“I had more time, silence and solitude to write”
Acclaimed author Isabel Allende is no stranger to international book tours.
The Chilean-American, winner of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, has published more than 20 books over the past four decades. But even before the pandemic, she was ready to change the way she connected with her readers.
After a grueling promotional schedule that took her across the US and Europe, ending in the UK in February 2020, the 79-year-old decided she had had enough of relentless travel.
Before she even left the airport on her way home north of San Francisco, she turned to her daughter-in-law who had traveled with her and said this would be her last in-person book tour.
“We swore we would never do a book tour again because we were so sick and tired,” Ms Allende recalled. “And two weeks later the pandemic hit.”
The global book industry was worth an estimated $109billion (£81billion) in 2021. The pandemic has contributed to a surge in book sales over the past two years as closures meant more people moved from time to read at home.
Last year, physical book sales in the UK totaled 212 million – the highest in a decade and 5% more than in 2020. It was a similar picture in the US, where sales have jumped 9% to 826 million.
Yet while sales of physical books still eclipse those of e-books by around five to one, authors’ marketing and promotion strategies have increasingly shifted online as Covid has made book tours impossible.
And even if restrictions on international travel are lifted, some writers say they will continue to hold virtual events because they are more convenient and accessible. They say it has the added benefit of giving them more time to focus on their craft.
“I was able to do all the promotion for everything on Zoom…or on the phone,” says Ms. Allende, who is busy promoting online for her latest novel, Violeta. “It was great because I had [more] time, silence and solitude to write.”
Other authors claim that virtual book tours provide opportunities for those who cannot attend in-person events. One such writer is Angie Thomas, whose young adult fiction books include The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, and Concrete Rose.
“I missed — and still miss — interacting with readers in person,” she says, speaking from her home in Jackson, Mississippi. “But what I love about online virtual events is that readers who might not have had access to them before, now have access.
“This includes young readers whose parents might not be able to take them to in-person events, or readers with limited mobility. So that’s been a huge benefit, especially for disadvantaged young people who don’t have always the means [to travel].”
Ms. Thomas often does her own social media shows, rather than relying solely on her publisher to host her virtual events. These include live video broadcasts on Instagram, covering topics other than books, where readers are often less inhibited than they would be in a more formal in-person setting.
“We’re talking about the publishing industry, social justice, life in general. We’re doing health checks, we’re asking everyone ‘how are you doing right now?'” she.
“We remind them that it’s okay if you don’t agree. We’re also being honest about our own mental health issues during all of this.”
Ms Thomas adds that she pointed readers to free mental health resources that can help them cope with pandemic anxiety when they say they are struggling.
“You know what? Even once we get back to in-person events, I still want to do virtual events for young people who can’t access them, for whatever reason.”
Natalie Tindall is the University of Texas Principal at Austin’s Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, and also a published writer. She says the online world gives authors the opportunity to build “authentic relationships” with readers.
“It’s a chance to show a different side of yourself, to be creative, and to expand that community that you’re trying to build — that network of readers, of critics, that network of people who are going to support you regardless. . It’s incredibly important for authors to have a community.”
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Still, British author Abigail Dean warns that there are some downsides to giving book talks online, such as the inability to calculate an audience’s reaction.
“The challenge is that it’s harder to gauge the responses of those readers. You lose some of the potential for debate, lively discussion,” says Ms Dean, whose first book, a thriller titled Girl A, was published last year.
Online promotion can be especially important for new authors to gain exposure. British-Nigerian author Lizzie Damilola Blackburn is currently promoting her debut novel, Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? – which will be released in the UK on March 31.
The Milton Keynes-based writer uses Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to talk to potential readers and other authors. Her editor encouraged her to share videos online documenting her journey as a new author.
“The more I used social media, the more I started to get used to it. But I was a little hesitant the first time, I just put myself forward.”
She says she also looks forward to participating in bookstore events later this year, while maintaining her virtual presence.
Dr. Tindall also wants writers to continue their digital relationships with readers. “I hope we don’t give up on this in this rush to go back [to in-person events] and then we leave some people behind.”