Way down. But interestingly, Australia and Canada have taken a bigger role in my sales than they ever have before. While I’ve always sold books to both regions, now they have taken much more market share. My UK sales dipped very low at one point to come back with a vengeance not long after. This all happened during the course of the UK lockdown, which was fascinating as you could practically see the nation go from collective anxiety to a “keep calm and carry on" mentality of acceptance.

Another reason for sales taking a dive is that many people are living a very different day-to-day existence than they were before. People who used to read on the commute are unlikely to be commuting now. Some people who have their children at home have had their days dramatically changed, and that little bit of reading time they would normally have to themselves may be taken up with looking after the children.

Paperbacks are also a part of the decline in sales. Many authors, like myself, are restricting the number of paperbacks available. My new release won’t be available as a paperback until the crisis is over and I think it’s acceptable to ask printers, warehouse staff, and postal workers to aid in the production and delivery of my paperbacks. Many readers have taken the decision themselves to not purchase paperbacks at the moment. And some printers have closed, meaning the supply of print books is effectively cutoff for some.

Of course, with physical bookshops closed that is another source of revenue lost for many authors. In fact, there have been reports of bookstores having to send paperbacks back to the printer, resulting in numerous returns for authors which means that some are making a loss on paperbacks at the moment due to the number of returns.

These factors and more mean that many authors are reporting a drop in sales. I’ll clarify again, this isn’t all authors and some have experienced no change whatsoever. But a lot of us are seeing earnings fall off a cliff at the moment and there’s a lot of talk about struggling to maintain creativity in these times.

I get this, I feel the same. Some days I can manage to put everything to one side and tune out the world and write. Somedays I find it difficult. Especially when you are effectively writing about things that are no longer possible, like going out for a meal, getting on a train, meeting someone new. These things that we took for granted just a few weeks ago are now banned in our everyday lives. It’s sometimes hard to write about these things without being reminded that we’ve all essentially become fantasy writers lately, weaving stories of strange new worlds where foreign travel and cinema trips are commonplace.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, despite being a bringer of doom and gloom, I’m here to say that all is not lost. Things will change. This crisis will pass and readers will need stories again, and they will need them like they have never needed them before. Once the collective, global, fear and anxiety of the situation has started to dissipate and we are allowed out of our houses and into a strange new world, missing a lot of our friends and family, we will need the support of good stories.

Hold on tight. Look after your mental health. And write if you can.

The human race has needed stories since the beginning of time. Being a creative has never been so important.

3 Comments

  • Todd Hicks

    Being an author and avid reader, books will always be a big part of my life. Although I buy e-books and paperbacks, I’ll always prefer paperback and hardback books.

  • T. Smith

    I happened upon your post looking for an egg but I read the whole post forgetting all about the egg. Being among the many “essential workers” in the US I’m sad to say my reading time has declined bc my working hours have doubled but every one of your words has truth, gave me another perspective to consider in this journey we are on and we will get to the other side. In my rare moments when I can keep my eyes open still, I am reading, it’s familiar, it’s normal, it’s home. Thank you for writing it all down in words for me to read, the news I tune out at this point. Writers are significant and their words have impact, I appreciate what you do, thanks!

  • Sally Morgan

    Excellent analysis. I, for one, am still reading. Technology helps to deter the feeling of complete isolation. Love the way you write. Sally

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