For many of us bookworms, as soon as the pandemic lockdown hit, all of our stacks of books came out. We got lost in stories — sometimes as an escape, sometimes as an attempt to understand what was happening, and sometimes just because we had more time to read. In fact, here at Book Riot, one writer has even described her own efforts to read less.
So it’s no wonder that, despite a slump in early spring, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported that book sales were up almost 10% in 2020 over the prior year. The surge in sales — especially for print books — appears to have continued in 2021. But while we’ve used reading to escape the uncertainty of the pandemic, authors have been right in the middle of the storm as they’ve worked to bring us the stories we crave.
What is it like for an author launching a book during the pandemic? What have they been doing, feeling, and learning while marketing and selling their books in 2020 and 2021? To find some answers, I talked to four authors about their experiences:
Jenny Bhatt, who published her debut book, a collection of short stories, Each of Us Killers, in September of 2020.
Stacey Lee, who published her fifth YA novel, Luck of the Titanic, in May of 2021.
Tracy Walder, who published her debut book, a memoir, The Unexpected Spy, in February of 2020.
The Logistics of Launching a Book During the Pandemic
All three of the authors who published in 2020 had no idea the pandemic was coming when they set their book launch dates. Even Lee, who published her book in May of 2021, initially thought the pandemic wouldn’t last long enough to affect her launch. But as the lasting effects of the pandemic became a reality for these authors, marketing plans changed and their teams had to pivot, all while a variety of unexpected challenges were arising.
Frank carefully planned the launch of When Fire Loves Water, a story that unfolds within the ocean, to coincide with World Water Day, March 22, just as the United States began sheltering in place. Frank promptly canceled her in-person launch party.
Frank wasn’t the only author to nix an in-person gathering. Bhatt, whose original marketing plan included a book tour to a handful of cities and appearances at literary festivals, also canceled her in-person events. Lee, for whom school and library conferences have always been essential to promoting her YA books, told me that scaled-back and called-off conferences resulted in a marketing plan that looked very different from her previous launches. Lee canceled several school visits and a Titanic cosplaying event.
Walder, the only author whose launch took place before the lockdowns began, was still able to book events in the lead-up to her release date, including appearances on major news network shows, such as Good Morning America. “The ability to do these at the end of February,” she told me, “helped me tremendously.”
Even though Walder was able to make in-person appearances at the beginning of her memoir promotion period, around a month after the lockdowns started, she pivoted to virtual events — something all of the other authors did, too. Lee’s publisher helped her set up virtual game nights. Although Frank originally thought she’d make her launch party virtual, as the date grew closer, she told me, “it became obvious there was too much noise already. I didn’t want to add to the clamor.” It’s a thought she carried with her as the months progressed and she found herself skipping virtual events, choosing to avoid the “next chaotic rush for people’s attention.”
The authors turned to other digital outlets to get attention for their books, too. Lee’s publisher dedicated much of the promotional effort around Luck of the Titanic to social media. Frank relied on her email list and Facebook to get word out to her fans.
These adjustments came with challenges. “It took a while,” Bhatt told me, “to figure out how the publishing ecosystem was pivoting.” Although both her publisher and publicist were industry veterans, they’d never had to grapple with anything like this before. Bhatt pointed out that authors and publishers weren’t the only ones learning how to pivot. Although bookstores were beginning to phase in virtual events, staffing issues and technology learning curves made it a slow and gradual transition. While some literary festivals were offering online sessions, the schedules and appearances were dramatically pared down. Freelance review budgets were frozen or slashed. And podcasters were grappling with their own challenges during the pandemic. All of these factors left the entire industry trying to, as Bhatt put it, “muddle through and understand what was going on, how to make sense of it, and how to then adapt to it.”
Lee told me about her own learning curve. She discovered how best to position her camera — “don’t have the camera looking up your nose,” she joked. She became conscientious about keeping events shorter than 45 minutes in order to avoid Zoom fatigue for herself and her audience. “I also had to learn how to use social media in a more effective way, given its changing landscape and importance,” Lee told me.
The Factors That Affect Launching a Book During the Pandemic
Launching a book during the pandemic certainly affected all authors. Bhatt doesn’t think any writers who launched a book in 2020 and 2021 can say the experience “aligned with their expectations or what they’d been told to expect.” I asked the authors how they thought both their prior experience and their methods of publishing played roles in their book launches.
Lee felt fortunate to have some visibility as an author who already had a body of work that “people can refer to.” Frank told me her experience gave her a sense of freedom, explaining that “I wasn’t terrified that this book’s performance would affect — or truncate — any subsequent publishing options.” Both Lee and Frank expressed empathy for debut authors. Lee told me that gaining visibility as a debut author is already a challenge and imagined it would be “even harder with no in-person events.”
Bhatt told me, “A debut short story collection from a small, independent press with fiction that’s mostly not set in the U.S. was going to be a hard sell, no matter what.” She told me she’d already been fully prepared to “hustle and work hard to promote and sell it…the pandemic just threw a lot more complications and challenges into the mix.”
Of releasing her debut work in the midst of the pandemic, Walder said: “I think for me, it perhaps hindered my ability to leverage contacts.” She explained that because she didn’t have experience in writing and publishing a book, she didn’t know how to be proactive in reaching out to the right people or events. Nevertheless, Walder believes there was also a positive side to being new on the scene during that time, as some people checked out virtual events specifically to find fresh content.
Walder told me she thinks working with St. Martin’s Press — whose parent company is MacMillan Publishers, one of the Big Four — helped her attain high-profile media engagements that she doesn’t believe she’d have been able to book on her own. “Those events,” which had come pre-pandemic, she told me, “then helped me parlay my book into virtual events during the pandemic.” Lee, who also works with a Big Four publisher — G.P. Putnam’s Sons, whose parent company is Penguin Group — told me she got the sense that her publisher was working hard to meet the challenges of the day while supporting her book promotion.
Bhatt, whose book was published by 7.13 Books, saw a major benefit to working with a small press to promote Each of Us Killers during the pandemic: “[W]e don’t have a lot of people involved, so decision-making is quick.” She also recognized some challenges. “If you’re already working within certain intrinsic resource constraints,” she told me, “it’s that much harder when a boatload of external complications and challenges are added to the mix.”
Frank, after years of working with big presses, published her most recent two novels on her own. “Self-publishing was a mercy,” she told me, explaining that she didn’t feel the same pressure as she did before to prove herself through sales numbers. Plus, because her team of editors and layout designers were flexible with deadlines, she was able to focus on “getting the book right” even amidst the unexpected changes.
The Results of Launching a Book During the Pandemic
Although all the authors agreed that launching a book during the pandemic was rife with disappointments, uncertainties, and complications, all of them pivoted the best they could, seemed to accept the results — and most importantly, came away with a few insights about life.
Walder told me that in the initial stages of the lockdowns, she felt frustrated and concerned about how her opportunities to market and sell The Unexpected Spy would be impacted. But she soon realized that the pivot to virtual gatherings seemed to make it easier for more people to attend, and also allowed her to take part in opportunities held in cities that she might not have had the funds to visit in person. “Being virtual actually helped me reach a wider audience and do more in regard to promotion,” she told me, adding that about three months into the pandemic, she had virtual events almost every day. Walder told me that once she understood the life-threatening effects of COVID-19, much of her initial frustration was quickly replaced with gratitude for her health and the opportunity to write a book.
Lee told me that even though she’d been looking forward to introducing the cosplay and other activities at her launch, she felt lucky to have a “great online turnout,” especially under the circumstances. “I definitely felt most folks were trying to pull their oar, so to speak,” she told me, “but people are more risk averse in this day and age.” She added, “Bookstores are just trying to stay in business. People just have more on their minds than buying books.”
Frank, whose foray into self-publishing coincided with the pandemic, told me everything about this book launch was different from her previous ones. It was the first time all of her marketing and selling was done online and the first time she celebrated with only one or two masked friends. Instead of focusing on numbers, Frank, like Walder, embraced her gratitude — especially when her husband, who works as a first responder, came home healthy every day. “For me,” she told me, “to stay happy in this game, the goal is to look forward: how do I level up every book? How do I extend my reach every time? How do I find my tribe in the ocean of readers? How do I love my job more?” That said, she also told me that she plans for her next novel launch to include more robust marketing, and of course, an in-person party.
Bhatt told me that she and her publisher, understanding that a book’s promotion cycle typically lasts for three months before and three months after its launch date, had to work even harder to maximize their efforts during that time period. “So often,” she told me, “it felt awful to have to follow up and gently remind folks about deadlines or commitments because you didn’t know what they might be going through personally or professionally due to the pandemic. You knew they were getting many other publicists [and] writers following up similarly.”
Bhatt believes book sales were affected by factors beyond promotion and marketing, including printing and distribution issues. “Many other publishers were moving their book launch dates in or out, which caused problems across the supply chain,” she told me. “[Book] review venues were asking for e-galleys or having physical review copies sent to different addresses or trying to pick up piles of them from deserted offices. I think many books slipped through the cracks because of this kind of chaos too.”
Like all the authors, Bhatt was very aware that she was not the only one in the industry trying to keep her head above water, and was pleased that her debut book still reached as many reviewers as it did. She feels “deeply indebted” to the members of the writing and literary community who stepped up to support her book. “I haven’t yet been able to put the powerful impact of this community support into meaningful words,” she told me. “It strengthened my belief in literary citizenship and why we need it more than ever.”
Even with all that has changed during and because of the pandemic, the best ways to thank our favorite authors and their teams for continuing to bring us their stories are the same: attend their events, follow them online, and most importantly, buy their books. It’s because of their dedication and passion, after all, that we can look forward to years of inspiration and perspective — and sometimes also a much-needed escape.