With coronavirus, the book tour has gone completely online | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

With coronavirus, the book tour has gone completely online

click to enlarge With coronavirus, the book tour has gone completely online
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Anna Weber, White Whale events manager
For many authors, going on a book tour is the highlight of getting published. They get to meet fans, sign copies of their books, and have moving conversations with readers on what they have written. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a problem: How do you go on a book tour when it’s not safe to be in the same room with so many people? Publishers and writers alike have risen to the occasion over the past year by creating virtual book tours, allowing authors to safely “travel” from city to city.

But can they fill the same experiences and needs as a pre-pandemic tour?

Deesha Philyaw, author of the award-winning and National Book Award finalist The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, says that readings in the virtual space are “good work,” but work nonetheless.

“I don't feel like anything is missing during the event,” she says. “But afterwards, there's no going out for dinner or drinks; it's not celebratory. It's just me sitting on my couch trying to get motivated to get up and go to bed.”

Despite the lack of socializing around the book, Philyaw felt she was able to reach her intended audience, and beyond.

“I connected with Black women, my primary audience, and many other folks who aren't Black women, in large part because my book tour has been online,” Philyaw says. “By connecting with so many people, I've come to see my book in new lights. Each conversation is fresh and new.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies isn’t Philyaw’s first book, but like many authors, it’s her first time promoting and touring with a book completely online. Stephanie Cawley, author of the poetry collection My Heart but Not My Heart (Slope Editions), echoes that excitement. Cawley was notified their book was going to publication in September 2019, and the book was slated for a March 2020 release at an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. There was a lot of talk about whether the conference would happen as the pandemic got more serious, Cawley says. AWP ended up going on as planned, letting individuals, presses, and publishers decide whether they wanted to come or not. Cawley did not go, so their book launch slowly became an online affair.

Inhabiting the virtual space feels different for a poet, according to Cawley.

“In some ways it feels more intimate. I'm seeing people's faces up really close in a way that is different than when you're in a room even. But it is also lonelier in a certain way. There's no hugging,” Cawley says. “The thing that's strangest is there's no feedback from the audience. You don't hear people laugh or make a sound, you can't feel the energy of the room to know, ‘Maybe I should wrap this up now’ or ‘Are we doing OK? Can I keep going?’ It feels much more like a sort of solo performance.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Lucia LoTempio, author of Hot With the Bad Things (Alice James Books).

“It's really nice because you have an expanded audience in the virtual space. You also have a wider variety of people that you can read with which is nice,” LoTempio says. “On the flip side, there isn't that same sort of comradery before and after readings. I think readings can be really social events.”

LoTempio was elated in the fall of 2018 when she found out her book was getting published, but she also felt like it was a hoax. Traditionally for poetry collections to get published, poets will send their manuscripts to contests and open reading periods hosted by presses and publishers. In LoTempio’s case, the editor-in-chief of Alice James Books reached out directly to her after finding some of her poems and solicited the manuscript that way.

Despite the virtual book launch, LoTempio says she feels like she reached her intended audience, but there were challenges. In Hot With the Bad Things, LoTempio uses a symbol in place of a name for a particular person. When she’s reading these poems in person, she signals to the audience and has them clap. In the virtual space, this wasn’t possible.

LoTempio had her book launch party through Bloomfield’s White Whale Bookstore, a popular site for readings, workshops, and book launches. Since April 2020, White Whale has hosted more than 7,000 people, including attendees from around the world, in 141 virtual events, including 19 workshops.
click to enlarge With coronavirus, the book tour has gone completely online
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Deesha Philyaw
White Whale hosts their events using Zoom, and uses the site Eventbrite to run ticket sign-ups, which has helped with security. They are able to look at the list of attendees and weed out spam that way. This prevents notorious “Zoom bombers” from ruining events.

White Whale didn’t jump into the virtual event space from the start, but after canceling their in-store events and closing the store to foot traffic, they reassessed. “We really didn't know if we were going to start them up again in some capacity, but we were watching other bookstores — really shout out to other bookstores — putting on virtual events. I said to Adlai [Yeomans, co-owner of White Whale], ‘Should we give it a try? And he was like, ‘Sure, let’s see how it goes for a couple of weeks,’” says Anna Weber, White Whale events manager.

As of April 2, White Whale has hosted a full year of virtual events, and they have more to come for the foreseeable future.

White Whale Bookstore

Deesha Philyaw

Stephanie Cawley

Lucia LoTempio