Vaccinations may be increasing at a rapid rate, and many business are reopening to close to pre-pandemic hours, but publishers and booksellers are not in a hurry to resume in-person author tours this spring or summer. Most publishers contacted by PW said they are deferring making any concrete plans about tours until authors feel comfortable going back on the road and booksellers and librarians feel comfortable hosting in-store events. For the moment, publishers and booksellers are willing to stick with virtual talks and readings, though a growing number acknowledged that online events are becoming a bit stale.
“We’re letting the stores and libraries make the call based on their own comfort levels, locations, and layouts,” said Vida Engstrand, director of communications at Kensington Publishing. “At this point, most of the stores we’ve been in touch with about events this year have said we should schedule them as virtual, but as we get closer to the date we could discuss pivoting to more of a hybrid format.”
For its part, Macmillan has ruled out holding in-person tours through the most of the summer. “Based on current CDC guidelines and vaccine availability, Macmillan will not solicit or pursue requests for in-person events for our authors taking place before Sept. 1, 2021,” a spokesperson said. “We will continue to pursue virtual event opportunities for our authors to reach key audiences.” The spokesperson added that in June the publisher will provide an update on its plans for in-person tours after September 1.
At Penguin Random House, a spokesperson said the company has no timetable to roll out live tours and is evaluating all plans on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t expect to have a set date or one-size-fits-all approach for our plans,” the spokesperson noted.
The pandemic itself remains a wild card for publishers and booksellers, since spikes in infection rates have upset numerous plans for bringing back live events, and publishers are reluctant to develop extensive tours only to dash them because of some new surge. “Obviously we remain hopeful about an eventual return to in-person events,” said Jim Plank, publicist for Haymarket Books. “But lots of people, especially those in positions of power, have spent the last 13 months being repeatedly and disastrously wrong about when and how reopening on a large scale can be done safely.”
Caroline Nitz, publicity director for Graywolf Press, said a return to in-person tours “is the question of the hour.” Currently, the publisher is scheduling virtual events for all of its upcoming tours, though it is leaving room for flexibility—“in case an author or venue wants to do in-person events later this summer or into the fall.” She added, “There are so many factors at play: individual authors’ comfort levels with the idea of traveling, vaccination rates, the varying case levels all over the country, whether the general public will feel comfortable attending readings again. It really feels impossible to predict.”
Booksellers contacted by PW said that though they are looking forward to the return of authors to their stores, they too will err on the side of caution. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble said the chain is not yet planning in-person events. She added that it would like to resume hosting events before the end of the year, but it has no timetable in mind and will bring in-person events back when it’s safe to do so. Once in-person events do return, she noted, B&N plans to also continue its virtual event program.
Independent booksellers said there is much to discuss before resuming in-store author events. “I’m honestly still not able to give an estimate on when in-person events are coming back,” said Riley Davis, events coordinator for Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn. “It would be a conversation with the publishers”—and so far those conversations have yielded little in the way of firm plans.
That said, Next Chapter has given thought to how the store will return to hosting authors. “We’ll likely have to ease into them and keep the audience limited at the start,” Davis noted. Next Chapter is considering a variety of models, including limiting event access to customers who have bought books, or hosting authors after regular business hours.
“We’re full of ideas, but we have no idea which ones are going to make sense to use until we’re presented with the opportunity,” Davis said. “It would be a collaborative effort between our store and staff’s safety and the publishers.”
Linda Kass, owner of Gramercy Books in Bexley, Ohio, said she has been having ongoing discussions with publishers and booksellers, and more talks are planned. “All of us have quite a bit to figure out,” she added. “This is not about flicking a switch on and suddenly we are holding in-person events. We will be taking baby steps to develop safe plans aligned with the guidelines we get from the CDC. The other item that any bookstore has to consider involves their location and what the situation with Covid is in their community.”
In-store events do not appear to be in the cards anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean bookstore owners have given up on the idea of bringing a limited number of authors to outdoor events. Gramercy has three curbside (outdoor) book signings scheduled—on May 1, June 5, and June 12. But Kass said anything more ambitious will require more discussion and planning, noting that she is beginning to meet with representatives from bigger venues with whom Gramercy has worked with in the past to understand their timing and protocols.
The Book Cellar in Chicago is hosting outdoor author events in its sidewalk seating area in front of the store. “We’ll host whoever would do it,” said owner Suzy Takacs, explaining that authors can do short readings and sign books while people sit at the tables and drink wine. On June 26, crime writers Tracy Clark and Lori Rader-Day will appear outside the Book Cellar. “It’s a start, but so hard to predict,” Takacs noted, adding that she’d feel secure hosting outdoor events through September.
Publishers, too, are doing experiments with outdoor author events. Daley Farr, a publicist at Coffee House Press, said that to promote the June release of Moheb Soliman’s debut poetry collection, Homes, it’s looking for outdoor public locations around the Great Lakes region that have enough room to allow for space between attendees. Coffee House will work with potential partners to develop clear Covid protocols, including mask requirements, she added.
Kensington’s Engstrand has worked with Boulder Bookstore to arrange the June launch for Debra Bokur’s The Bone Field, to be held outside at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center. Further down the road, she sees hybrid events as the next step, with each author in-store with a limited audience while the event is livestreamed for remote attendees, who are able to ask questions. This format, she added, “allows authors and readers to still have that in-person experience while allowing for larger turnouts online, so the store has more of a chance to sell a decent number of books.”
Literary nonprofits that run reading series and book festivals are also facing the question of what to do. At Inprint Houston, which has a popular reading series that features a dozen or more A-list authors, director Rich Levy said the organization has yet to book anyone for spring 2022. “Typically, I would have already been in New York to meet with publicists, but that hasn’t happened,” he noted. Since the start of the pandemic, all events have been virtual, and the status of the fall season is “a moving target.” Even if Inprint were able to get an author to agree to appear, Levy is uncertain whether its usual venue, the Alley Theater, which holds 775 people, would allow in guests, and if it did, he’s not sure how many.
To book authors, Inprint works with publishers as well as speakers agencies, such as the Steven Barclay Agency, Blue Flower Arts, and the Lyceum Agency. Jamie Brickhouse, who runs the RedBrick Agency, said he has found that most authors are now willing to do events to which they can drive. “But they are not willing to fly,” he added.
Brickhouse booked his client Jesse Stommel for a live event in May, but it’s a corporate event and is not open to the public. Other authors have agreed to appearances later in the year, primarily in the fall. “Of course,” he said, “everything is subject to change.”