Houston’s TeenBookCon could have been another in a long list of canceled book festivals this spring due to the new coronavirus. Instead, the April 4 event was transformed into #TweetBookCon, an entirely digital event hosted on social media. With two dozen authors who had planned to be there in person joining on Twitter instead, the event drew 80 young readers who exchanged a volley of questions and stories in 500 tweets during the hourlong event.
“The goal of the festival is to connect teen readers with authors. Whenever we have a question about anything, we go back to the mission,” said Cathy Berner, director of programming for the event and the kids and young adult specialist at Blue Willow Bookshop, which is a co-sponsor.
But with many of the festival’s educator-organizers making a rapid transition to digital education, and the bookstore moving to online and phone orders, Berner said it looked like the festival would have to miss its 11th anniversary. “For about a week, everybody who was in leadership on the committee was working their other jobs, figuring out distance learning. [Blue Willow owner] Valerie Koehler and I, and our digital marketing team, were trying to figure out if the bookstore could be open.”
After the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books, the Texas Library Association conference, and the Houston Rodeo, Berner said the bookstore and festival organizers decided to cancel TeenBookCon entirely.
That’s when the bookstore’s digital marketing team at Two Cats Communication proposed doing the event on Twitter. “They said, ‘We want to do something. We have to do something,” according to Berner. The team came up with the hashtag #TweetBookCon, and with outreach to publishers, 24 of the 25 authors who originally planned to attend the event in person agreed to participate online. Festival ambassadors, many of whom are educators in the local schools, spread the word to young readers.
“Everybody was immediately on board,” Berner said. “Every year there’s so much joy on that day. There’s so much joy when you see kids connecting with authors.”
Still, when Berner woke on the day of the event, she felt deflated. “I was bummed,” Berner said. “Usually the Blue Willow staff is loading books onto a trailer and driving to TeenBookCon. It’s an incredible high and it wasn’t going to happen.” But then it did.
For an hour on Saturday, authors Ngozi Ukazu, Adam Silvera, Jenny Lee, Huda Fahmy, Mintie Das, Natasha Diaz, and others fielded questions and told stories about how they wrote their books. Blue Willow hosted the event on the store’s Twitter account using the #TweetBookCon hashtag, which authors and organizers then retweeted. The festival came to a close with the announcement that Blue Willow is creating a Teen Advisory Board.
Afterward, one festival participant tweeted, “Having the chance to ask questions to authors that have been so nice is honestly the kind of push I need to get through this hard time. I don’t like saying this sentimental stuff a lot so I’ll end it by saying thank you for your time and your input to my questions.”
That kind of engagement made the event an unqualified success for Berner, even though it did not lead to the book sales that the in-person festival does. Koehler agreed. “I think it went extremely well,” she said. “I was watching it from the back room of the bookstore. Librarians who got the word out were wonderful. It shows the deep need for connections between authors and their readers.”
Despite the event’s positive outcome , Berner is looking forward to an in-person festival again next year, but perhaps with a few more digital elements embedded in it. For now, Berner and her fellow organizers are content to take a day to reflect on the unexpected success of this year’s improvised #TweetBookCon.
“To know you created that space, even for a day,” she said, “is a very, very good feeling.”