Lockdown: the author's perspective

Many authors live in a perpetual state of anxiety. Anxiety our books won’t sell. Anxiety we won’t get a new deal. Anxiety our reviews will suck.

So it goes without saying the past few weeks have taken those anxieties to a whole new level. This is reflected in the posts I’m reading every day in the Savvy Writers’ Snug, the Facebook group I run for published authors.

Though the industry is trying to remain optimistic, we authors aren’t stupid. We read about physical bookstores closing. We watch as the prioritisation of essential items causes delivery and placement issues in supermarkets and online retailers like Amazon.

All of this is making us feel, as one Sunday Times bestselling author told the group, “wobbly”. We’re bracing ourselves for the impact on book sales. “Hoping for the best,” another bestselling author wrote, “but preparing for the worst.”

In fact, the ramifications are already being seen. A novelist whose next book is due out soon told us her book tour and related events have all been cancelled. Book launch dates are being postponed and one author shared that her editor just informed her not one supermarket has taken her book on, despite a very successful supermarket run last year.   

Authors are also worried about contracts being renewed as economic instability reigns, not to mention the impact on advances and overseas deals. Though editors I’ve spoken to tell me it’s business as usual –Phoebe Morgan, Editorial ​Director at HarperCollins said: “We don’t want the virus to dampen our passion or stop us from bringing wonderful authors to the list” –  the fear is still there.

Truth is, we’re not unused to feeling this way, even before these unprecedented times. We all know this business is a rollercoaster ride and it’s probably best to have the skin of a rhino to get through it. At the moment, I’m sensing from the group there’s a feeling of resigned acceptance, no matter how much things are sugar-coated.

And let’s be honest - this industry loves a bit of sugar-coating.

This is another frustration at the moment. While some authors prefer not to know the more negative stuff, many authors would prefer to be fully informed. Arm us with the facts, even if those facts don’t smell of roses.

We understand editors aren’t always going to know the answers though, especially right now. Or maybe they simply don’t have time to engage because they have a toddler hanging off their arm or they’re home schooling their kids. But now more than ever, communication is key, even if it’s a quick one-line email.

The fact is, as chaos descends, knowledge helps us keep our head above water. It helps us understand what to do to try to wrestle some control back.

So how can we authors wrestle control back? One of the things I’ve been advising authors to do is make the most of digital formats. As my own (brilliantly communicative and honest!) agent Caroline Hardman told me, while a decline in physical sales is a safe assumption at least in the short term, hopefully this will be mitigated by digital sales. In fact, we’re already seeing this as e-book and audio sales go up

This renewed focus on digital formats can be tough for authors who are particularly immersed in the more traditional world of physical book sales. This is especially the case if they've previously been wary of some of the strategies used to push e-book sales, such as low price points and e-book giveaways as reader magnets – a topic that often comes up in the Savvy Writers’ Snug and attracts polarised views. But this really is the time for authors to embrace digital if they haven’t already.

As Isobel Akenhead of Bookouture told me: "The advantage of the digital model is that it can function broadly in exactly the same way as it ever has, so we do not need to implement any change right now to keep getting great books into the hands of the readers who need them."

This is also the time to double down on doing what we love best: writing. As many readers are finding solace in words, so must we.  

Staying focused when writing is a real challenge though, an issue coming up again and again in the group the past few days. Many authors are juggling writing with home schooling and often their day job too (allbeit based from home now). But what is also clear is that once the focus does come, writing is a wonderful distraction from what’s happening in the world right now.

And in the end, it’s our best chance of coming out the other end of this. Keep writing great books and we have more chance of making a success of this job we all love, despite all the challenges we might face. After all, now more than ever, the world needs good stories.