How the pandemic is changing book publishing

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[Editor’s note: Christina Baker Kline is the New York Times–bestselling author of eight novels, including The Exiles, Orphan Train and A Piece of the World. This piece was originally written for the Montclair Literary Festival.]

Even at the best of times, publishing a book is an odyssey. Writing and revising a manuscript can take years; if you want to post traditionally (i.e. not post yourself), you need to find an agent to represent you. You must be prepared to take that person’s advice. If you’re very lucky, an editor at a publishing house will fall in love with your story, but you’ll probably still need to revise it. Someday you’ll get proofs of edited pages (no more revisions!), And at some point if the stars align (usually a year after submitting the final manuscript) you’ll end up with a real book.

Then you have to go out and promote it.

For writers whose books were launched around the time of Covid-19, this latter part of the process is all the more difficult. Like all other aspects of life over the past few months, the world of book publishing has been turned upside down. Brick and mortar stores and libraries are closed; the audience for book tours is non-existent. Authors and publishers are doing all they can to figure out how to give new books a chance to be seen and read, but many struggle to get rid of the clutter online.

[RELATED: What Local Authors Are Reading Right Now]

From the ashes of the book tour arose a strange internet creature known as Zoom, and everyone is trying to figure out how to tame it. In a world of TikTok and Twitter memes, will people tune in to see writers talking about their work and will those eyeballs turn into sales? What format works best to capture the fleeting attention of a viewer?

Writers are strange beasts; they are comfortable and even happy sitting alone in a room for several hours a day. This trait is rarely associated with skills useful for self-promotion, such as sociability and the art of selling. In most cases, a writer staring into a laptop’s camera and talking into the void isn’t the best way to promote a book. It became clear fairly quickly that authors are generally more comfortable and interesting in conversing with other book-loving people.

My own upcoming novel won’t be out until September, so for now I’m doing what I can to support writers whose tours have been canceled. Some are writers I was supposed to appear with in person; some are requests from publishers and booksellers, usually because I read and approved their book before it was published. That’s why, at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday or at 7 p.m. on a Friday, you’ll find me pulling my desk away from the window to position it in front of a shelf. I’m going to install the special light and USB microphone I ordered from Amazon to avoid looking like I’m in a hostage video, open a Zoom link, and spend the next hour talking with an author that I admire from a book that deserves to be read and discussed.

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Here are four of the authors – and one very special bookseller – with whom I’m delighted to chat this spring. (Click on the links below for information on how to watch the live or recorded conversations.)

Elizabeth Wetmore, Valentine

Barnes & Noble, May 1

This 52-year-old first novelist’s book has been chosen by all kinds of national book clubs (B&N, Today’s show, Amazon Best Book of April, etc.) for good reason. It’s a beautifully written, intricate and fascinating exploration of a crime in a small town in Texas.

Alex Georges, Parisian hours

To Mighty Blaze, May 7

As the founder and executive director of Unbound Book Festival and owner of Skylark Bookshop (both in Missouri), George has been well known in the writing world for years. Now, with this novel buzz about Paris One Day in 1927, it is also destined for writer’s fame. You will find me on the back of the book saying, “Like All the light that we can’t see, Parisian hours explores the brutality of war and its lingering effects with cinematic intensity. The ending will take your breath away.

Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vil

Montclair Literary Festival, May 9

A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, it is the story of life in London during the German bombing campaign of WWII of 1940 and 1941, and the handling of the Battle of Britain by Winston Churchill. Larson says he drew new documents from Churchill’s archives that no one had found because he was interested in things no one else was looking for.

Amy Jo Burns, Minnow

Midtown Scholar Bookstore, May 12

I also read this novel very early on and was delighted to say it: “In sober but lyrical prose, Amy Jo Burns brings a brutal landscape and its dangerous and alluring inhabitants to life. A haunting glimpse into a strange and mystical world with its own laws and customs, populated by fiercely independent people, this novel combines a memory-like intimacy with the mythical power of a fable. Burns is a writer to watch.

To Mighty Blaze, May 20

Watchung Booksellers, my favorite independent bookstore, is Montclair’s beating heart. I can’t wait to take a virtual tour with Margot and talk about all the books we’re excited to read and champion in 2020 – on Zoom for now, and hopefully someday soon, in person.

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