Oline H. Cogdill

(Mystery Scene begins a three-part series on virtual book tours. Today, an overview of virtual tours; Wednesday, we offer a list of tips for a successful tours; next Sunday, a look at Noir at the Bar.)


Among the casualties of the pandemic are the de rigueur books tours often launched within a week of the novel being published. But even as bookstores and libraries are starting to reopen, restrictions limit the number of people who can be in the facility at the same time. Plus, many readers and authors are concerned about being in a large group.

In-person events may have been halted, but books are still being published. And book buying is on the increase—up nearly 7 percent, according to industry figures.

Enter the virtual book tour.

While publishers, bookstore owners and authors agree that in-person events are preferable, the virtual tours have added a new dimension to book promotion and brought in new readers—and buyers. Online platforms such as Zoom, Crowdcast and Facebook Live, among others, are now a part of the publishing vocabulary.

Just a couple of months ago, few if any bookstores, publicists or authors were thinking that virtual tours would be the norm. But the publishing industry doesn’t stop and new authors need readers, and readers need those authors. For many, the learning curve has been fast and furious. For simplicity, let’s call them virtuals.

“The amazing thing that we figured out instantly is the ability to capitalize on chats with authors who would not be visiting [our store] ordinarily—especially international authors,” said McKenna Jordan, owner of Murder by the Book in Houston. She estimates her store has virtually hosted nearly 100 authors and has scheduled around 40 in the next five weeks alone. “We got creative with our proposals immediately, and so far we haven't received a ‘no’ response.”

“They [virtuals] are our only option at the moment to support authors, publishers, our customers, and incidentally keep the lights on,” said Barbara Peters. owner and event coordinator at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, which holds about three online events each week.

“We know that readers love connecting with authors. With most bookstores closed, readers still want that personal connection. Virtual events are really the next best thing to an in-store event,” said Danielle Bartlett, publicity director at William Morrow.

Sarah Melnyk, assistant director of publicity at St. Martin's Press and Minotaur Books, and her colleague Hector DeJean, associate director of publicity, have set up many virtuals. “More people are willing to see their favorite authors virtually than we initially thought when we first started trying it,” said Melnyk. DeJean added. “Anyone, anywhere, can finally see some of their favorite authors speak and be interviewed at some of the best book festivals and bookstores in the country—no travel, no mask, no handwashing required. Or a shower for that matter.”

The choice to go virtual also appealed to authors, many of whom view it as more than a business plan. “I think it’s a way of continuing the sense of community that has always been in the mystery genre,” said Michael Connelly, who has done many virtuals in the past few months since the release of Fair Warning (Little, Brown) about his journalism character Jack McEvoy.

“One thing people can do at home is read—and there’s now an opportunity for readers to buy books and also hear from a writer they love but never saw in person at their local bookstore,” said Rachel Howzell Hall, whose new novel And Now She’s Gone (Forge) is scheduled for September publication. “Folks are showing up and buying books—and that is exciting.”

Megan Abbott, whose novel Dare Me was the foundation of a USA Network series, estimates she has done seven virtuals, including group readings to raise money for a bookstore, a few “round tables,” and two book launches where she interviewed the author with the new novel. “I've missed the crime fiction community during all this and it's been so nice to ‘see’ one another and hear from readers.” said Megan Abbott.

“The sense of community is strong. Despite the inevitable tech issues that come with events of this complexity, everyone is just happy to be together, joking in the chat or just listening to a variety of crime writers share their new or upcoming work. It's really been a balm,” said Alex Segura, whose latest novel is the Anthony-nominated Miami Midnight (Polis Books).

(A story on tips for doing virtual book tour will run Wednesday, July 22.)

PURCHASE POWER
The goal of virtuals is the same as in-person events—to sell books. Many bookstores have a link or “a button” that readers can use to instantly order a book even during the presentation. Some virtuals are free while other bookstores charge anywhere from $5—which can be applied to any book purchase—to the cost of the novel, often including free shipping. That button or link may also require extra software that may be worth the investment.

Ed Aymar has been partnering with several bookstores in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area as he and Alex Segura organize virtual Noirs at the Bar. (Separate story on Noir at the Bar runs Sunday, July 26.)

Each Noir at the Bar include a “button” as the multiple authors read an excerpt. Aymar said that “most of [the bookstores] are reluctant to share the specifics of their sales. But I always follow up with the bookstore after the event has ended, and they’ve all been excited about the results,” said Aymar, whose latest novel The Unrepentant (Down and Out Books), written under the name E.A. Aymar, was nominated for a 2019 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.

“Realistically, I realize that all we can do is provide a temporary bump, but I hope it’s significant,” added Aymar, whose novel They’re Gone comes out in November under the pseudonym E.A. Barres.

Virtuals sometimes go beyond the typical reading.

DeJean mentioned that one bookstore came up with “a twist” for Brian Panowich, author of Hard Cash Valley (Minotaur). “Instead of hosting a virtual event, they had Brian create a Facebook post recommending a couple of books he liked, and advising people to buy from that store. The store then posted this on their Facebook feed,” said DeJean, adding that Panowich “had a lot of great things to say about the experience” of the half-dozen or so virtual events.

Joanne Sinchuck, manager of Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore in Delray Beach, Florida, believes the virtual option is key to conducting her annual 10-week FLAuthors Academy, which offers workshops on writing led by published authors such as Hank Phillippi Ryan, Charles Todd, Jane Cleland and Paul Levine. “It's the only way during the pandemic. We can't fit 20 people in the store and do social distancing. Our writers’ workshops are great for virtual events.”

Sometimes, extras are added to the virtual experience.

“[We had] success with tchotchkes and signed bookplates very early on in the pandemic to drive sales to us rather than the big A. [So], we have made sure to have either signed books, signed bookplates, or some kind of desirable freebie that comes with the purchase from us. We even designed and quickly printed 2,000 custom [bookstore] bookplates to mail to authors who didn't have their own,” said Jordan, of Murder by the Book.

Geography also helps. “If the store is the author’s local store, books can be shipped directly to the author to sign and then sent to the store for shipment to readers. Many authors are also signing bookplates and then shipping them to various stores for readers,” said Loren Jaggers, assistant director of publicity for Berkley Books.

DeJean said that Minotaur “can send bookplates for the authors to sign and send on to the hosting bookstore for any fan that purchases their book.”

Jordan added that at Murder by the Book, “We had signed books for our separate events with Michael Connelly and John Grisham, who very quickly confirmed on Friday for an event the [following] Tuesday. Those sales were comparable to normal signed book sales for us and those authors. Definitely not as strong as an in-person event would have been for Connelly. We've found that the live, in-the-moment viewership on Facebook is comparable to, or more than we would have in store.”

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
Teamwork also often works. Jordan said, “If your publicist wants to set up an event for you, and you happen to know people within your writing community who might be willing to chat with you, please do everything you can to set up an in-conversation style event. Bonus points for them having a new book out also. Unlike in-person events, these really need to be a discussion between two people, and any help you can provide the store or your publicist with finding that pairing would be greatly appreciated,” she added.

DeJean suggests “Tell your publicist which author friends you have in your same genre so they can possibly interview you for your events to create a conversational feel with good chemistry. That author friend will be the one to laugh at your jokes, and that will help keep you going.”

Authors also suggest events with those who do not write mysteries. Michael Nava, whose latest novel is Carved in Bone (Persigo Press) has done a couple of events with other LGBTQ writers, including Queer at the Bar, and an on-line reading sponsored by Pegasus Books in Oakland, California. He also has read with others who do not write in the genre, including an event with poets Tureeda Mikell and Sarah Kobrinsky.

SUPPORTING THE BOOKSTORES
In addition to promoting books, many authors also view these virtuals as a way to help support independent bookstores that were forced to close their doors during the pandemic. Even with more stores opening up, restrictions still exist on the number of customers allowed in the doors.

“We’re fortunate in the D.C. region to have an abundance of wonderful, independent bookstores, and we don’t want to lose a single one. We do sell books through those events, but hopefully we’re introducing readers to stores they might not have known about, and helping to create a lasting relationship between the two,” added Aymar.

The proof is in the numbers. Most virtual events have reminders before, during and after the event that books are available at the hosting bookstore as well as showing a link or a “button” readers can click.

“For us, it has been huge—brought us thousands of views,” said Peters, who added that Poisoned Pen has a 20,000-plus email list, which helps get the word out as well as the authors’ social media presence.

And that purchasing power may continue after the event has stopped.

Jordan said she has noticed a “long tail on viewership and orders. We're still getting one-off orders for the Julia Spencer-Fleming book, an event we hosted in April. We've found the same to be true with our dozens of at-home recommendation videos. Because all of them are available on YouTube—a key element in capturing our older viewership particularly—we're still getting phone calls and orders for books we recommended two months ago.”

And that doesn’t just apply to new books.

“The virtual events seem to be selling a lot of the authors' backlist--which tells me that people are happy to sit at home and watch an event introducing them to a new author, more so than making a trip to an event for someone they don't know. So that's kind of cool... Lots of first-in-series or paperbacks being ordered based on the talks,” said Jordan.

“I’ve also noticed that older books of mine have also had a new life. Books are never ‘spoiled,’ or ‘expired.’ That’s a great thing for writers—and your books can find a ‘second life’ now that more people are meeting you during a virtual event,” said Hall, author of They All Fall Down.

SEE, LISTEN, BUY

Readers are embracing virtuals, including book discussions, interviews and book clubs.

“I have noticed they draw more viewers than in-person events normally draw,” said Connelly, who mentioned his virtual at Book Passage in Corta Madera, California. “I’ve done live events there many times and usually draw about 200 people. The virtual event drew 2,000 viewers live and then was posted online for other viewers to see. So, the message about the book is spread farther.”

Edgar Award winner Alison Gaylin also noticed an uptick in the number of people attending virtuals. “Most of these events have been really well-attended, with much bigger audiences than I've tended to see at in-person events,” said Gaylin, whose events include the Center for Fiction with Megan Abbott, a Noir at the Bar to benefit several charities and several readings for an anthology.

“I do think it's a good way to keep up visibility and, from what I've seen, find new readers from all over the country who might never have been able to make it to an in-person event,” added Gaylin, who won the Edgar Award for If I Die Tonight in 2019 and was nominated for an Edgar for What Remains of Me (2017), Stay With Me (2015) and Hide Your Eyes (2006).

“I’ve noticed when I’ve gone to book launches for my friends, there may be 200 to 300 people in that virtual room—much more than at a physical launch,” said Naomi Hirahara, who latest book is Iced in Paradise (Prospect Park Books).

Timing also is important. Hirahara moderated one of Connelly’s first virtuals for Fair Warning with Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California. “I believe we had 55 participants, which wasn’t bad as it was scheduled only a few days after the first weekend of the George Floyd protests. In other words, there was a lot happening. A 5.7 aftershock even hit during the interview. It was certainly a California phenomenon,” Hirahara said.

Virtuals also have no boundaries—stretching to international viewers. “Fans aren’t limited by geography,” said Jaggers of Berkley Books.

Jordan mentioned several international events have enhanced her store’s events and her customers’ experience. “It's been a treat to talk with Martin Walker in the Périgord, and Alexander McCall Smith from his beautiful study in Scotland. We're excited, for example, to speak with Anna Downes in Australia. That wouldn't have happened if not for this,” Jordan added. “Discussing books with people all over the world is certainly going to create a lasting thing.”

That international flair was immediately brought home to Connelly. “[Fair Warning] came out the same week throughout the world and the virtual tour allowed me to make “appearances” at online events in the U.S., U.K. and Australia all in the opening week. I couldn’t do that in person.”

Hirahara agreed: “This is a great opportunity to reach readers from other parts of the nation and even the world without leaving your home. As our readers get more acclimated to participating in book talks this way, we will have more opportunities to do this after the pandemic is over.”

Different publishing schedules helped Sujata Massey increase her readers overseas. Her new series centers on a female attorney practicing in 1921 India with the novels The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone, a winner of the Lefty (Bruce Alexander Historical Fiction Award) and a finalist for Sue Grafton Award and the Harper Lee Legal Fiction Prize.

While The Satapur Moonstone was a hardcover last year and a paperback release in March 2020 from Soho Press, the novel is a fairly new release in Australia, Finland, Italy and India. All these publishers have asked for her assistance with online promotion in different ways. Her Australian publisher set up a Zoom event for her to chat directly with readers. “I have a great base there, many of whom have already read The Widows of Malabar Hill, so I think this will make sense. They are doing it in conjunction with an independent bookstore in Australia, so some books will hopefully sell. They’ve also set up phone interviews for me with public radio hosts and podcasters,” she said.

Massey’s Italian publisher asked her to post messages on Instagram to readers that tag Italian book influencers. “I went to promote Widows in Milan a few years ago, so I actually met a number of these bloggers and Instagrammers in person.” Her publisher in India invited her to be part of a serial comic novel, which was on Instagram TV and featured 15 writers, each contributing a chapter and reading aloud on Instagram. “Easter night, I was sitting up late in my living room, in a fancy dress and full makeup, reading my 8-minute long contribution!” she added.

But sometimes support comes closer to home. “My family, scattered all across the western US has seen me read now more than ever—my mom gets to enjoy the fruits of her labor,” said Hall

BACK TO THE FUTURE

While each author, bookstore owner and publicist said they prefer—and miss—live, in-person events, each also mentioned that virtual tours are here to stay, and may evolve into a hybrid situation because now “there are creative options open,” said Peters of Poisoned Pen.

“I’ve actually noticed that authors are drawing about the same amount of people online as they would have at an in-store event,” added Bartlett of Morrow. “The difference here is that the digital events live online forever. So if someone is not able attend, they can go back at watch the event later. I don’t think this will replace all live events but I think that virtual events will be more common in the future. I do think in-person and virtual events can live together for an author. They each offer their own unique benefits.”

Jaggers of Berkley agreed: “I doubt virtual events will replace in-person events in the long run. However, even when stay at home orders are completely lifted, readers may be wary of going into spaces with groups. The success of these virtual events also has shown us a great option for connecting international author with their U.S. readers when travel may not be possible.”

While readers leave when a live presentation is finished, DeJean and Melnyk of Minotaur see an advantage to the virtual events. “In some cases, we’ve seen what might be more people attending during the live stream, and even more people have watched it afterward, when it becomes available for viewing. So in some ways, more people attend,” said DeJean.

"It’s still not the same as a fan being able to meet and get their book signed by an author in person, shake their hand, and get a picture, so live events will probably not get permanently replaced. But we may find ways to offer both models in the future—both virtual and live events—as there could be a need for both. We will look at it as we start to come out of the pandemic,” added Melnyk.

Some authors such as Jeff Abbott made plans early in the shutdown. Abbott’s newly released novel Never Ask Me (Grand Central) came out in mid-July. But plans for Abbott’s virtual tour began in April. “It was a mutual decision between my publisher and me, and we were thoughtful about our discussion. We didn't feel like that by July a lot of stores would be reopened fully, and I wasn't comfortable traveling,” said Abbott whose newly released novel is Never Ask Me (Grand Central). Abbott has scheduled events with Murder by the Book, Poisoned Pen and BookPeople, “and they're very good stores.”

For now, virtuals are the norm for Abbott. “For me they will until we have a vaccine. And one day live events will return. There's something wonderful about a live event book signing. I say that as a reader who enjoys them, not just as a writer.”

No matter how successful a virtual, each person interviewed mentioned how much they miss in-person events. “[At a] virtual, you can’t hear laughter or applause or anything at all from your audience. So if you crack a joke, it might feel funny to not have a response—there isn’t that infectious quality of a live event,” said DeJean of Minotaur.

Jaggers of Berkley agreed: “At the end of the day, authors and readers want to connect with each other and engage about new books, an authors’ backlist, ask questions, and get feedback. While COVID-19 is separating us, the resourcefulness of the industry shows that nothing can break the important bond between authors and readers.”

Jordan is looking forward to having authors pay personal visits to Murder by the Book. “I certainly believe that the in-person author tours are irreplaceable for bookstore sales as well as for the meet-the-author experience. I will be pushing with all my abilities to get on tour schedules again, when it is safe for normal tours to resume.”

That personal touch is paramount.

“Nothing beats seeing a reader [and] fan who is thrilled to death to meet their favorite author in person at one of our in-person signing events,” said Sinchuk of Murder on the Beach in Florida. “Not only to talk with them personally when they get their book signed, but to shake their hand, and, increasingly now, get their picture taken with the author with their own phone, a service most independents offer,” said Sinchuk. “Also, in person, they get their questions answered after the author presentation. They don't get muted.”

And bookstore staffs also are fans.

“And, most importantly to the booksellers, we get to meet the authors and enrich that part of the publishing community. I have developed friendships with authors over my 23 years in the book business that will stay with me my whole life,” added Sinchuk.


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