The difficulties faced by booksellers, libraries, and publishing conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic are often obvious, with these public-facing, in-person businesses forced to reinvent themselves to keep afloat. But authors and publishers, whose public book events have been canceled, are also working hard to pivot to a new, digital normal.
Many of Penguin Random House’s recent virtual efforts build on the direct-to-consumer marketing programs that were put in place across the company more than a decade ago and have been maintained primarily by the publisher’s consumer marketing department. Many are also reliant on the PRH video team and its in-house studio, which has been operating for several years and has produced virtual events for both PRH's corporate arm and for its divisions.
Some are imprint specific. Riverhead, for instance, has launched an online audio author series titled I’m Glad You Asked, featuring phone conversations between its authors, editors, and others involved in its editorial output. Past installments include Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror) talking with Brit Bennett about the latter’s forthcoming novel, The Vanishing Half, and Marlon James chatting with his editor, Jake Morrissey. James and Morrissey also have a podcast released by the imprint, titled Marlon and Jake Read Dead People. And in April, One World debuted a new Zoom video series titled One World Ideas x Action, which featured a conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Heather C. McGhee, former president of the Demos Foundation, moderated by the imprint’s editor-in-chief, Chris Jackson.
Other initiatives are coordinated efforts spanning imprints within individual publishing groups. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group has a new virtual book club, How Have I Not Read This?, in which authors from the group’s various imprints discuss “timely and topical” books from the group’s lists. The events, which are held via Zoom, are produced in partnership with booksellers and librarians; the first, a discussion of Albert Camus’s The Plague, featured Emily St. John Mandel, Camus translator Laura Marris, and Alice Kaplan, chair of the French department at Yale University.
The Random House Group has also launched a virtual event program—at first with an emphasis on consumer-focused “discovery and connection,” a publicity representative of the group said, and now with the hope of “driving book sales on different online platforms, including Bookshop.”
Random House programs launched via Instagram include Random House Lunch & Learn, described as “short lunchtime breaks” during which authors, including Charles Duhigg and Gretchen Rubin, give “helpful prescriptive tips” on such subjects as how to work from home, creating new habits, and calming anxiety; Random Pantry, in which such cookbook authors as Ina Garten and Melissa Clark discuss topics including cooking during quarantine and share recipes; and a series of Sunday morning conversations with authors titled Coffee with Random House.
Theresa Zoro, executive v-p and executive creative director of marketing and public relations at Random House, said the Covid-19 outbreak kick-started some of the group’s digital efforts. “We already had some of these scaled-type events on the books, and when the pandemic happened and we all had to, of course, work from home, almost immediately, we decided, okay, let’s just pivot—let’s try some new things. And we did. For us, the strategy started with focusing on consumer and reader engagement, to help build communities and offer content to people so that we can bring people together around our books and our big ideas, which is really our mission with our events, always.”
Despite the fact that PRH has integrated marketing and publicity teams, the pivot came with its challenges, due to how central in-person events have been to the publisher. The changes meant bringing some existing programs, such as the Random House Book Club, online, as well as brainstorming new ways to connect with readers. “We needed to do some research around a digital platform, and we did some testing and decided that Zoom felt the most holistic for what we were doing,” Zoro said. “But we also focused on some of our social channels, and Instagram felt like a place that made the most sense.”
The pandemic brough challenges for the video team as well. “For years our corporate video efforts have supported virtual author events on Facebook, YouTube, and other digital platforms,” John Clinton, v-p of creative media at PRH, said. “However, the current crisis prevents us from producing these sessions in a predictable studio environment, creating a whole new set of challenges. We have quickly shifted resources to not only devise a reliable strategy that mitigates technology variables that can create disruptions for authors and attendees, but also roll out a training program for industry partners that may find this information useful. The effort has been well worth it, as our virtual audiences have been sizeable, quite engaged, and driving book sales.”
Other digital efforts at PRH involve coordination between imprints of similar types across the company’s various divisions. One such endeavor, held last month for the first time, is #PRHVirtualCon, a virtual convention produced by PRH in partnership with Reddit aimed at replacing Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con, which exhibitor ReedPop postponed from March 12–15 to August 21–23 due to the pandemic.
The event gave 46 PRH authors from divisions and imprints across the company the opportunity to interface with fans via AMAs ("Ask Me Anything") across various subreddits and the Reddit Public Access Network (RPAN), as well as on PRH’s social media and other platforms, and included giveaways of galleys and exclusive book swag. Authors who took part included Max Barry, Chris Bojalian, Samantha Irby, Lucy Knisley, Camilla Läckberg, Josh Malerman, and St. John Mandel. Some of the “activations” held for the con involved 17 authors playing a collaborative storytelling version of exquisite corpse on Twitter, a trivia show on Facebook called Geek Geek Revolution, a virtual game of bingo held on the company’s Instagram account, and the Great Fantasy Debate Preview Party, held on Zoom, where authors and others engaged in “a fun night of debating and banter” replete with a drawing competition.
Reddit reported “387,000-plus screenviews and 12,000-plus upvotes across Reddit activations (RPAN and traditional AMAs)” from #PRHVirtualCon. Alexandra Riccomini, the company’s senior director of business development and media partnerships, called the event a great success. “It was wonderful to see Reddit users engage with PRH’s authors, whether it was to get a behind-the-scenes look at writing horror novels or to get personalized reading recommendations,” she said. “Hosting a partner’s virtual convention on our platform is a new kind of partnership for us, and one that feels especially valuable during this time.”
At PRH, the effort was led by the PRH sales department’s comic con team: Jennifer Schwabinger, v-p and director of conference planning; Lindsey Elias, director of consumer shows and conferences; and Julianne Jones, coordinator of consumer events and conference planning. They coordinated with representatives from divisions across the company: Ace, Berkley, DAW, Del Rey, Knopf Doubleday, Penguin, Penguin Young Readers, Random House, and Random House Children’s.
Elias said the idea for a virtual convention was something “people in our divisions have been talking about and thinking about for a while now,” even before the pandemic. Still, rolling out the new format came with complications—which is not surprising, given that conventions rely so much on group activity.
“Half of what going to a convention is involves wandering around with your jaw dropped in the convention center and trying to figure out what you should do and where you should go and who you should see,” Elias said. “So our goal was to translate as many of the activities and activations we’d have at a live convention,” such as author appearances, giveaways, and, ultimately, book sales, “to a virtual setting.”
Elias added that her team is “looking forward to making the user experience more streamlined and to feature more live videos” in future iterations. “Overall, we were thrilled with how the day went,” she noted. “We saw tons of engagement across all platforms.” The publisher plans to hold another #PRHVirtualCon in the summer.
At the imprint level, David Moench, director of publicity at Del Rey, and Alexis Nixon, associate director of publicity at the Berkley Publishing Group, were among those working directly with Reddit to coordinate the activations. Both see the event as a positive step for the company—not just during the pandemic but beyond.
“I think this will have a lasting effect on how we, as a publisher, promote books and authors.” Moench said. “It is an opportunity for us to really learn and experiment and come up with new ways to promote.”
For Nixon, doing events in the digital space “makes it open and accessible to everyone”—including people with disabilities and others unable to attend conventions in person.
In the end, PRH has found in digital methods the capacity to reach the sorts of readers who would have attended its in-person programming and other audiences as well. “What I see happening is that different imprints and different companies are producing bespoke events and experiences around their content, and I think we should all be doing that,“ Zoro said. “There are lots of readers out there. And I think for a long time, because of very traditional methods, we tended to reach a similar group of readers. This has given us all an opportunity to go a little bit beyond that, but also to produce content that feels really authentic to certain groups of people who are hungry for it.”
Correction: This article initially referred to Penguin Random House's Integrated Marketing Publicity Department. The department in question is its Consumer Marketing Department. Author AMAs were also held across various subreddits, and not the on the /r/AMA subreddit. The article has also been updated with further information.