Though the pandemic continues to disrupt just about everything in the publishing industry, the relationship between independent booksellers, authors, and readers has never been stronger. And bestselling author Ruta Sepetys is among those who have found a way to circumvent the pandemic’s challenges to help retailers and connect with fans.
In July, in partnership with her publisher, Penguin Young Readers, Sepetys announced her plans to join in a series of virtual book club gatherings across the country to discuss her critically acclaimed 2019 historical novel The Fountains of Silence, set during the post-Spanish Civil War era in Spain. “When businesses were forced to close, I became really concerned for independent bookstores and I tried to think of a way to help them,” Sepetys said. “I’m considered a crossover author and a large part of my readership was built by independent booksellers. I want to help the people who have helped me.”
To give the stores a boost, Sepetys and Penguin decided to offer a special package for book clubs and discussion groups. “They can buy the book or a gift card through an indie and they receive an exclusive discussion guide with videos and behind-the-scenes photos, and recipes, but they also attend a discussion about the book with me,” Sepetys said. “And I have to say, I never imagined how wonderful this would be!”
Feedback from hosts and attendees of several of the virtual events echoes that enthusiasm. One reader on Facebook shared this note with Sepetys following the July 16 gathering hosted by Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It was so inspirational!.... Your discussion of your books, research, and writing was so heartfelt. It made me want to start over and read all of your books again with this new perspective. Your sincere encouragement for aspiring authors was invaluable. I was a fan before, I am a fan now forever”
And Alysha Welliver, event coordinator at Best of Books in Edmond, Okla., reported that Sepetys’s August 6 “stop” there was a hit. A few of the store’s smaller book clubs merged into one for the night, creating a group of 15 readers ranging in age from 13 to 80. “It was amazing,” Welliver said. “Everyone was so excited. She made sure that everyone who was on was able to ask her a question if they wanted to, despite the time. And her answers were so kind and heartfelt.”
Sepetys is quick to point out that the success of these events is “not because of me. First, these groups have been multigenerational. We’ve had groups of parents and children, teachers and students. I met with a group of Covid nurses who needed an outlet. They needed a release and so we did this. We even had a young bookseller and her grandmother.” Connecting with such a spectrum of readers has yielded some pleasant surprises. “In some of the discussions, we’ve had book club members whose families stood on opposite sides of the history,” Sepetys said. “I listen to them speak, share their experience, their context, and their family story. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, history divided us but here we are, and through reading we’re united in story and study and remembrance.’ ”
She noted that such experiences reflect the power of books and book clubs. Consistently, Sepetys said, “The conversations have been rich and compelling. And as an author you think you know what your book is about because you’ve spent years researching and writing it. But then this perspective and context from readers from 11 to 94 has been wonderful and instructive.” She believes it’s also been hopeful. “Historical fiction provides some very encouraging reminders that during adversity we can find strength through struggle and meaning in hardship,” she said.
Sepetys’s virtual book club venture was initially planned as a 10-visit tour. However, she said, “some of my foreign publishers have come on board, asking, ‘If we provide the interpreter, will you do this in Spain? Or the Czech Republic?’ Now it’s grown into something helping independent booksellers overseas as well.”
And in a bit of fortunate timing, the paperback edition of The Fountains of Silence comes out September 29, presumably bringing the title some additional attention. “Because there have been requests, we’ve decided to continue this discussion tour through the release of the paperback in the fall,” Sepetys said.
Sepetys has also tried something new to support students during the pandemic when she’s not able to make traditional school visits.
She has partnered with Wave Learning Festival, an educational platform on which college students teach free seminars for high school and middle school students on a wide variety of topics. Sepetys is offering three seminars through Wave, including “History in Hiding: The Elusive Power of Historical Fiction.” “I have hundreds of kids signed up,” she said. “This is a way I can try to serve as many students as possible—and it’s free.”
When she’s not connecting with readers on Zoom these days, Sepetys is moving ahead with her next project. “I’m hard at work on another historical novel,” she revealed. “This one is set in Romania during the Ceaușescu regime and tells the story of young people who were recruited as informers to spy on their families and teachers. I’m well into writing that.”