The global shutdown caused by the COVID 19 pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, but there are some adaptations that have proven themselves to be beneficial and long-lasting. Author events—the who’s-who for the literati and the how-many-copies for marketing departments—used to be held in bookstores, cafes, and galleries across the world, but these spaces are no longer safely accessible. Like most of our educational and cultural institutions, they have moved into the stilted world of Zoom and other video-hosting platforms. But is this new normal actually working for publishers?
According to Publishers Weekly, bookstores who are hosting virtual author events are trying to replicate the in-person experience in an online setting, usually by having an author in conversation with another author or editor, followed by a reading of the book. For some, even though the conversations and readings are familiar, the magic is simply gone. The screen can’t replicate the smell of a bookstore, the hug of a friend that you meet there, or the simple excitement of seeing an author you love in person. And let’s not forget the palpable energy you feel being in a room full of people who are attentively listening to a reading of delightful prose. Despite these shortcomings, it appears that virtual events have some winning qualities after all.
One definitive advantage of virtual events is that geographical location is no longer an issue. Do you know of an author event hosted by a bookstore in Brooklyn, but you live in Portland? Distance and location is no longer a factor because now you can just log on to your computer. This is arguably one of the leading causes for the dramatic increase in the number of attendees at virtual author events. As John Warner of the Chicago Tribune said, “in some cases thousands of live viewers with more watching the recorded events later.” Not only are geographical constraints removed, but so are physical limitations. For more well-known authors, there could be lines and maximum occupancy rules that dictate how many people could attend the event, but now the attendance count is limitless.
There are also more freedoms offered by these virtual events. For example, there was a launch event for novelist Scott O’Connor’s new book, Zero Zone, hosted by Bookworks Albuquerque. The virtual event consisted of the author, of course, but he was also joined by Carole Kim, a Los Angeles-based visual artist who presented a video art installation, and then the two discussed the book and the art piece. This unique combination brought the virtual aspect of the event into play and incorporated it into the event itself. The digital aspect of Kim’s art and the way it interacted with the launch of O’Connor’s art-based thriller made this launch event a truly multimedial experience that wouldn’t have been possible if the event had been held in-person.
There are both benefits and drawbacks for virtual author events, and it’s hard to say which is superior. The benefits, however, do deserve significant consideration moving forward in the publishing industry. The virtual hosting space can be taken advantage of and manipulated into a multimedial adventure rather than simply taking a seat in a dusty folding chair in the Pearl Room of Powell’s Books.