The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most historical events in recent history. It is going to change what books readers buy and what books authors write. To find out how, listen to this episode of Novel Marketing, the longest-running book marketing podcast in the world. This is the show for writers who want to build their platform, sell more books, and change the world with writing worth talking about.
Culture Is About to Change
Before we talk about the impact of the virus on reading trends we first need to talk about how trends work in the first place. And that means talking about resonance. I did a whole episode about resonance on my other podcast (we will have a link in the show notes) so I will only give the cliff notes version here.
How Resonance Works
Resonance is a musical term. A note can resonate in a room and make the whole room vibrate to the tone of that note. It is why some tones can break a wine glass while others can’t at the same volume.
In physics, it is like pushing a child on a swing. If you are in resonance with the frequency of the swing, you are pushing the child as she swings away from you. You are encouraging the swing in the direction it is already wanting to go. If you get the frequency wrong you miss your push or you push the child off the swing.
What Resonance Looks Like:
- As novelists, you have resonance when your story resonates with the story going on in someone’s heart.
- As nonfiction, you have resonance when someone says “Yes! This is what I have been feeling recently!”
I will be using the word zeitgeist a lot in this episode and I thought it would be good to define it quickly.
Zeitgeist: “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era”
I think the word zeitgeist sounds pretentious, but there is just no better word. So please forgive me.
How to Find Your Resonance
Resonance is about three things.
1) Resonance is about timing. Culture changes over time.
- Too early, and you are out of step with the Zeitgeist. You are pushing the girl off the swing.
- Too late, and you are cliche. You are pushing after the swing has already out of reach.
- This is why it is so important to read the books in your genre.
2) Resonance is about audience.
- Each community vibrates at their own frequency.
- Saying your book is for everyone is like standing at a bank of swings trying to push all the swings at the same time.
- You have to watch the motion of a specific swing in order to push at the right time.
- You can’t resonate with every community.
- Being in sync with one community will put you out of sync with others.
- Women in nursing homes and men on basketball teams don’t read the same books.
- You need to know who your book is not for. That way, you don’t need to worry if they are unhappy about your book.
- As you will hear in a moment, some readers are looking for the exact opposite things in their books as a result of the recent changes.
- While we are all in this together we are not responding the same way. As an author you need to know how your readers are responding if you want your writing to resonate with them.
- You need to join the community you want to reach.
- If they won’t accept you, you won’t be able to find resonance with them.
- If you hate science fiction and want to write a book to “fix” it, you will fail. This is what is wrong with The Last Jedi. It wasn’t made by fans of Star Wars. They tried to “fix” something millions of people don’t think was broken. Making Luke Skywalker a coward, the rebellion incompetent, and Rey a nobody was the “fix” that broke Star Wars.
3) Resonance is about listening.
- You need to be able to hear the music around you to be in tune with it.
- What is interesting is that this is only the 3rd time in my lifetime the key of the music has changed. If you don’t change with it, soon you will be out of tune.
- Those three times were the fall of the Berlin Wall, September 11 and now COVID-19.
- Or put another way, you need to watch the swings because they are about to change directions. If you are not careful, you will push your readers away if you don’t see how things are changing.
When you look at a swing long enough, you can predict when it will change directions. So to understand how culture is about to change, let’s look back in time a bit.
Pre Y2k Books
Back in the 1990s there was a lot of uncertainty around the future, particularly as Y2k became a bigger issue. The Left Behind series played into this zeitgeist. Jerry Jankins has admitted he doesn’t understand why y2k helped him sell more books but it did. This is why he rushed to published 3 (3!) Left Behind Books in 1999. Once y2k rolled around, a lot of readers lost interest in his books.
Post September 11 Books
We see a change in action books because of September 11. Namely terrorists replace criminals as the go to bad guys in superhero movies and popular thrillers. This is a combination of the long term trend of crime rates falling throughout the 1990s and the fear of terrorists growing.
For example, Batman went from fighting criminals to fighting international terrorists like Ra’s al Ghoul and Bane.
How to Adapt to the New World
What is important is how little the Batman stories had to change to get back into resonance with culture. Joker didn’t have to be replaced, he just had to transform from a crime boss into a domestic terrorist.
Most of what I will be talking about is minor tweaks you can make to your book to keep it in resonance as it changes.
The Zeitgeist is changing very fast right now. If I were running a publishing company I would totally re-evaluate my whole publishing schedule to see if the books scheduled to come out will still resonate with readers.
Prediction #1 Children’s Books Are Hot and Will Stay Hot
Celebrities are reading children’s books live on Twitter and YouTube, during the pandemic. This is not only good for the specific picture books they are reading but for the category as a whole. With so many kids at home, it is no wonder children’s book sales are up.
Between the coming condom shortage and the fact that a lot of people are locked at home with nothing to do, I predict a baby boom later this year and early next year. If you thought three day blizzard baby booms were bad, just wait till you see the two month lockdown baby boom.
This may even spark a new Generation demarcation as the “Quarantines” or “Generation Q” grow up exclusively in a world of face masks and social distancing. This may be the first generation to see hand shaking as a historical act only seen in pre covid movies.
This is why the children’s book business is going to be bright for a while.
Prediction #2 People Will Continue Longing for Escape
It is no surprise that one of the most popular video games right now is Animal Crossing New Horizons. According to Venture Beat, Animal Crossing is more popular than Mario and Zelda. This is a game where you pick flowers, go fishing, and farm fruit trees. The game is a peaceful vacation that is super popular with adults.
Book genres like Amish that give this sense of calm will still be popular and might get more popular as people look for an escape. Any kind of escape books will be popular moving forward.
The other popular video game right now is Doom Eternal where players shoot demons from hell with a shotgun. Different kinds of people escape in different ways. These games may not look similar, and in aesthetics and gameplay they have nothing in common. But in the psychological motivation of the players is very similar.
Prediction #3 Suffering Together Will Become a More Popular Trope
Suffering together is a theme that I think will be more resonant in this next season. A lot of stories have protagonists suffering alone through the dark moment at the end of the second act.
Try writing that story again but it is the whole community suffering and not just the individual.
Prediction #4 Man Against Nature Conflicts Will Continue to Grow in Popularity
In modern times, man against nature plots have failed to resonate with readers because nature stopped being as scary as we conquered it with technology. It is hard to relate to the fear our ancestors felt when the big bad wolf was an actual threat.
This started changing with the rise of climate change plot lines. As more and more readers grew concerned that we were changing nature in ways that will end up hurting us.
I think nature has gotten a lot more scary in the last few months. And COVID-19 will be with us for a while. It is an RNA virus like influenza and RNA viruses mutate faster than any other kind of virus. This means it won’t just go away. It will return, potentially for decades just like influenza returns again and again. This is scary! And it is a fear your readers will feel deep down. If your story can resonate with that fear, it will resonate with that reader.
How can you work nature into your story as an antagonist?
Prediction #5 Man Against Society Conflicts Will Grow in Popularity With Readers
Most of your readers have suffered more from the lockdown than they have from the virus itself. For every 1 person who is projected to die from COVID-19, 100 people have already lost their jobs. A lot of people blame the government for the loss of their jobs and certain kinds of stories will resonate with those readers.
Picture the young woman who fought hard to get out of an abusive situation by working as a waitress and now is trying to decide between not being able to feed her kids and having to move back in with her abuser because she is out of money. She is harmed not by the virus (which is little threat to her or her children) but by the response to the virus. Her resentment is something that some authors will be able to resonate with.
Prediction #6 Society Against Man Conflicts Will Also Grow in Popularity With Readers
For readers who did not lose their jobs, the lone rangers represent the ultimate evil. From their perspective, the reckless actions of these irresponsible kids are putting everyone at risk. Lone ranger individualists may make good antagonists for these kinds of readers. “We are all trying to stay safe together and the bad guy is refusing to cooperate.” Is a conflict I see resonating with this kind of reader as well.
Prediction #7 A Second Retail Apocalypse Is Coming
Comic by Tom Fish Burne
People not only shifted their non food shopping online, they also switched to hybrid stores like WalMart and Target which were allowed to stay open in most places while other retailers were forced to close. If you needed to buy socks, the only store in town selling them may have been Wal-Mart since it was also a grocery store.
Most traditional department stores will see a permanent drop in customers as some of their customers never switch back once the malls open. Malls were already watching year over year declines and the pandemic will only make it worse. Look for mergers, buyouts, and closures despite governmental attempts to keep these dinosaurs alive.
I also anticipate some retailers will pivot into selling food so they can stay open once the rolling regional lockdowns start happening to fight city specific outbreaks. In a post COVID-19 world there is a big benefit in being a clothing store that is also a grocery store. So look for grocery stores to start buying up space previously used by non grocery retailers.
Traditional publishers are seeing the problem of not having a direct relationship with their readers as Amazon deprioritizes books to make room for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I am anticipating indie novelists will take even more market share in Q1 and Q2 since they already have direct relationship with thier readers who are already using Amazon.
The pandemic has been very good for Amazon. They are hiring as fast as possible and they are struggling to keep up with demand. Their already solid command of the market has been entrenched. That said, I hope indie bookstores will return to full strength but since many of them double as coffee shops, they will fall victim to the rolling regional lockdowns.
Companies who went paperless have a huge edge over companies whose employees had to be in the office to deal with office paper. It is a lot easier to all work form home if your office is already paperless.
Prediction #7 The Middle Class Will Continue to Split in Two
A lot of economic trends that have been slowly growing have been kicked into overdrive. For the last decade or two, the middle class has been breaking into two between along the lines of The Academy. BizSTEM majors who more or less kept their jobs during the lockdown will continue to rise economically and Liberal Arts majors who mostly lost their jobs will fall deeper in debt.
Many of your readers will be more in debt next year than they were last year. This is a stress your story can resonate with. It is a stress your nonfiction book might be able to help resolve.
Economic uncertainty, economic planning, will resonate more with post pandemic readers than it did before.
Also the protagonist characters who were promised that it didn’t matter what major they picked in college feeling betrayed will resonate with younger readers.
Prediction #8 Some Readers May Remain Shut in and Lonely For Years
For older and immune compromised readers, it may be years before it is safe for them to go back to the lives they knew before the pandemic. This isolation will be difficult to negotiate emotionally. Which is where your books could come in to help.
The loneliness you are feeling right now is a feeling your older readers may still be feeling two years from now.
Prediction #9 Homeschooling Will Be a Hot Topic Among Readers
Most parents can’t wait to get their kids back in traditional schools. But some parents, especially those who were already on the fence about homeschooling, will be homeschooling for the first time nest year. In other words, the homeschool market is about to get a lot bigger.
Prediction #10 Dating, Marriage, & Divorce Will Be Hot Topics in 2021
I predict that 2021 will be a lot like 1946 in terms of marriage and divorce rates. 1946 saw a massive spike in both divorces as marriages that ended during the war were legally ended. At the same time, there was also a marriage boom as returning GI’s came home to marry their best girls.
The lockdown is a terrible time to be single. Some single people have experienced life similar to what prisoners experience in solitary confinement. Imagine living alone in an apartment forbidden to leave the house. Prisoners in solitary are allowed one hour a day to get out. Some single people have had no in person human contact for weeks.
For someone on the fence about getting into a relationship, they will be pushed off the fence and into the arm of someone else feeling the same way.
Simultaneously, marriages that were only staying together because the spouses were able to spend a lot of time apart will have been put through the crucible not to mention the financial and societal stresses.
Prediction #11 Readers Will Be Struggling with Depression & Grief
With so many people dying alone. That is a psychological pain that may follow them for years. One of the most powerful tools against depression is exercise, and with the gyms closed and people encouraged to stay closed, depression is likely to spike.
Prediction #12 Readers Will Ultimately Be Flooded With Optimism
Historically once a season plague passes (which usually takes 3-5 years) society is left with a younger, healthier, wealthier population. Those who survive are full of optimism to build something new.
After the Black Death we saw surfs get more power, freedoms and money. It is harder to oppress the peasants when the Lord next door is offering them better conditions and you are both desperate for workers.
After the Spanish Flu we saw the roaring 20s. The storm will be rough but once it passes, for those who survive there will be a fresh springtime of prosperity.
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Carrie Daws The Embers Series A hurricane and a series of unexplained fires hits too close to home. What will it cost inspector Cassandra McCarthy do to protect the citizens of Silver Heights? ” Carrie Daws https://amzn.to/2xTjgGK “
Inspector Cassandra McCarthy never thought she’d be raising her two daughters alone, but her husband’s unexpected death forced her to find a career. Now working beside a retired Special Operations soldier and veteran fireman, she serves her small North Carolina town, protecting them from hazards they don’t understand. She loves what she does and trusts God to provide—until a hurricane and a series of unexplained fires hits too close to home. What will it cost Cassandra to protect the citizens of Silver Heights? ”
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