One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic and the shift to virtual author events is that booksellers and publishers have had the opportunity to put together events for overseas authors who would not usually tour the U.S. “The possibilities are endless,” said Pierce Alquist, director of the Transnational Literature Series at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. “The pairings and creative panels we have done are once-in-a-lifetime events.” She cited a virtual event in February during which Russian author Maria Stepanova discussed her book In Memory of Memory (New Directions): Alquist, who ran the event, was in Boston; Stepanova was in Moscow; her translator, Sasha Dugdale, was in the U.K.; and the moderator, Elif Batuman, was in Brooklyn. In another far-flung example, for an Earth Day event in April, Point Reyes Bookstore in Point Reyes, Calif., hosted a talk with Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason in conversation with local author Rebecca Solnit about Magnason’s On Time and Water (Open Letter).
Sales for such events are “good, but I don’t think anyone is having sales at the same level as before,” Alquist said. The audiences, though, have typically doubled over those of in-store events, drawing people from across the U.S. and, increasingly, abroad.
To promote the events and sell more books, Brookline Booksmith has partnered with other bookstores. For the Stepanova event, it teamed up with Lighthouse, a store in Edinburgh, Scotland, to sell books in the U.K. Last year, for a September event at which French-Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga discussed her book Igifu (Archipelago) with Ethiopian American writer Maaza Mengiste, Brookline Booksmith partnered with City of Asylum in Pittsburgh—another store known for its strong programs featuring international writers.
City of Asylum is getting ready to host the first Pittsburgh International Literary Festival, which will run May 12–21. Japanese author Mieko Kawakami will appear with translators Sam Bett and David Boyd to discuss her novel Heaven (Europa Editions), and Polish Nobel Prize–winner Olga Tokarczuk will participate with translator Jennifer Croft.
“When we do live events, whenever possible, we like to put authors and translators together in the same room,” said Sara Balabanlilar, marketing and sales director for Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, a publisher of translated literature that also runs a bookstore. “Since we use a lot of local translators, it is easier for us when we can get the author to Dallas, but with some authors, that just isn’t possible.”
One example is the Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa Donoso, author of Little Birds, who lives north of the Arctic Circle in Bodo, Norway. Deep Vellum will host a virtual event with her and translator Lily Meyer later this summer.
Balabanlilar noted that virtual events allow publishers to extend the promotional cycles of books beyond the brief windows around publication, and they allow Deep Vellum to hold private events for its benefactors. In some instances, the publisher has also incorporated editors into the mix, such as at an event last September with Pergentino José, author of Red Ants, and his editor David Shook, of Deep Vellum imprint Phoneme.
Deep Vellum is among the partners of the 2021 PEN World Voices Festival, running May 18–22. Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, senior programs director for PEN America, said that there is added excitement for this year’s event, which includes more than 20 panel discussions with authors from abroad and the U.S. “I think after a year of lockdowns, authors are not only eager to speak to an audience but to speak to each other—to feel a sense of community again.” She added that one silver lining of the pandemic is that authors have been more accessible, and thus easier to work with. “We’ve not had some of the scheduling conflicts or logistics nightmares we have experienced in the past.”
Emily Cook, cofounder of Cursor Marketing Services, which works with numerous international publishers to promote their books in the U.S., echoes Shariyf. “Typically, when you are working with an author from abroad, it is very labor intensive and you need to schedule everything far in advance,” she said. “Virtual events are far more flexible.”
Cook said the era of virtual events has been surprisingly good for the international publishers she works with. One London-based author, Raffi Berg, author of Red Sea Spies (Icon Books), has had 18 virtual events through the Jewish Book Council since October, with indie partners such as Malaprops in Asheville, N.C.; Flashlight Books in Walnut Creek, Calif.; and Reads & Company outside Philadelphia. “This is pretty great, considering we had a three-city tour planned for April 2020 that was, of course, swiftly canceled,” Cook added.
With the spread of vaccines, Cook said she had cautiously planned in-person events starting in July but has now had to cancel them—most notably the North American tour for bestselling author Peter Wohlleben. Wohlleben, who lives in Germany, is instead doing virtual events, including one on May 16 with naturalist Jane Goodall, sponsored by Books & Books in Miami and the Miami Book Fair.
Still, Cook said, as convenient as online events may be, she looks forward to the day when they are more a memory than a fact of life. “We all expect virtual fatigue to reach an apex through the summer months,” she added. “But there’s hope that the general public, if still in various states of lockdown, will come back for online stuff when cold weather sets in again. Can the pandemic truly last that long? Let’s hope not.”