You’ve been supporting your local bookshops. You’re tuning into virtual readings and author events. You’re curling up with new books and talking about all of it with your bookish friends on Zoom. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a virtual event that combines all these activities and also strengthens your local literary community?
That’s just what the co-founders of The Big Texas Read (TBTR) had in mind when they created a statewide virtual book club that supports a network of local bookshops, authors, non-profit writing workshops, and, of course, avid readers. And now, they’re encouraging local literary communities everywhere to start their own virtual book clubs—to, in the words of TBTR co-founder and Texas-based author David Samuel Levinson, “create a community in a time when community is impossible to create.” And there’s no reason to think the end of shelter-in-place orders has to mean the end of virtual literary communities—TBTR is an exciting, sustainable, and readily replicable model that all bookish communities can emulate.
I asked Levinson and his fellow TBTR co-founders, Blake Kimzey, Executive Director of Writing Workshops Dallas, and Alexandra van de Kamp, Executive Director of Gemini Ink, to share their thoughts on how a virtual book club can strengthen the local literary scene, cultivate diversity, and celebrate the power of stories and books. I also asked them for advice on how an ambitious reader, bookseller, or writer can start a virtual literary event during COVID-19 social distancing and beyond.
Strengthening the Local Literary Scene
As passionate readers, one of our most immediate concerns during the pandemic has been keeping our local literary scenes thriving and collaborating. A local virtual book club is a natural breeding ground for developing strong partnerships within literary communities. As the co-founders of The Big Texas Read began partnering with local bookshops and Texas authors, Levinson (Tell Me How This Ends Well, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence) began to realize that TBTR is actually “a giant supply chain of literariness.” He broke it down for me this way: “A reader signs up and then either buys or downloads the book, which helps the book economy sustain itself during these incredibly difficult times.”
Supporting Indie Bookshops
Local independent bookstores, which many of us consider to be the heart of our literary communities, can benefit greatly from a virtual book club. At the outset of the pandemic, the TBTR co-founders recognized that the local bookstores they love would, at least for a time, no longer enjoy foot traffic or visits from regular customers. They decided early on to partner with Interabang Books in Dallas and The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio, and have been thrilled to see a boost in the stores’ online sales. Both stores have seen steady orders for TBTR’s first featured book, and anticipate an increase in sales for the next few books featured in the book club.
Supporting Local Authors
For the local authors you love, appearances at virtual book club meetings can help compensate for the book tours, readings, and events that have been canceled due to social distancing. Van de Kamp told me, “I can almost feel a collective sigh of relief from some of the authors who can now share their work with audiences again in a format that has some of the benefits of in-person events—such as Q&As with an audience, a live format so the spontaneity of an in-person reading is still intact, and the uptick in book sales that often happens after readers are able to meet an author in person.”
Supporting Community Literary Organizations
Our literary communities are nothing without the people behind them—and literary organizations, such as writing programs, live reading events, libraries, and literary arts centers, are where readers and writers connect and find inspiration. A virtual book club provides an alternate way for these programs to keep their communities engaged, even during shelter-in-place policies.
In the case of TBTR, Kimzey and van de Kamp are executive directors of creative writing workshops in Dallas and San Antonio, respectively, and Levinson teaches classes in both cities. Kimzey hopes TBTR will be “a place where writers can connect with mentors and produce meaningful work.” Van de Kamp told me she has seen how “the writing process can be demystified for younger or aspiring writers when they can hear contemporary writers speak on the daily realities of writing.” Both Kimzey and van de Kamp are excited to partner together—a collaboration that, as van de Kamp told me, “shows the rich possibilities when literary organizations across a state link arms to create programming that has a wider impact than any of them could have done on their own.”
During social distancing, we book lovers have been searching for meaningful ways to connect with each other. Weeks ago, when Levinson observed that anxiety was driving everyone to their phones and social media, he thought, “Hell no. This is just going to send us all into a collective depression where we’ll all feel more isolated and alone.” A virtual book club combats this kind of alienation by instantly bringing readers together for lively discussion.
Even readers and writers who cherish time alone can get excited about convenient, limited-time meetings. “You have plenty of time to bask in your aloneness while reading the memoir, novel, or poetry book we’ve chosen for the month and then can come together for a fun and informative Zoom experience with an author and literary community without having to sign up for something that is a larger commitment of your time,” van de Kamp told me, emphasizing that a virtual event is “a nimble offering that each person customizes to their own needs.”
Not only do we crave connection with each other, but we also miss local literary events. “A look at the literary calendar before the pandemic would show a full slate of events where readers could interact with local and visiting authors, hear them discuss their work, ask questions, and take a class from them,” Kimzey told me. Fortunately, virtual book events with authors can help fill that need—in a way that is, as van de Kamp told me, “more accessible than ever. I see Zoom and online literary author talks as a way to bring a ‘visiting writer’ to readers and fellow writers without the jet fuel and hotels usually involved.”
Cultivating a Diverse Literary Community
Our pride for our local literary communities stems not only from our shared love of where we live, but also from embracing each others’ differences—and the beautiful stories that are inspired by those differences.
Providing a Platform for Diverse Literary Voices
A local virtual book club is the perfect place to hear from underrepresented literary voices in our communities. Central to TBTR’s mission is to feature, as Kimzey told me, “the distinct and diverse voices that have given life to and sustain our [state’s] rich literary tradition.” This means celebrating a diversity of genres, writing styles, sexual orientation, and ethnicity among selected works and their authors. “We are open to continually evolving what diversity can mean,” van de Kamp added.
So far, TBTR has lined up works by Texas authors whose works and identities represent broadly diverse perspectives: in addition to a work by Levinson himself, the group will read books by New York Times bestselling mystery author Kathleen Kent (The Dime, The Burn), Texas Poet Laureate Emmy Pérez (Solstice, With the River on Our Face), and Kendra Allen, winner of the Iowa Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (When You Learn the Alphabet).
Introducing Local Communities to One Another
While all of us are eager to share our own local literary treasures, we’re also curious to discover what other communities have to offer. At a virtual book club, we get the chance to connect with readers and writers who live hundreds of miles away from us. As Levinson told me, “I think there are all these separate communities out there that had no idea there were other communities out there like their own. TBTR gives those disparate communities a chance to connect and meet one another virtually.” Van de Kamp is excited that “suddenly, the very large state of Texas seems small and intrinsically connected because we are able to feature authors from all over the state via this one platform and with relative ease.”
Levinson, who makes his home in San Antonio, Texas, told me, “You hear about Dallas’s thriving literary community but what about San Antonio’s? What about Abilene’s? What about Lubbock’s or El Paso’s? They’re all out there, living their own unique communities and feeling cut off, perhaps, from the bigger literary community at large. And here we are coming in to say—no. You are connected and we’re here to help you connect to another reader, no matter where you are in Texas or the world.” In fact, van de Kamp told me that TBTR already has RSVPs from people outside of Texas and added that “any widening awareness of the groundbreaking writing happening among our contemporary authors in this country is always a good thing.”
Celebrating the Power of Stories
Of course, at the core of every local literary community is the undeniable power of the stories we love. It’s what motivates us to step away from our favorite reading chair at home and get out into the world to connect with others. “Stories are what bind us together,” van de Kamp told me. “They can also help us feel less alone.”
All three TBTR co-founders agree stories are especially important during times of uncertainty. Levinson believes that “what we want are stories wrapped up in such a way as to ease our anxieties.” When it comes to COVID-19, he told me, “We don’t know what’s coming or going to happen and that’s terrifying. With books, there’s a definitive beginning, middle, and end and that’s soothing…That’s why we created TBTR to come together through stories and storytelling.”
Advice: Creating a Virtual Event That Strengthens Your Local Literary Community
Social distancing book clubs have been popping up everywhere since the outset of the pandemic. If you’re looking to start your own book club in a way that includes partnerships that will strengthen your local literary community, Kimzey, Levinson, and van de Kamp have some advice.
The first step is to reach out to like-minded literary or artistic organizations in your state or region—as many as you can, in order to amplify your presence by combining your skills. “Prior to the pandemic,” Kimzey told me, “this might have meant arranging to meet for coffee, and now that means getting on Zoom, getting to know each other, and hatching a plan.”
Identifying Your Community’s Needs
Van de Kamp recommends asking what your literary community needs and wants via social media, surveys, or phone calls. Initiating connections and keeping communication open is crucial. “The needs of our community are always evolving,” she told me, “so we always want to be hearing from them.”
Spreading the Word
When it comes to spreading the word, collaboration is key. Each organization, whether it’s a literary arts organization, indie bookshop, or library, can promote the event through its own channels, which van de Kamp told me means “doubling and tripling your outreach.” She added that “you may have promotional skills that another organization does not have and they may have strengths you do not have, so together, you can broaden your skill set for reaching out to a wider audience.”
And if you have any lingering questions about whether your community needs an event like this, Levinson has an answer for you: “I can tell you right now that your community needs its own Big Read.” He believes all communities “can find strength in books and the arts,” and that “it’s time for America to reawaken to the idea of the arts in our daily lives.”
So, keep shopping at your neighborhood bookstore, buying books by local authors, and connecting with your friends on Zoom. Then ask yourself if there’s a way for you—or someone you know—to do something even bigger to support your local literary community, not just now, but for many happy, healthy years to come.
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