Publishers have had more than half the year to get used to promoting books amid a global pandemic, but the unusually crowded fall season presents a whole new challenge. PW asked publicists and others how they’re making their titles stand out, and how they’re meeting readers’ needs in the process.
As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, publishers had to decide whether to proceed with already-planned spring titles or move them to the next season. Abrams ComicArts chose the latter strategy for Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, cartoonist Derf Backderf’s “provocative, heartbreaking account,” PW’s starred review said, of the May 1970 shootings. Shifting the pub date from May—the 50th anniversary of the massacre—to September was the right decision, says senior publicist Maya Bradford, because the anniversary drew less media attention than had been expected prior to the pandemic.
Abrams rescheduled the author’s book tour as a series of virtual events for fall and conducted a signed preorder campaign with Backderf’s local indie, Mac’s Backs in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, including a custom illustration in each copy. The publisher also partnered with the nonprofit Pop Culture Classroom to create a free, downloadable teaching guide to accompany the book.
Katherine Cobbs’s gift cookbook Tequila & Tacos, which Tiller Press is releasing in October, was also originally a May publication, tied to Cinco de Mayo. It’s the second book in the author’s Spirited Pairings series, after 2019’s Cookies & Cocktails. “When we had to make the decision, it wasn’t as painful as it would have been if it were her first book,” says Tiller Press publicity manager Marlena Brown. She sees the title benefitting from dual marketing pushes: one as a holiday gift book and another for Cinco de Mayo 2021.
Promotional plans include a remote cooking and cocktail demo by Cobbs, hosted by Bookworks in Albuquerque. The shop arranged a partnership with a local distillery that gives patrons the option of picking up a bottle of tequila along with the book.
When Little, Brown Books for Young Readers moved the pub date for Elizabeth Wein’s YA novel The Enigma Game from May to November, the publicity team still had hopes for a five-city in-person tour for the author, who lives in Scotland. Instead, the publisher is sticking with virtual events for the book, a companion to Wein’s popular historicals Code Name Verity and The Pearl Thief. The online format has upsides, says editorial director Lisa Yoskowitz: it allows Wein to interact more fully with attendees, versus moving them quickly through a signing line. “There’s a more direct link when everyone’s on-screen,” she adds. “You can really engage with them.”
Online events can also rally a popular author’s large fan base. For The Last Druid, which concludes Terry Brooks’s long-running Shannara series, Del Rey moved the publication date from June to October and replaced in-person events with Shannara Con, a daylong virtual gathering expected to draw 1,500 attendees, organized with The Signed Page website.
David Moench, director of publicity at Del Rey, acknowledges that “it’s difficult to replicate the personal connections made when the author meets readers and booksellers face-to-face” but says the publisher is working to engage participants through a trivia game, online q&as and conversations, and a showcase of fan art and videos.
Europa Editions shifted Elena Ferrante’s highly anticipated novel The Lying Life of Adults from June to September to help give independent booksellers “a chance to really figure out how they could best sell books in this time of social distancing,” says director of publicity Rachael Small. To help build buzz, the publisher hosted Zoom events that ran for six Monday evenings from April through June—before episodes of the HBO adaptation of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend—in which literary figures including novelists Lauren Groff and Alexander Chee discussed Ferrante’s work. Europa also arranged media interviews with the reclusive author’s translator, Ann Goldstein. These efforts helped Lying Life sell 24,000 hardcover copies, per NPD BookScan, in its release week.
Despite the scheduling glut, current events prompted several publishers to add to their fall lists, moving up or acquiring titles relevant to the moment.
In early June, the week after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Mary-Frances Winters asked her publisher, Berrett-Koehler, whether it could move up the publication date for Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit. Founder and senior editor Steve Piersanti said if Winters completed her manuscript early, the publisher would fast-track it.
Winters turned in her final draft three weeks later, and Black Fatigue, originally scheduled for February 2021, became a lead fall title. Prepublication, Berrett-Koehler posted a 30-page excerpt, hired an outside PR firm, and launched an Instagram campaign using the hashtag #BlackFatigue.
Similarly, in late July Candlewick moved the YA nonfiction title The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph from spring 2021 to December 1, based on strong enthusiasm when the book was presented internally and on consultation with outside PR professionals. “There was a widespread desire to get this out as soon as possible,” says Phoebe Kosman, director of marketing, publicity, and key partnerships.
Joseph, who has 94,000 Twitter followers, added content to the book addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Kosman calls The Black Friend “hopeful,” saying Joseph “offers a way forward for young people looking for a better, fairer, and more equitable world and wondering how to best to build it.”
Verso Books added four fall pandemic-relevant drop-ins to its Pamphlet series of slender volumes addressing political and cultural issues. “The biggest thing for us was to be timely, not to have a splashy marketing campaign,” says publicist Julia Judge. Even so, the publisher is making efforts to bolster its offerings: it created an online teaching guide aimed at college professors and activist groups for Mutual Aid by Dean Spade and is discounting Pamphlet titles on its website.
Bloomsbury Children’s Books has “mostly shied away from” pandemic-related publishing, says executive editor Sarah Shumway. But it crashed an October picture book inspired by the children who taped rainbow drawings to their windows during lockdown: The World Made a Rainbow by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by Emily Hamilton. The book’s message of hope resonated, Shumway says, coupled with the fact that Robinson is donating full royalties on U.S. and U.K. print editions to Save the Children, and Bloomsbury is supplementing her contribution.
Other publishers are responding to pandemic-specific needs. In spring, Fox Chapel acquired Angie Herbertson’s Sewing Face Masks, Scrub Caps, Arm Slings, and More for publication in November. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired October’s Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread by Pauline Beaumont in early April, “just as bread baking was emerging as a major trend during the pandemic,” says Lori Glazer, senior v-p, executive director of publicity.
Chronicle Books is pouncing on another lifestyle shift: Working from Home with a Cat by Heidi Moreno, originally a spring 2021 title, will pub in November. On National Cat Day, October 29, the publisher will host a giveaway on Instagram and ask readers to share stories of their feline companions.
Right on time
Many titles, of course, were always planned for fall, and publishers are doing what they can to help them stand out. For September’s Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen, HMH included with all preorders a “this won’t fix your burnout” 2021 planner, and offered a shot at winning a “f*ck passion, pay me” tote bag and a “capitalism is broken” sweatshirt.
Petersen says that for her virtual events, she was mindful that, after spending much of the day on Zoom, attendees might respond better to a format that wasn’t “just someone asking me questions.” Instead, BookPeople in Austin, Tex.; Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; and other venues hosted themed panels, each with different participants addressing different aspects of burnout, to “incentivize people to go to more than one.”
To promote October’s The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab, which PW’s starred review called a “sweeping fantasy” that’s “as much a love story as it is a tribute to storytelling, art, and inspiration,” Tor Books scheduled ticketed online events hosted by a dozen indie bookshops, featuring Schwab in conversation with a different author at each stop—Madeline Miller, Naomi Novik, and Rebecca Roanhorse among them. The first 100 tickets purchased for each event include a personalized book plate, and each attendee receives a 6” × 9” art print inspired by the book. “We wanted to create something unique to make sure we weren’t getting a thousand people at one event and zero at the next,” says Sarah Reidy, executive director of publicity.
Though virtual promotions may not offer the ideal author-reader experience, several publishers PW spoke with note the upsides. Online events give authors “the chance to reach a more national platform” in a way an on-site event can’t, Tiller Press’s Brown says. “It’s a challenge, but we’re going to figure it out.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer and editor of the forthcoming Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Vol. 6 (Cleis, Dec.).
Below, more on selling books in the fall.
Leaping the Year: Fall 2.0
Publishers’ fourth-quarter dance cards are so full, some titles are sitting this one out.
Seasonal Adjustments: Fall 2.0
During a chaotic autumn, booksellers set the stage for the months to come.