The coronavirus pandemic did not just put a damper on things, it also cost the publishing industry millions of dollars.
It happened in a series. For an author like Paul Lisicky, the nightmare of having to live through a pandemic isn’t like dropping a huge bomb and watching his 2020 plans explode into a giant pile of rubble.
On the contrary, it happened with one canceled event, and another, until he hit off the twenty-two stops on his cross country book tour.”No one gave me a phone call and said, ‘Your book tour is canceled.’ It all went down one by one. It felt like a kick to the heart,” Lisicky recounted.
The book tour wasn’t supposed to go this way. In fact, it was all planned out, as he was scheduled to appear at twenty-two bookstores over the course of six weeks. Beginning in mid-March, his journey was set to take him to indie booksellers all across the United States, from Brooklyn to Portland, Los Angeles to Chicago, San Francisco to Houston.
He was just prepping up for the release of his sixth book, a memoir of the AIDS crisis titled Later: My Life at the Edge of the World.
Well, that was the plan- until COVID-19 happened. Soon, other authors and publishers had to watch as the industry topple down like dominos. Everybody takes a hit whether they might be big or small.
Let’s admit it, everything was just plain chaotic.
Booksellers closing their doors to the public, publishers scrambling to turn a profit in a disrupted market, and writers imperiled as their sources of income evaporate. Authors like Lisicky had to anxiously wait as their long-awaited launch had to push back, for no one knows how long.
On the other hand, others had to deal with the daunting task of launching their books into a landscape that can’t seem to receive them in a traditional manner. However, what makes everything really surprising is that despite the mess, chaos, and uncertainty, the publishing industry is coming together to a forceful and impassioned defense of those who make their livelihood through books, whether it’s selling them or creating them.
Generally, a book tour is many things: a means to move sales numbers, a forum for lively conversation, a process by which the literary establishment crowns rising stars and celebrates established names. On the personal level, it’s also a “victory lap,” as Emma Copley Eisenberg describes it—a celebration that happens only once every five to seven years for well, your average writer.
Eisenberg is the debut author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, a work of narrative nonfiction about two unsolved murders that occurred in Pocahontas County, West Virginia circa 1980. With her book hitting shelves in January, Eisenberg managed to evade the brunt of the pandemic; nonetheless, seven events on the back end of her tour were canceled, while a number of press opportunities were scuttled as news organizations shifted their priorities.
“On the one hand, you know that your woes are very small in the grand scheme of things,” Eisenberg said. “Obviously it’s a huge blessing that my book is out at all, but you have a vision of what it will be like to publish a book, especially your first book. It’s an experience that lacks a great deal of control, to begin with, and with the additional tragedy of these events, it introduces even more factors beyond your control. No matter how much you hustle, it’s up to the universe how the book performs, at this point. I feel a mix of resignation and retreat, but also a disappointment, frenetic energy, sadness for others—all those feelings all at once.”
In an age when hugs and cross-country travel are no longer possible, book tours are going digital. Instead of a packed bookstore teeming wall to wall with folding chairs.
However, throughout all the chaos, a new hero emerges, all thanks to Zoom.
Today, a standard literary event in the time of coronavirus consists of the featured author and a moderator Zooming in from their respective homes, with audience members free to come and go from the video chat as they please. For authors like Lisicky, the new format made the surprising turn-out, as more people started to tune in from the comfort of their own homes.
“Often the numbers are higher for my Zoom events than they are for a traditional bookstore reading,” Lisicky said. “I don’t mean to sound optimistic, but I’ve really enjoyed connecting with audiences in this way. People check-in from all over. There was someone from Singapore who heard me read at one of these events. My old students are joining, and people from my publisher, too. That kind of wall-smashing is exciting to me.”
What makes it really great is that from moving from one city to another, you can have your own press release, no matter where your audience is. Plus, it also takes away the additional jitters of participating in a virtual reading and encouraging readers who might have been shy in a packed room.
Lisincky says that while he’s one of those people who really enjoys those bookstore events, he had to admit that a certain barrier goes down when people are seeing you in a more relaxed setting. “I think there are people who are more likely to talk and ask questions from the audience than they would in a physical space, because in a physical space with others, they’re often intimidated and don’t want to look stupid or dull.”
For Eisenberg, one important key to remember on holding a virtual book tour has been to accept the limitations of these events and to embrace their unique capabilities. She cites the useful addition of Zoom’s chat function, pointing out that it gives an author the ability to receive audience feedback while taking the virtual stage.
“Whenever I try to make it like what it would’ve been like in person, it feels disappointing, but whenever I try to lean into what a digital platform can offer that an in-person approach can’t, it feels really fun,” Eisenberg said.
What’s great about using an online platform is that it gives both authors and readers an unprecedented sense of intimacy—one that can bond audience members through the shared strangeness of attending a literary event in sweatpants, to be certain, though in other cases, that same intimacy can bring authors a bit too close to their adoring public for comfort.
“We’re living in this very awkward and funny time now where, when you go on Zoom, you can see people’s homes, their pets, their partners walking through, or their kids taking a piano lesson in the background,” Eisenberg said. “There’s something strangely very intimate about it, yet at the same time, it can feel disconnected if people don’t turn their cameras on. There’s a lot more room for mistakes and weirdness, which makes it feel both different and cool at the same time.”