Watching governments loosen pandemic-induced restrictions and bookstores reopen their doors, it’s tempting to believe that in-person book launches and author events will soon return to “normal.” It’s been said that during the first eight weeks of the initial lockdowns, consumers vaulted ahead five years in the adoption of digital technologies. As a result, we at University of Toronto Press (UTP) are eager to maintain a hybrid model of online and live events for the foreseeable future.
Like many of our publishing colleagues, my teammates and I spent much of the lockdown exploring different approaches to launching books digitally. Some of these efforts have resonated with our audience more than others. Either way, driving sales from virtual events remains a challenge. Overall, the process has refined our sense of how to target serious nonfiction readers, particularly as we approach the “next normal.”
At first, we patterned our virtual events along the lines of our in-person events. UTP launches would often feature the author having an onstage conversation with a notable colleague (or two), followed by questions from the audience. We asked our authors to do much the same thing on Zoom. Since our in-person events typically started at either 5 p.m. or 7 p.m., we booked our online presentations accordingly.
A notable early exception to this format was “The Campus in the Covid Era,” a lunchtime webinar we put together in October 2020 in which our author panel explored how campus culture would be affected by the global racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter. UTP authors Carl E. James (Colour Matters), Tamari Kitossa and Erica S. Lawson (African Canadian Leadership), Jacqueline Quinless (Decolonizing Data), and Kenneth S. Stern (The Conflict Over the Conflict) explored this timely question.
The popularity of this noontime panel inspired us to reevaluate how we scheduled events. We changed our approach in April 2021, after an event for Bethany Kilcrease’s guide to digital literacy, Falsehood and Fallacy. Kilcrease ran a 30-minute lunchtime workshop focused on a single pedagogical challenge. Whereas 100-200 people typically signed up for our early evening events, 452 people registered for Kilcrease’s session. It also generated stronger book sales than our previous online offerings.
The success of Kilcrease’s event spoke volumes about our core audience. After working remotely for over a year, they had “Zoom fatigue.” Watching an event at lunchtime, when they’re almost certainly online, is less intrusive than doing so at the end of the workday. It’s also not a coincidence that our two most popular events revolved around a single question. The online cultural marketplace is so crowded these days that a focused, intellectually rigorous option is especially attractive to nonfiction readers.
This fall, we plan to adopt a hybrid of physical and digital events for our forthcoming major titles such as Unsettling the Great White North, a groundbreaking collection of essays by leading voices in Black Canadian history edited by Michele A. Johnson and Funké Aladejebi. We’re putting together a few in-person events with community partners. We’re also planning a series of midday virtual events in which individual contributors will discuss the issues they explore in their essays. By combining live and virtual events, UTP will be able to promote this landmark text to a more global audience.
Chris Reed is a publicist at the University of Toronto Press.