Everything is screwed. The government, our collective mental health, and definitely independent booksellers are screwed. That launch party authors had planned? Screwed. That book fair? Screwed. The conferences you planned to attend? Screwed into oblivion.
At least that was how it seemed right at the start of the pandemic. But now, as we all adjust to Zoom calls, Instagram Live, and curbside pickup, maybe it’s not so bad. And there’s one big silver lining: independent bookstores can snag their favorite famous authors for events like never before—but it’s a limited-time opportunity.
Let me explain. No one is allowed to go anywhere. Nothing is happening. People are dying. And while this is unequivocally horrific, the only narrow (tiny, minuscule) silver lining is that geography doesn’t matter anymore. Time is often looser. Schedules have been obliterated.
This isn’t to say everyone’s got free time on their hands—for authors, the work continues. But it does mean that there are fewer logistical complications than there were when it comes to arranging events.
I’m one of a team that has created We Love Bookstores, an event series that supports Bay Area independent bookstores. Each event supports a specific bookstore, and all of the money goes straight to the featured retailer. The We Love Bookstores concept typically pairs a well-known author or entertainer with an author whose book has just been released. And we’ve been getting some major talent: John Scalzi will beam right into your living room in support of Dark Carnival Bookstore. Gennifer Choldenko will join Avi in discussion for Towne Center Books. Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) treated us to some new music he’s working on right after National Book Award–winner Robin Coste Lewis read some poetry in support of Marcus Books.
Why are authors pitching in? Because we all love bookstores, primarily. But also because the events are online. People can join us from wherever they are. I recently did my launch event for my debut young adult novel, The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea, to boost Books Inc., where I worked for nearly eight years as the children’s department director (read: kids and teen events person). And while the audience was certainly padded with my friends and family, a lot of people were there because bestselling author V.E. Schwab was there, too.
I don’t know Victoria. I’d never met her before. And as generous and cool and kind as she is, I don’t think she would have flown in from Scotland to come to my launch event if we weren’t sheltering in place right now. Her presence was by merit of our globally shared restrictions. And getting to launch my book with her there was a salve against the wound of the many cancellations my debut necessarily faced.
The team at We Love Booksellers asked authors to help out because the worst someone can say is no. We asked because we want to have great events, and big names make good events bigger. We asked because right now is a tough time for bookstores, and money can help that. And we asked because right now, no one knows what’s going on, and so the rules have shifted a little.
The time is coming when no one will want to see another Zoom event ever again. And even if they do, the route to authors will be tightly controlled once again. Booksellers will return to their Edelweiss grids. The rules will nestle into everyone’s post-Covid lives.
But right now it’s the Wild West. So shoot your shot—like, now.
If you’re an events person at an independent bookstore, there is probably a prominent author who is a friend of your store. Ask for the author’s help. Ask your sales reps to connect you to your favorite, famous author who always seemed out of bounds before. Ask anyone.
Some events rules are exactly the same as they’ve always been: debut launch events are great because all their friends and family will want to support them. But maybe match them up with a big name to help spread the word. And go through your network—who do you know who has a beloved Instagram account or an active email list to educators? Remember, a huge follower count doesn’t guarantee a crowd. A smaller following of engaged fans (like Sarah Gailey’s, for example) is better.
So check the feeds—find the authors with posts with tons of interactions—retweets, likes, faves, and shares. That’s who you’re looking for. That’s who can help you spread the word most effectively.
Your stores are loved and your stores are needed, and there are so many of us who want to help. So take advantage of it.
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s debut novel, 'The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea', was released May 5 by Candlewick.