Writing a book is a lonely pursuit, one that can take years of solitary work. Selling a book is another story. Authors give talks in cramped storefronts, schmooze at luncheons, and learn to casually discuss their belabored creative project as commercial content. The publicity circuit can be dispiriting, sleazy, and exhausting. It can also be exhilarating, liberating, and fun—a chance for people who spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts to feel like someone’s heard them. This year, releasing a book into the world became another task largely undertaken solo, at home, staring at a screen. The Covid-19 pandemic forced the publishing industry to reimagine its process for convincing people to buy its latest offerings. Even the industry’s fanciest nights, like the National Book Awards gala, took place as digital events, with participants glammed up and sitting at home.
WIRED asked the writers behind five of our favorite 2020 tomes to tell us what it was like to release a book during quarantine. Here’s what they said.
I was lucky enough to have a few in-person events before quarantine. One of the events was recorded for Book TV, on C-SPAN, and because it was one of the very last in-person bookstore events that happened anywhere, it ended up playing repeatedly in March and April at odd hours. The first month of quarantine, I wasn’t sleeping so great, so I would be awake at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. I had signed up for email alerts to tell me when it aired and I’d get the emails sometimes just before I’d go to bed. I was staying with my parents, and my dad wakes up really early. The first time it aired, we were both up, and I was able to watch my event with my dad.
It could be a lot worse. The kind of person who wants to hole up in a room and write 80,000 words is not necessarily the kind of person who loves to be the center of attention. So there are some aspects of the virtual events that are less nerve-wracking than doing them in person. But the drawback is that these bookstores aren’t getting the same sales. And you don’t have the conversations you used to have; you’re not meeting in a restaurant and getting to catch up with old friends who show up to the reading. I miss those things. When you log out of a Zoom and you’re just alone in a room. It’s really bewildering.
Just staring at the screen feels exhausting. There are only so many ways to make virtual events different. But one of my upcoming events will be different—it’s a Second Life Book Club, hosted by Bernhard Drax. He creates avatars for authors on request. I asked for a cyborg avatar. I’m excited because it is a creative approach that isn’t trying to replicate the offline experience of a book event.
I live in the Yukon, so we were late getting cases relative to most of North America. I had a launch party scheduled for April 6 at a local restaurant that was just going to be me and all my friends—super informal, no reading, just a pure celebration. I hoped that might still happen somehow, which seems really naive in retrospect. It was weird at first being in a place with no cases and having all this stuff canceled. There was a disconnect there. But then the Yukon went into its first lockdown. And even if I had felt comfortable traveling, my publisher pulled their approval for my book tour and the entire thing got canceled, including, of course, the launch party.
It was disappointing, but I put it into perspective fairly quickly. Having so many friends and colleagues in New York helped me to understand the situation more viscerally, not just intellectually. I recorded my episode of the Longform Podcast with Max Linsky. I remember talking to Max, and we had to keep stopping the recording session so he could wait for sirens to pass by.
I still hope I get a chance to do a normal book tour someday. But there were things about remote events that were really fun—more people could tune in from all over the place. The actual day that my book came out, I had been in self-isolation because I had symptoms after a possible exposure. My friends were like, “Well, let’s throw you a virtual book launch.” I had takeout from the restaurant where I had been planning to have my party. One friend dropped off a big bottle of fancy craft beer. And I got on Zoom with a bunch of friends and we had drinks and talked, and it felt way better than I thought it would. I worried it would feel like such a pale imitation of the real thing, and that it’d just make me sad. But that wasn’t the case at all. It was really nice.
At first I was really nervous about Zoom. What if the connection cut out? Would I be presentable on camera? I got to do an event with the writer C. Pam Zhang, who wrote an incredible debut this year. Her book was picked for the Goop book club—the first pick!—and she invited me to be on a panel. I was really excited, and since it was for Goop, my wife Michelle and I wanted to present our home in a nice-looking way, with me in front of a built-in bookshelf that Michelle had made. But the connection wasn’t good enough, so I had to move to the bedroom. Only afterward did we realize that the dresser behind me was covered in a layer of dust visible on camera. We had moved some books off of it, so there was a negative outline of dust around where the books had been. This only made it more noticeable. So much for a good impression on Goop!
That was probably the worst mishap I had until the National Book Award. [Ed note: Yu won the National Book Award!] It was a mishap of my brain. I really didn’t expect to win, so I prepared absolutely nothing. When they announced my name, I started freaking out. My son was next to me and he started freaking out. My daughter was upstairs, she started freaking out. Michelle and I just looked at each other, freaking out. So I give my remarks, which are totally off the cuff—and I forget to thank my family. When I realized afterward, my stomach dropped. My book is about people who are underappreciated and I forgot to thank the people who’d supported me all those years and were literally in the background when I won. And my parents were watching in their home. I’ll never forgive myself for that.
Going to an awards ceremony in our living room was really fun, though, because afterwards I changed back into shorts and we had pizza.
K.M. Szpara, author of Docile
My book came out in March, which was right before everyone really shut down, and publishers were still trying to figure out what digital events meant. I got a message from Nora Jemisin, who had read my book and wanted to chat with me, and we never would have connected otherwise in the same way. So it’s been really cool to get to speak with authors who I would normally not bump into.
I also really enjoyed some of the new formats—I was asked to be on a panel with the Southern Festival of Books, and we played a game show where you drew book covers from memory without looking away from the screen. It was creative. And being remote, you can lose the stage fright of the moment that sometimes comes with being in front of an audience. It can feel more like singing in the shower than singing in karaoke.
What has proven to be a real challenge for me is usually when you go to a bookstore or an event, you’re sitting at the front of the room, chatting with some other panelist. You take questions afterwards. I have found, though, that one of the features that people like to have during remote events is a chat feed, where people can ask questions or have conversations with each other as we’re talking. I noticed this during my first conversation with Nora—you can see the chat going on the side as you talk. You want readers and event participants to have fun and enjoy themselves and feel like they’re sort of like eating popcorn and like watching a cool TV show with their friends and chatting, but it’s hard not to be distracted.
My pandemic book tour has, in a certain way, been more nomadic than most. My mom died this spring, just after things locked down. I was in the middle of finishing up the book, so I gave up my Brooklyn apartment and moved to Kansas City, my hometown, to live with my dad for a few months. When it came time to do a “book tour,” I was back on the East Coast but without a home base. I talked to WNYC from a hotel room in Brooklyn; did a bunch of podcast interviews from an apartment that a friend had vacated and let me use; and talked to the guys at Defector from the spare bedroom at my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey. Just last night, I called into a friend’s book club that had picked my book to read while driving from my storage unit in Brooklyn to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey. (I realize all this sounds potentially like I’m a traveling superspreader, but we have been cautious as we move around.)
The pandemic-era book tour seems to primarily involve a lot of podcasts. There’s so many. Everybody’s got one now. Something close to half of the podcasts I’ve appeared on seem to be ones that launched since the pandemic began, when everyone seemed to decide that they needed to have a podcast, because what else were they going to do? I have now done interviews about the book over Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Zencastr, Squadcast, WhatsApp, and—old school!—the phone. I have a horrifying archive of locally-saved Quicktime recordings of my own voice that I intend to promptly delete so that I never have to listen to them again.
I think it was much more difficult for people who put out books at the beginning of the pandemic, and had a big plan for rolling out their books, and suddenly had to change course. It was easier for me because I had six months of preparing for the fact that this was going to be anything but normal. I do vainly wish it was easier to stroll into a bookstore and find my book on the shelves. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there also would have been a particular kind of thrill to pop into a Hudson News at the airport and see my book there.
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