As author Ashley Poston made her way through a to-do list in early March, she fired off an e-mail to her publicist with a list of bookstores that she wanted to read at for the release of her YA romance Bookish and the Beast (Quirk, Aug.). Poston says that as soon as she crossed it off the list, she realized, “Oh, that’s probably not going to happen.” She recalls, “It was sort of surreal, and I felt a little foolish afterward.”
Yet Poston is not alone. Hundreds of YA book releases and publicity plans have been altered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has upended the conventional publishing world’s most tried-and-true methods for publicizing new works.
YA authors are now a vanguard in publishing, charting new territory online, trying untested methods of reaching readers, and honing tools that previously existed but were largely underutilized by a trade that prizes in-person interactions at conferences, bookstores, and community gatherings.
Authors and publishers team up
Poston counts herself among the fortunate YA authors of the coronavirus era. Armed with a marketing background and some lead time until the release of her book, which is also the third in a series, she has been able to transition from planning a book tour to participating in online events with relative ease. She pitched her publisher the idea of posting Instagram videos in which she read her own writing from when she was 16 and shared excerpts from Bookish and the Beast. Quirk then created a weeklong event around her proposal.
Other publishers also moved quickly to support their authors. Season two of Penguin Young Readers’ We Are YA podcast was originally slated for release in June, but it was moved up to mid-March. “We saw the social distancing moment as an opportunity to accelerate our timeline,” says digital marketing director Alex Garber.
Much of the challenge of making the technological logistics work for both the podcast and the publisher’s YouTube Live channel was taken up by Felicity Vallence, associate director of digital marketing. “I set up a little studio in my apartment bedroom and on Sunday afternoons recorded three or four back-to-back podcast episodes with authors,” she says. “Authors were fantastic in their response, not only by participating but also sharing with their followers via social media. For many of our guests, being on the podcast provided an outlet to talk about their books at a moment when tours and other speaking engagements were being canceled.”
Some publishers have decided to focus on YA graphic novels, whose readers are already accustomed to online engagement. On April 18, First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, organized Comics Relief, an online conference that gave readers a chance to learn about comics creation from novelists, editors, and designers in six sessions throughout the day.
“Comics Relief was Macmillan’s first large-scale, homegrown virtual event, and we planned it in a matter of weeks, so there was a lot of learning on the fly,” says associate marketing director Melissa Zar. The work paid off, as more than 550 attendees stayed from start to finish. “Working with the creators was a huge highlight,” Zar adds. “Our authors and illustrators were incredibly enthusiastic and willing to take this leap of faith with us.”
Graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu was among them, co-leading two panels, which came easily to the author and illustrator after years of doing webcomics. “In general, I’m used to planning virtual events,” she says. A sequel to Ukazu’s Check, Please was released the week of Comics Relief. Along with the festival, she also did Instagram Live sketch-jams and livestreams on Twitch.
The effort appears to be paying off. According to Macmillan assistant publicity director Morgan Kane, First Second is already planning another Comics Relief event for June 6.
Book launches and new audiences
Monica Hesse says she was returning from a festival in Dallas when she realized she would need to cancel her April book launch for her historical novel They Went Left (Little, Brown). Instead, she did a virtual book launch with Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. When she logged onto her computer, she immediately experienced an unexpected benefit of a virtual event. Friends and relatives from all over the country were waiting. “It was really emotional to get texts from everyone, from my old drama teacher to my middle school best friend, saying they’d all logged on, too,” she recalls.
Still, Hesse says there are drawbacks to online readings when compared with in-person events. “They definitely feel like a substitute—like you made the brownies but replaced the oil for applesauce. It’s not quite the same.” Yet she believes that virtual events welcome readers who might otherwise not be able to attend author events.
The prospect of reaching that wider audience was a source of motivation for debut YA author Rocky Callen, who came up with creative ideas to build awareness for the launch of her book, A Breath Too Late (Holt). Instead of a single event, she did a week of recorded conversations with her agent and editor in advance of the book’s release, in which she talked about writing and mental health, which are themes in her novel. She then did the book release in an online event with Jandy Nelson, Printz Award-winning author of I’ll Give You the Sun.
“I spent a lot of time googling, asking questions, and watching videos about using the technology for my launch,” Callen says. “And while it took a chunk of time, I am happy to have the basics under my belt now.”
Like Hesse, Callen has delighted in seeing how a wider audience is able to access her digital events compared with what might be possible in-person. “We have an incredible opportunity to engage with people who are isolated even without a pandemic,” she says, “who don’t have the money for a bus ride, who don’t have a babysitter, who just want a glimpse of an author they don’t know, and who need us as writers even if they can’t make it to an event.”
L.C. Rosen’s embrace of technology was more cautious at first, but he has quickly adapted. Rosen has been doing events in advance of the release of Camp (Little, Brown), his novel about toxic masculinity at a summer camp for queer teens, in late May, but familiarizing himself with the necessary digital tools was initially difficult. “I’m not usually tech-savvy at all,” he says, “but I figured it out eventually.”
Rosen notes that it has been challenging to get used to not seeing audience members’ faces and fielding chat questions while speaking. But, like Callen, he says accessibility has been one of the most exciting parts of going online. “I’d love it if maybe live events started getting broadcast by bookstores and libraries that are now equipped to do so. I also think that videoconferences can work, for example, with international stuff. I’m so excited I get to talk to folks in other countries about my book. I hope there’s a way to keep that borderlessness in the future.”
The democratization of attendance at events that have gone online is not without its perils. While Rosen is encouraged by what he has experienced in his digital events, he remains concerned about how technology can create a space for hate. “There’s the issue of harassing engagement,” he says. “Some people, under the anonymity of Zoom, feel empowered to say racist, sexist, and homophobic stuff. That can be very shocking and disheartening.”
Kelly Yang, author of Parachutes (HarperCollins/Tegen, May) was the target of racist comments during one of her first online events in March. She had been quick to adapt to digital events, launching an online writing workshop for teens, but a few sessions after she began, a student began posting racist comments. The incident drew widespread attention and Yang was unsure whether she would continue. “It was so mind-boggling and so devastating,” she says. “I wondered, should I continue the class?”
The student later apologized, and Yang—who has a background in teaching—not only continued but also revamped the format of the workshops to include fellow authors. Hosted weekly, Yang’s workshops involve interviews with authors about their approaches to writing. She also archives the sessions for her YouTube channel and website. Between 40 and 100 students attend each week, and she says she is glad she continued with the program. “It’s so much fun. It’s rewarding to have these conversations. You don’t feel as lonely.”
The challenge, Yang says, is drawing attention to her book when media outlets only want to focus on the racism she experienced. While racism is important to address, she laments the lost opportunity to draw attention to Parachutes. Nevertheless, she is continuing to advocate for the book with big-draw events like her upcoming book launch, which she is doing with a special guest, National Book Award–winner Laurie Halse Anderson.
Pairings for book launches
Author pairings like the one that Yang has planned for her book launch are turning out to be among the bright spots for YA authors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Online events have made it possible for them to appear with popular authors, and at events they would have otherwise missed.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea (Candlewick), is blunt about her initial reaction to the virus scuttling her in-person book launch this month. “It feels terrible,” she says. “You know rationally that you don’t want those events to happen. You don’t want any of those people who would come to even have the sniffles. It all makes sense, but there’s nothing normal about this right now.”
Tokuda-Hall found comfort in the fact that some of her favorite authors have been willing to do joint events that would have been impossible before the coronavirus outbreak. Her launch on May 6 included fellow authors Charlie Jane Andrews and V.E. Schwab. Schwab was able to do the event from Paris only because of Zoom. “She is one of my favorite fantasy authors,” Tokuda-Hall says. “The great silver lining is that I don’t know if I ever would have had an event with her.” Likewise, Tokuda-Hall calls Andrews a “moonshot author” and adds, “This is a miracle that I could do an event with them.”
Natalia Sylvester had a similar experience when fellow author Angie Cruz asked her to take part in an event called El Gran Combo, a six-author fiesta reading to benefit three New York City bookstores: the Lit. Bar, Mil Mundos, and Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria. Cruz had been planning a five-city tour with Jaquira Díaz and Carolina de Robertis, but after the coronavirus forced her to cancel, she took the fiesta online.
“When I heard that bookstores are now selling books online, I thought, maybe there is a way that we as a collective of Latinx writers can drive sales to them,” Cruz says. “More than ever, they need our support, and simultaneously, we could use this event to amplify the works of new books by Latinx writers.”
At the same time, Cruz expanded the slate of authors to include Sylvester, Lilliam Rivera, and Melissa Rivero. Attendees each had to buy a book by one of the authors to get an access code to stream the reading, and they were encouraged to dress for a fiesta.
“It was one of those magical events where everyone just comes together full of joy and gratitude, and the conversation, moderated by Bookstagrammer @lupita.reads, was genuine, open, and generous,” Sylvester says. “We had more than 150 people join us live, and each store reported having record book sales for the day, with spikes in the days following the event.”
The experience has Sylvester thinking beyond in-person events, even for times after concerns over the coronavirus have subsided. She pointed to ASL interpreters at panels for the online Everywhere Book Fest as an example of an element that hopefully advances accessibility at both types of events and enhances the popularity of online ones. “I think we need to appreciate what each format has to offer and go all in,” she says. “Think about what is the one event that couldn’t exist any other way but virtually, then do that.”
Despite her discomfort with being on camera, Melanie Sumrow, author of Inside Battles (Little Bee), let technology take her places she otherwise would not have gone, as her tour vanished following her book’s March 1 release. She spoke at an online conference of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, which, she says, given the cost of traveling and other priorities, “is not a conference that I otherwise would have attended.”
The same is true for a teacher’s book club that Sumrow organized. “I had gotten a tweet from an educator saying, ‘I’m loving this book. I would love to pick your brain about your research. Would you do a book club?’ ” Sumrow asked on social media if others teachers would be interested, and they were. That led to a conversation with educators about her book, which deals with themes of mental health and white supremacy.
Sumrow emphasizes that Zoom book clubs and other online readings do not have to have large audiences to be important. She capped her educator book club event at 15 attendees and calls it an unqualified success. “It was great because there were teachers from across the United States,” she says.
That access is important, because Sumrow sees an opportunity to bring authors and audiences together who might not be able to meet if they had to travel. “I think, on some level, it does level the playing field, because there’s no expense for travel,” she says. “It might open things up for authors who might not be able to go. So it might be an equalizer.”
The psychological toll
While Sumrow is doing her best to embrace technology, there is still an emotional impact for authors with books releasing right now. “I’ve heard that this whole thing is like the stages of grief,” she says. “I had the denial stages. We’ve been talking about this stuff for half a year, and you’re so excited that readers will connect with it as you go on tour.”
For Laura Lee Gulledge, author of The Dark Matter of Mona Starr (Amulet), valuing personal interaction over interaction via social media and other technology has been a career choice. Having to break with that proved difficult. She was already struggling with depression when the coronavirus hit, and she suddenly needed to find ways to reach readers for the April 7 release of her graphic novel. At first she tried to simply recreate the events she had planned in online settings. “I think I was so emotionally attached to those opening events that I was clinging to what was lost,” she says. “There was so much mourning.”
Leah Johnson, author of You Should See Me in a Crown (Scholastic Press, June), was in a similar position, suffering from poor sleep and finding it difficult to muster creative energy. She says she has found it “difficult at best and impossible at worst to show up to the page most days and channel the tenderness and joy that is central to the types of stories that I tell, when I spend so much time fearing for the safety of the people I love.”
Gulledge says, “Now that this situation has forced me to create a system that works for me, I think I might even start turning more of my content and lessons into video form.” And the experience, she adds, has given her a boost of confidence. “Whenever you’re tested, you can somehow handle the challenge with grace. It reminds you that you’re stronger than you thought.”
Johnson has begun finding more moments of peace by being easier on herself. “I’m trying to give myself permission not to feel it every day,” she says. “I’m really grateful for all the festivals that have gone virtual in spite of in-person cancellations. Nothing will be normal again for a long time. But virtual festivals have given us all back some semblance of normalcy, while also giving us a better shot at making sure these stories reach the readers who need them most.