By Bethanne Patrick
The Washington Post
August 19, 2020 at 8:00 a.m. EDT
For author Chris Bohjalian, virtual book chats are nothing new. He was in the middle of a book tour on Sept. 11, 2001, and when he heard that his readers had to miss his appearances because of the tragedy, he started calling or Skyping in to book club meetings — and he never stopped.
It’s a good thing he got in the practice. Nearly two decades later, such interactions are the new normal for authors with scrapped book tour plans who want to connect with their audience. Writers have turned to Zoom, Instagram and Facebook Live, among other platforms, to fill the void.
These days, Bohjalian, who released “The Red Lotus” (about a pandemic, no less) in March, meets with three to four groups each week.
“I love to connect with book groups, because it allows me to interact with my readers in a living-room format,” he says. “We talk in a way we never talk at a book signing or speech. It’s far more authentic. The questions move in a very different way than they do at a traditional bookstore event. People are so candid, and they really share what worked about your book and what did not.”
For example, one book club leader volunteered that her group grades their books on a 10-point scale and had awarded his a three. (On the plus side, the group also grades authors as people, and the woman predicted that Bohjalian would get a perfect 10.)
Having seen the evolution of virtual book talks, Bohjalian has noticed some variations in the conversations happening over live video-casting services like Zoom.
“It’s more of a performance on Zoom,” he says, “and no one knows how to use it.” During a recent meeting, “we spent 10 minutes explaining to everyone how to mute/unmute themselves. It makes people less sure about jumping in and keeping things casual.”
What will post-pandemic fiction look like? The novels that followed 9/11 offer some clues.
Mary Kay Andrews has been virtually joining book groups long enough to remember the days when “it would mostly be disembodied voices” over the phone. “It was missing the face-to-face element that makes going on book tour and hearing from readers so wonderful,” she says.
Andrews, who released “Hello, Summer” in May, is dabbling with in-person events despite the pandemic. She held an in-person signing — with plenty of social distancing and hand sanitizer — at her favorite store, Seaside Sisters, on Tybee Island, Ga. But that visit represented a tiny sliver of the 20-city tour she had planned. Instead, she started broadcasting “Friends and Fiction: Five Bestselling Authors. Endless Stories” on Facebook Live. Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., Andrews and fellow writers Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Alice Monroe, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Kristin Harmel talk with each other and special guests about books and writing. So far, special guests have included Debbie Macomber, Kristin Hannah, Elin Hilderbrand and Jasmine Guillory. “We’re booked all the way into September,” Andrews marvels. “It snowballed so fast that we had to hire a tech guy. Now we’re also doing a video podcast, we have a website, and we’re up to over 8,000 members on our Facebook page. Five authors who could barely run a lemonade stand, let alone a book club — this is nothing any of us expected to do.”
Episode Episode 19 with Special Guest Karin Slaughter August 12, 2020. Join the authors each Wednesday at 7pm ET.
For all the negative aspects, there are some silver linings to the new way authors are launching books. When “All the Things We Never Knew” author Liara Tamani hosted her book launch on Zoom, Jason Reynolds, the best-selling author and National Book Award finalist, suddenly materialized. “I was in tears,” Tamani says. “It was a beautiful experience.”
Tamani acknowledges that Zoom events are “not necessarily as good or as lively as real-life events,” but she has also been a part of some really memorable virtual conversations, including one with young adult authors, Brandy Colbert and Lilliam Rivera hosted by Skylight Books.
Book reviews and recommendations
Tamani doesn’t plan to do a lot of book-group events, but she is actively scheduling events with schools and students. “I want to emphasize the importance of reading for kids, but I also need to make time for my own daughter and my own writing life,” she says. “It has to all be in balance.”
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
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