It was immediate and universal: when the pandemic hit in March 2020, author events and school visits went virtual, just like every other previously-in-person event on the planet. Within months, the online format was the new norm, and authors had their online presentations dialed in. But for readers and authors, the desire to interact in person appears never to have waned. Jeff Kinney took a creative approach in fall 2020 by developing a drive through event for the launch of The Deep End, his 15th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. Wimpy fans in decorated cars entered a fabricated “deep end” drive-through and met Kinney, who signed books using a pool skimmer from six feet away. With his next release, he completed an eight-stop van tour. This spring, more authors and publishers are beginning to dip their toes back into the waters of bookstore, festival, and school appearances.
As wave after wave of the virus prolonged uncertainty, publishers have entertained the possibility of returning to events before only to reconsider as Covid numbers spiked again. Molly Ellis, v-p and executive director of publicity at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, said the publisher has had “a lot of false starts in terms of our return to in-person events.” Reflecting on the past two years, she added, “In the early days of the pandemic, I used to imagine a magical date on which the world would just snap ‘back to normal.’ It’s now clear that that’s never going to be the case—so we’re in constant communication with booksellers and event organizers” to discuss possibilities.
As the spring book season enters its height, booksellers are buoyed by the confidence that they will be able to draw readers back into their stores again and are “sending enthusiastic proposals” for author events, according to Noreen Herits, executive director, publicity and media strategy at Random House Children’s Books. Several popular festivals are back in swing again, including YALLWest, which returned to Santa Monica High School in California last weekend.
In deciding whether or not to schedule in-person events, “We’re following our authors’ leads,” said Hallie Patterson, publicity director at Abrams. “The key to success here is open and honest communication and it’s our job as publicists to facilitate that between all the parties.” Among the Abrams authors on the road again this spring are Candacy Taylor, promoting Overground Railroad: Young Adult Adaptation, and Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, whose Pretty Perfect Kitty-Corn came out in early March.
Lisa Moraleda, executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, reiterates the importance of communication to the success of an in-person event. To host an event, the publisher requires that bookstores have protocols in place to make sure authors and audience members are safe. “Only when all parties are comfortable with the plan and are on the same page do we give the green light,” she said. “We also maintain the right to transition a physical appearance to a virtual event if/when Covid cases rise.”
Herits echoed the concern about safeguarding audiences and authors as in-person events resume. “The safety of our creators is paramount,” she said. And while booksellers may be eager to host, some authors are not yet comfortable with large in-person events yet, said Lindsay Matvick, publicity and trade marketing manager at Lerner Publishing.
While testing the waters, some publishers have developed hybrid tours that combine virtual and in-person tours. At Abrams, for example author-illustrator team Andrea Beaty and Vashti Harrison divided up appearances for their new release I Love You Like Yellow. Harrison did in-person events in five markets while Beaty offered five days of virtual events. For their big finale, the pair came together for a series of virtual school visits.
With the release of his latest in the Mr. Lemoncello series, Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game (Random House), Chris Grabenstein has scheduled a limited number of in-person events as well as a number of virtual events.
“We are doing our best to make events plans that combine all of the technological resources and knowledge that we’ve gleaned over the past two years with tried-and-true tour and event planning processes from the ‘before times,’ ” Ellis said. That means tailoring events to meet goals for the specific books while “taking into account the creators’ specific needs and comfort levels,” she added.
Bestselling YA author Dhonielle Clayton is currently out on a six-stop tour during the month of May for her new novel The Marvellers, which began with a VIP launch at Barnes & Noble in Union Square and includes an official launch on May 6 at Brave and Kind in Decatur, Ga. with authors Angie Thomas and Nic Stone. Clayton’s last in-person tour was in the spring of 2019 for Everlasting Rose, the second book in her The Belles series. “I thought it would feel like muscle memory and I’d remember how to do this, but it feels strange, like the book world pre-Covid will never be back,” she said. “The pandemic is still happening and yet we’re trying to reset and resume book touring as usual, which part of me is grateful for and the other part of me is terrified.”
Clayton, who published several books throughout the past two years, said that virtual events can’t compare to those in person. “I’ve missed interacting with readers and my colleagues. At a great in-person event there’s usually lively energy that keeps you going as an author. You get that back-and-forth and can sense how your readers are engaging with the material. I crave that energy because it reminds me that people love stories and we’re not just writing into an empty void.”
Seale Ballenger, v-p of publicity at Scholastic’s trade division, said that schools have had time to determine protocols that work best for their populations, so the comfort level for author visits has increased over the course of the school year in many districts.
Poet, presenter, and novelist Allan Wolf (Behold Our Magical Garden, Candlewick) resumed a small schedule of school visits late last fall, describing the spectrum of arrangements schools offered to keep all involved safe. At one school, he presented in a parking lot with a portable speaker connected with a 100-foot-long extension cord, competing with the roar of nearby traffic as kids sat patiently on the sidewalk. At another, kids filed into the cafeteria to sit in socially distanced rows. In the past, he might present to a gym full of kids. That has shifted to multiple presentations to smaller groups at a single school. As school visits begin to resemble something like a pre-pandemic approach, Wolf said he’s noticed “there’s a lot of emotion just beneath the surface” for kids, teachers, and presenters. “I don’t think we realize how clenched we’ve become” over the past two years, he continued, adding that it’s nice to get a hug from a kid again. “It’s human.”
For many authors, in-person events aren’t just about audiences. They’re a rare opportunity to spend time with other authors. “I love attending author events myself as a fan and as a reader of many of my author colleagues,” Clayton said. “I have missed being able to show up for people. I have books that need signing, too.”
Publishers universally feel that virtual events are here to stay. While the idea was initially an emergency response to the pandemic, many have found a silver lining. “We want to make our books and appearances available to a diverse group of audiences across the country, and virtual events allow us to bring books into homes, schools, and libraries that might not have access to events that are normally held in larger metropolitan areas,” Matvick said. That’s particularly true for international fans who rarely have “the opportunity to see their favorite author in person,” said Ballenger.
But as the pandemic has lingered, downsides to the virtual visit have become apparent. Jennifer Roberts, executive director of marketing, publicity, and events at Candlewick, said that some booksellers have shared that the widely reported phenomena of “Zoom fatigue” is real and that means that attendance at virtual bookstore events has waned considerably. “Now we’re working to ensure that the virtual events we do take part in are high-impact and reach the largest possible audience, to make the best use of booksellers’ time and resources and of our creators’ time,” she said.
In short, it appears that at least for the time being, in-person events are still in a transitional phrase. “Just as two years ago we were figuring out how to adapt to a virtual event landscape in real time, we’re now figuring out how to adapt to a hybrid landscape in real time,” Ellis said. That provides both challenges and opportunities. At Abrams, Patterson said, disruption in the status quo has allowed her team to “dream up” fresh new ideas for author-reader interactions.
“Ultimately, we aim to forge connection and access however possible,” Herits said.