How authors can connect with readers in the era of COVID19
In 2019, I signed a contract with Daniel McCarthy of Red Stag Books (an imprint of Mentor) for The Retreat. It was a wonderful moment, because I’d had the manuscript for seven years, waiting for the right publisher. In the age we live in, self-publishing or working with a micro-publisher is always a serious option, but I’d never been tempted to bring out The Retreat that way (i.e. as an eBook and via print-on-demand). I felt that it was my best book, and it deserved a traditional publisher who would do it justice in regard to the production of a high-quality physical book and having the warehousing and distribution network to make it widely available.
The subsequent journey was perfect: a wonderful cover was designed; thoughtful editorial conversations took place; minute scrutiny of the text ensured it was thoroughly proofed. And the advanced orders were extremely promising. The publisher had hundreds of copies printed and we prepared the publicity campaign and launch for mid-April.
The COVID19 pandemic hit, like a slow-motion bomb going off in the middle of the traditional publishing industry. Schools closed. Shops closed. Distributors stopped work. Orders were cancelled.
Dozens of authors in Ireland alone must have had the same experience of bringing out a book when suddenly the publishing landscape was transformed. I say transformed rather than evoke a sense of catastrophe because while these new books won’t have the journey that was planned for them, they can still connect to readers. Which brings me to the lessons I’ve learned from how The Retreat was launched.
You can make a success of your new book
It would be easy to be discouraged if you’ve published a new book at this time. But there are positives in the current situation. After an initial period where online book sales dipped (perhaps, like me, people were too caught up in following the news and social media around the pandemic, too filled with nervous energy, to enjoy reading) people are buying books again. The challenge is how to let readers know you have a new title out. There are lots of guides to marketing your book, I’m going to concentrate, however, on the question of the online book launch because this was a new experience for me and I hope what I learned will be useful to other writers.
In planning your online book launch there are some basics to consider.
- What software will you use? I think the answer depends on the size of the event. I anticipated around forty people would come so Zoom works perfectly well for that and I have a subscription in order to teach for the Irish Writers Centre. If you might get more than 100 people, though, maybe consider GoToMeeting and Webex, both of which I’ve found successful tools.
- What time should the event be held at? I have young children and I wanted other parents to be able to come along, so for me, 9pm worked perfectly i.e. after the kids had gone to bed.
- Who should host the event? You need a host. A conversation is much more interesting to participants than just you speaking and reading. It’s more dynamic, can be funnier and can lead to unexpected places. One temptation is to ask a very well-known person to play this role in the hope this will increase attendance. This might work, but I’ll come back to building an audience shortly. I preferred to ask someone who knew my books well (my brother, the playwright Gavin Kostick), so that the conservation could range more widely and deeply than would be the case for someone I didn’t know so well.
- Prepare your links in advance. Those attending will want to know how to buy your book. I had three options, the eBook on Amazon, the physical book from Red Stag and a signed book from me. For the first two, I had the links ready in an open document, which could be pasted into the chat. This needed to be done a couple of times for the sake of those who arrived after the start. For the signed books I just invited people to email me.
- Prepare two short readings (more for poets). Looking at the event from the other side, I always enjoy hearing an author read his or her own work. A book launch is a celebration, a marketing event but, above all, for your friends and fans, it should be a pleasure. While those listening might well enjoy the conversation between you and the host, it is the reading which is your chance to give something back to those who made the effort to come. I read twice ¾ for three minutes and five minutes ¾ and this length felt about right.
How to build the audience for your launch
Running the book launch is really no challenge, it’s pure fun in fact. The big challenge an author will face is to get the word out. Here, if you are like me, you will be reluctant to promote yourself. No one likes intrusive marketing and I certainly didn’t want to be the person bringing such to others. What I quickly found, of course, is that people who knew me didn’t mind in the least hearing about the book launch: they were glad to be invited and to pass the word. On the other hand, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter announcements to the world in general were much more problematic.
On the night, 56 people came to my book launch, which I’m very pleased with and grateful for. I didn’t really focus on who exactly was there but my impression was that I knew most of them and this bears out my main takeaway: concentrate on getting the word out to people who know you. This is perhaps obvious, yet I didn’t quite get it right.
Before you approach your various communities, you’ll need an invite. I was lucky that I have friends (especially Jackie Costa Ribeiro, producer) with digital expertise and they not only produced the flyer that I sent around, but also short video clips, which I put up on social media. Then you should reach out to the following:
- Family. Book are works of art whose existence is life-affirming for the writer and whose birth is to be celebrated. Admittedly, we live in an age where new eBooks engulf us like a tsunami and even trade books come out in uncountable number every day. Still, you and your family will take delight in your achievement and here’s an opportunity to get in touch with the long-lost American cousins and invite them along.
- Your email list of friends and readers. Back in 2004 when Epic came out, digital engagement between author and readers didn’t take place. I still have bundles of hand-written letters from kids in New Jersey, for example. This is a shame from the point of view of announcing the launch of a new book. I can hardly write back to them at this time! Hopefully, you’ll have had fans reach out to you via social media and email. They will be very glad to hear you have a new book out and indeed, several of those who in later life emailed me (‘hey, I remember your book…’) turned up on the night. If this is your first book, even so, work your way through your email box and invite all your friends. I didn’t do this as thoroughly as I should have and as a result, some good friends who definitely would have been interested didn’t get the invite.
- Facebook. You’ll have your personal connections on Facebook, many of whom it would be appropriate to invite to your launch. Again, specifically messaging an individual is much more polite and effective than trying to broadcast to thousands. Of the various Irish Facebook writers’ groups that I think it worth making announcements too, if you follow the rules (each day has a different theme for self-promotional posts), Amanda Evans Donnelly’s Irish Writers, Editors and Publishing Professionals is very supportive. Similarly, the Irish Writers Union will post member news on all its platforms and via its email list.
- Twitter. Again, several friends chatted with me about the launch in direct messages through Twitter. Over the years I’ve stayed in touch with many people this way, especially fellow writers from events in other countries. It was great to see some of them present on the night. As for wider, public, broadcasts, Twitter has its faults but it also has a very supportive network of Irish writers, publishers and fans of literature who want to help authors. I was very happy with the likes and retweets I got for the launch. Even if only a few people came who I didn’t already know, I’m sure Twitter helped with reminders.
- Reddit. There are a lot of relevant communities on Reddit to which you can announce the launch, but in case I haven’t reiterated it enough, my experience was that general broadcasts didn’t really deliver attendance at the launch. And unless you have previously been an active member of a Reddit community, you are going to face hostility for just jumping in with your announcement (and presumably disappearing again after). Don’t worry about this platform unless you already enjoy the discussions there.
- Finally, but very significantly, many fellow writers came to the launch who I had met through my ‘Finish Your Novel’ course at the Irish Writers Centre. Really, this was the largest cohort of attendees and it was very touching to see everyone again. Partly, I suppose, a book launch is the kind of event a writer would be interested in, but mostly I think their presence was supportive. This community is, of course, quite specific to me but there might well be a transferable aspect of the experience. You might think about networks of colleagues from your current or previous work who would be happy to hear from you.
Making Your Book a Financial Success in the Age of COVID-19
Making a book a success in the age of COVID-19 is going to require most of the efforts of authors and publishers to be online activity. And while a successful book launch is only a very small part of that marketing effort, it is a useful one. Thanks to the eBook sales on the night, which must have been around 20, The Retreat triggered Amazon’s ‘hot new release’ in the Medieval YA category.
Crucial to digital success is for the title to be recommended by Amazon and while there are a lot of factors in play for that to happen, an extremely important one is to have positive reviews of the book. A good launch will help by leading to several reviews in due course.
And there’s something else to consider too. If you’ve published before, you’ll know that to judge your book by sales can be heart breaking. Some books do extremely well, others don’t, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your writing or the pleasure the book gives to readers. The publishing industry is not a meritocracy.
Whatever happens with sales, having held an enjoyable book launch among a supportive and an engaged community is a worthwhile activity in its own right and a joyful moment to be treasured for its own sake.
(c) Conor Kostick
About The Retreat:
A young knight, a mysterious, dark forest, life and death choices.
The Retreat is a rollicking medieval adventure, that will thrill teenage readers.
A band of survivors are returning from a failed expedition to the Holy Land. One of only a handful of knights in this army is Guibert of Rocadamour, a young noble who wants nothing more than to become a legendary hero whom people will sing songs about.
Brave but inexperienced, Guibert must make several difficult decisions as rival groups among the remnants of the army vie for his support. As they draw closer to the safety of the French border, those stark choices become a matter of life or death.
With a dramatic setting, an assembly of striking characters and an intensely captivating story, this wonderful new novel from Conor Kostick will keep even the most reluctant reader turning the pages.
The best-selling author of Epic, Conor Kostick researches medieval history at Trinity College Dublin. As a novelist, Conor is a White Ravens and IBBY Honours List winner. He was shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults awards and has won the Reading Association of Ireland’s Special Merit award.
Order your copy online here.