Two Random House Children’s Books authors have recently embarked on national book tours—without hitting the road. Jerry Spinelli (Love, Stargirl, Knopf) and Libba Bray (The Sweet Far Thing, Delacorte) are promoting the recent paperback editions of their bestselling novels with virtual bookstore “appearances” to launch the Dial Into Summer program. The publisher is using Skype Internet webcam and telephone software technology to hook up authors and young fans, and those on both sides of the cyberspace connection are giving the venture an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Meg O’Brien, RHCB publicist and online media specialist, says the program “grew out of our attempts to figure out a way to promote these paperback releases while being mindful of the economy and of these authors’ busy schedules.” Taking advantage of the Skype technology seemed especially fitting in this case, she adds: “Both authors are perfect candidates for this experiment, since they are charismatic and have wonderful fan bases.” Indeed: Love, Stargirl has sold 321,000 hardcover copies since August 2007 and The Sweet Far Thing 195,000 copies since December 2007.
Spinelli participated in five virtual store “events,” chatting over speakerphone with his fans, who were able to view him on screen. Bray, who is also making several personal in-store appearances to promote her paperback, has six virtual visits scheduled. The publisher is offering technical support (in the form of wireless USB microphones) to bookstores not wired to host such events and provides participating stores with signed bookplates.
Bray recently made her first non-appearance, touching base via Skype with fans at an event held at the main branch of the Oak Park, Ill., public library cosponsored by its young adult department and the nearby Magic Tree Bookstore. Debbie Mitchell, the store’s events director, admits that she was initially a bit apprehensive about hosting this virtual event—her store’s first-ever. “What is basically an enhanced phone call didn’t sound like a great idea to me, compared to having an author there in person,” she admits.
But Mitchell was easily won over. “As it turned out, I was really impressed and excited by the event,” she says. “We used my laptop to project Libba on webcam onto the library’s movie screen system and she was able to interact with the kids. It was very cool to do—something different and on the cutting edge. And you could see in the teenage girls’ faces just how much they were enjoying it.”
Like O’Brien, Mitchell comments that Bray’s personality is perfectly suited for this new wave of author-fan interaction. “Libba is so spontaneous and witty that she can really pull it off,” says the bookseller. “She made each and every girl who talked to her feel special and, strangely, it felt a little more intimate than an in-person appearance. She showed us the extremely groovy chair she was sitting in and mentioned that her husband had just walked by, and we kind of felt like we were visiting her home. That was a dimension of this experience that I wasn’t expecting either.”
Brooklyn resident Bray also uses “intimate” to describe her virtual visit to Oak Park—her debut webcam event. “What was cool about this was how intimate it felt,” she says. “There I was in my home office, with my cats walking in and out. It felt a lot like inviting people into my home.” Since the author decided last-minute that it might be “a little weird and static to begin reading from my book over Skype, into nothingness,” she made an impromptu dash downstairs to fetch the hat filled with “crazy questions” that she uses as an ice-breaker in her live appearances, and read one to get the conversation rolling. “I was my usual idiotic self, which is pretty much my game plan, so no one is self-conscious about asking their own questions, knowing they can’t possibly sound as ridiculous as I sounded,” she says. “And it worked.”
Bray concedes there was a downside to this “appearance”—she (being a self-described “spectacularly organized person—read not”) thought it was scheduled for two hours later than it actually was. This meant she didn’t have time to shower (“I’m glad it wasn’t a scratch-and-sniff Skype”) and the phone call from Illinois “was like a surprise party: ‘Hi! We’re here!’ ” When she makes a virtual visit to Third Place in Seattle at 9:00 p.m. eastern time, it will be a pajama party for her, Bray explains, since “I turn into a pumpkin by that time of night.”
Though Mitchell notes that, sans live author, these forums may not sell a lot of books (which was true in Bray’s case, likely since the event was not promoting a brand new title and most of the attendees were fans who had already read The Sweet Far Thing), they are definitely worth hosting. “We passed out coupons offering discounts on YA titles, but this wasn’t as much of a sales event as a PR event, and I would definitely do it again,” she says. “It is nice that these kinds of tours are financially and ecologically efficient, and also that they will let kids make contact with many more authors than they otherwise could.”