Culture Is About to Change

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most momentous events in recent history. It is going to change what books readers buy and what books authors write. 

Before we talk about the impact of the virus on reading trends, we need to talk about how trends work. And to understand trends, we must first understand resonance. I recorded an episode about resonance on my other podcast, so I will provide the CliffsNotes 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. Resonance is why some tones can break a wine glass while other tones cannot.

In physics, resonance is like pushing a child on a swing. If you are in resonance with the frequency of the swing, you push the swinging child as she swings away from you. You are encouraging the swing in the direction it already wants to go. If you get the frequency wrong, you will miss your push.

What Resonance Looks Like For Writers 

Novelists have resonance when their story resonates with the story going on in the heart of the reader. When a reader empathizes with a protagonist or gets angry when she is oppressed, the author has resonance.

Nonfiction writers have resonance when someone says, “Yes! This is what I have been feeling recently!” When someone feels understood and helped by an author or book, they tell their friends about it. That is resonance.

Writers must aim for resonance based on the spirit of the era in which they write.

In other words, writers need to be in tune with (or in resonance with) the cultural zeitgeist. 

Zeitgeist: “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.” 

– Merriam Webster Dictionary 

The word zeitgeist sounds pretentious, but there isn’t a better word. Please forgive me.

How to Find Your Resonance

Resonance is about three things.

1) Resonance is about timing. 

Culture changes over time. If you’re too early, and you are out of step with the zeitgeist, you will push the girl off the swing.

If you’re too late, you’re still out of step with the zeitgeist, and you are cliché. You are straining to push the swing after it is already out of reach. 

This is why authors are usually advised to read books in their genre. 

However, I suspect reading books in your genre is going to be less helpful at the moment because things are about to change. If you imitate books already published in your genre, you’ll be too late. The zeitgeist swing is cresting and is about to swing in the other direction. 

On the cusp of these cultural changes, it will be more useful to observe the world around you. 

2) Resonance is about the audience. 

Each community vibrates at its own frequency. Saying your book is for everyone is like standing at a swingset, trying to push all the swings at the same time. You must watch the motion of a specific swing–or observe a specific audience–in order to push at the right time.

You can’t resonate with every community. Being in sync with one community will necessarily put you out of sync with others. In general, women in nursing homes and men on basketball teams don’t read the same books. If you resonate with one community, you will not resonate with the other.

That’s why it’s important to know who your book is not for. If your cozy romance doesn’t resonate with basketball players, don’t worry about it. You weren’t aiming for resonance with that audience.

As a result of recent changes, different audiences are looking for the opposite things in a book. 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. 

3) Resonance is about listening. 

You need to listen to the music around you to be in tune with it. 

This is only the third time in my lifetime that the key of the music has changed. In my lifetime, the fall of the Berlin Wall, September 11, and now COVID-19 have changed the key of the music.

The notes, of course, are changing all the time, but major events change the key. Now, all the scales and intervals are played with different notes.  

If authors don’t change with the music, they’ll soon be out of tune.

Or put another way, you need to stay alert because the swing is at its highest point, and it’s about to switch directions. If you are not careful to observe the changing zeitgeist, you will push your readers away.  

When you watch a swing long enough, you can predict when it will change directions. To understand how culture is about to change, let’s look to history for some examples of when the zeitgeist has changed.

Pre-Y2K Books 

In the 1990s, there was a lot of uncertainty about the future, particularly as Y2K loomed on the horizon. The Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, played into this zeitgeist. 

Jenkins has admitted he doesn’t understand why Y2K helped him sell more books, but it did. This is why he rushed to publish three (3!) Left Behind books in 1999. While his books were not about Y2K, they played to that cultural, emotional dread, and they sold like crazy. They sold roughly a billion dollars worth of books because he had resonance, and he was able to strike while the iron was hot. 

Once Y2K rolled around, and the uncertainty and fear subsided, many readers lost interest in his books.  

Michael Hyatt also leveraged this fear by writing a New York Times bestselling nonfiction Y2K survival book called The Millennium Bug

Post-September 11 Stories

After September 11, 2001, the zeitgeist changed, and we saw a shift in action books. Namely, terrorists replaced criminals as the go-to bad guys in superhero movies and popular thrillers.

For example, Batman has always fought crime in Gotham City. But in the 1990s, the crime rate in the US fell each year. Urban areas started seeing historically low rates of crime. The fear of criminals, the mob, and crooks were not deeply felt by regular citizens.   

Batman films in the 90s didn’t do well because the bad guys felt cheesy, and there wasn’t an overwhelming fear of the typical “bad guys.”   

After September 11, Batman transformed. Instead of fighting criminals, he started fighting international terrorists like Ra’s al Ghul and Bane, and Batman movies became popular again. 

How to Adapt to the New World

Joker had to transition from a criminal into a domestic terrorist in order to keep the Batman stories relevant to post September 11 audiences.

As you adapt to this new post-pandemic world, you don’t have to change everything. The writers of Batman only had to change who the bad guys were.

Joker didn’t have to be replaced. He just had to transform from a crime boss into a domestic terrorist. 

If I were running a publishing company, I would re-evaluate my whole publishing schedule to see if the books scheduled to release will still resonate with readers by the time they release. 

What follows is a list of 13 predictions of how the post-COVID-19 zeitgeist will influence readers, writers, and publishing. Each prediction might prompt an idea to tweak your book to keep it in resonance with the changing times.

Prediction #1 Children’s Books Are Hot and Will Stay Hot

Celebrities are reading children’s books live on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during the pandemic. This is good for the specific picture books they read aloud as well as for the category as a whole. With so many kids at home, parents are buying children’s books to provide an alternative to screen time. It is no wonder children’s book sales are up

Between the coming condom shortage and the fact that many people are locked at home with nothing to do, I predict a baby boom later this year and early next year. If you thought a three-day-blizzard increased the birthrate, just wait until after months of lockdown.

This may even spark a new generational demarcation as the “Quarantines” or maybe “Generation Q.” These children may grow up in a world of face masks and social distancing. They may be the first generation to see handshaking go the way of the curtsy. A handshake may become an outdated gesture seen only in pre-COVID movies. 

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. In the game, players pick flowers, go fishing, and farm fruit trees. The game is a peaceful vacation that is super popular with adults.

Book genres like Amish Fiction that provide this sense of calm will continue to be popular and may become more popular as people look for an escape. 

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 their aesthetics and gameplay they have nothing in common. But the psychological motivation of the players is very similar—both long for an escape.

As you craft your story, think about how you can provide an escape for your reader. Will you take them on a visceral journey to conquer evil or a calm vacation to a piece of paradise?

Either way, your reader can escape through reading fiction.

Also as Alex at K-Lytics points out, people are also looking to escape with nonfiction topics like gardening and other hobbies. You can find more of his excellent analysis here. (Affiliate Link)

Prediction #3 Suffering Together Will Become a More Popular Trope

Suffering together is a theme that I think will resonate with many in this next season. Many stories feature a protagonist who suffers alone through the dark moment at the end of the second act. 

In the past, that model has resonated with the American individualist. But now, as a community, we are enduring a dark moment together. 

Your story will still need that dark moment, but a plot where the whole community suffers together may resonate with more readers than it would have last year.

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. 

But the fear of started to resonate again with the rise of climate-change plot lines.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded that nature can be very powerful and scary. COVID-19 will be with us for a while. It’s an RNA virus like influenza, and RNA viruses mutate faster than any other kind of virus. This is very scary! Especially if it mutates and returns again and again as influenza did.

This is a fear your readers will feel deep down. If your story resonates with that fear of nature, it will resonate with that reader.

How can you work nature into your story as an antagonist? How can your character overcome their fear of nature?

This is not an encouragement to write a plague book. That’s a shortcut to resonance. The more important thing is to understand how psychological motivation changes what people want to read.  

Prediction #5 Man-Against-Society Conflicts Will Grow in Popularity With Readers

Most of your readers will suffer more from the lockdown than they have from the virus itself. 

If the projected death toll is 100,000 in the US, and 26 million people have already lost their jobs. That means for every one person who is projected to die from COVID-19, 260 people lost their jobs.

Job loss is a psychological pain that people will carry into the future.

Picture the young woman who fought hard to get out of an abusive situation by working as a waitress. Now, she’s lost her job and must choose 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 desperate, angry, and scared.

She is harmed, not by the virus (which is little threat to her or her children), but by the response to the virus. She’s been harmed by people she feels have not listened to her. Her resentment toward those responsible for her jobless vulnerability is something that some readers 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 psychological pain they will carry into the future is the fear of the virus itself. 

From their perspective, the reckless acts of irresponsible kids who won’t stay home put everyone at risk. The lone ranger individualist is no longer the hero. The one who refuses to comply with social norms now represents the ultimate evil.  

Lone ranger individualists may make good antagonists for these kinds of readers. A theme that says, “We are all trying to stay safe together, and the bad guy is refusing to cooperate,” is one that will resonate with this kind of reader as well. 

Prediction #7 A Second Retail Apocalypse Is Coming

Comic by Tom Fish Burne

One factor that affects fiction and nonfiction writers is how our books are sold. 

Companies who resisted going online, like Half Price Books, are suffering far more than those who started with an online-first approach, like Thrift Books. Since they’re similar businesses, you’d think the pandemic would affect them in similar ways. While Half Price Books has to lay off employees, Thrift Books might be having some of their best months ever because they were already set up for online sales. 

In addition, Amazon deprioritized shipping nonessential items, like books, to focus on shipping essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Readers now have to wait for weeks to get their books from Amazon. Many choose to shop at other online retailers, like Thrift Books.

People have shifted to shopping online more than ever before. 

Consumers have switched to hybrid stores like Walmart and Target.

Hybrid “superstores” were allowed to stay open in most locations, while other smaller, specialized retailers were forced to close. If you needed to buy socks, the only store in town selling them might have been Walmart since it was also a grocery store and was allowed to remain open for business. 

Most traditional department stores, such as Macy’s or JCPenney, will see a permanent drop in customers as some of their previous customers never come back once the malls open. 

Malls were already seeing annual 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 rolling regional lockdowns start happening to fight city-specific outbreaks.

In a post-COVID-19 world, there is a huge advantage for a clothing store that also sells groceries. Watch for grocery stores to start buying up space previously used by non-grocery retailers, and for other stores to get into the grocery game. 

Indie Bookstores Will Struggle To Reopen

These changes will make a huge impact on bookstores and publishers. 

Indie bookstores in malls will continue to struggle. I don’t think Barnes & Noble will go out of business because they were recently purchased. Under new ownership, that infusion of capital will help them weather the economic turmoil.

Bookstores with coffee shops may also continue to suffer because the restrictions that apply to restaurants also apply to coffee shops. When other bookstores are allowed to open, those with coffee shops may have to remain closed.

Long term, indie bookstores will continue to exist. The demand for a bookstore with a literary feel will continue into the future. 

Traditional Publishers Will Be Hurt More Than Indie Publishers

Traditional publishers are becoming painfully aware of the disadvantages of not having a direct relationship with their readers as Amazon temporarily deprioritized shipping books. They make most of their money with paper books which they are struggling to sell right now as most of the paper book stores close.

Indie writers who have an ebook first strategy are filling in the gap of reader demand.

I anticipate indie novelists will take even more market share in Q1 and Q2. They already have direct relationships with their readers, and they already sell ebooks primarily through Amazon. While print books are locked up in the supply chain, ebooks are flying off the virtual shelves. 

Amazon Will Get Even more Powerful

The pandemic has been very good for Amazon. 

They’ve hired nearly 200,000 employees since the beginning of the pandemic to keep up with order fulfillment. Imagine two NFL football stadiums of new employees, and they’re still so far behind that they have turned off features on their website that encourage people to make more purchases. 

Amazon gained a lot of new customers who will stick around for a long time, and its solid command of the market has been entrenched. Kindle Fire sales are soaring which is bringing more readers into the Amazon ebook ecosystem.

Prediction #8 The Middle Class Will Continue to Split in Two 

Over the long-term, this may be one of the biggest factors that will influence the psychology of your readers. 

Many 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 groups along the lines of The Academy.

The majority of BizSTEM (Business, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine) majors kept their jobs during the lockdown because of their ability to work from home. This group will continue to advance as their salaries increase, and they can continue to pay off debt.

The Liberal Arts majors, who were some of the first to lose jobs, will fall deeper in debt. They may struggle to pay off loans and may have to move in with family members. 

Many of your readers will be more in debt next year than they were last year because of the economic disruption. This is ongoing stress is one your novel can resonate with, and your nonfiction book might be able to resolve it. 

Think about the ways economic uncertainty is changing your reader’s emotions, and adapt your story to resonate. 

Maybe your protagonist was promised an education that would help them. They were told that it didn’t matter what major they picked in college, and now they are feeling betrayed by the authorities in their lives.

Nonfiction writers can also address the issue of debt directly. Dave Ramsey and authors who help people manage financial uncertainty will do well in the coming year.

Prediction #9 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 in an ongoing way, but your books and characters can speak to that loneliness. 

The loneliness you are feeling right now is a feeling your older readers may still be feeling two years from now. 

Prediction #10 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 next year. 

If rolling lockdowns intermittently close schools, some parents may prefer to consistently teach their children at home rather than navigating the school’s curriculum on and off throughout the year. 

In other words, the homeschool market is about to get a lot bigger. 

Prediction #11 Dating, Marriage, and Divorce Will Be Hot Topics in 2021

I suspect 2021 will look a lot like 1946 in terms of marriage and divorce rates. In 1946 we saw a massive spike in both divorces and marriages.

This chart by Randal Olson shows the marriage and divorce numbers in the US.

The stress and trauma of World War II were too much for 500,000 marriages to handle. At the same time, there was also a marriage boom as returning GIs came home to marry their sweethearts.  

I’m predicting there will be a marriage boom because lockdown is a terrible time to be single.

Some single people have experienced something similar to prisoners in solitary confinement. 

Imagine living alone in an apartment, and you’re forbidden to leave the house. Even prisoners in solitary confinement are allowed to get out for one hour a day. Some single people have had no in-person human contact for weeks. 

It is psychologically damaging to be alone for that long, and it is traumatizing.

For someone on the fence about getting into a relationship, they will be pushed off the fence and into the arms of someone else feeling the same way.  

Simultaneously, some marriages will not be able to handle the stress lockdown has induced. 

Couples whose marriages were only hanging together because the spouses were apart at their respective offices have been put through the crucible of togetherness. 

Job loss will also contribute to financial and relational stress that can lead to divorce.

The newly married and newly divorced will be looking for books to help them recover, grow, or navigate their new status. If you are a marriage counselor or write about relationships, many readers will be looking for the help your book has to offer.

In fiction, themes of loneliness, relational stress, and connection will resonate with pain in the hearts of many readers in the coming year. 

Prediction #12 Readers Will Ultimately Be Flooded With Optimism 

Historically, once a season of plague passes (often within 3-5 years), society is left with a younger, healthier, wealthier population. Those who survive are full of optimism to build something new. Their survival creates an invulnerable kind of hubris. It leads to growth and change in societies.

After the Black Death, the serfs gained more power, freedom, and money. It was harder to oppress the peasants when the Lord next door offered them better working conditions, more rights, and better pay. Since both Lords were desperate for workers, they had to compete for the serfs. 

Arguably, it permanently improved the plight of the poor in Europe. It was still terrible to be a peasant, but it was better than it had been because the peasants had more power and more income.  

After the Spanish Flu, we saw the Roaring Twenties. It was a wave of optimism and hubris. The storm will be rough, but once it passes, those who survive will experience a fresh springtime of prosperity. 

When that time comes, authors who wrote books that resonated will reap the intrinsic rewards of knowing they’ve helped their fellow humans survive and thrive during and after a global pandemic. 

Stay alert and help your readers where they hurt. 

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