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.