How the Pandemic Is Altering Book Publishing

Christina Baker Kline reflects on the virtual promotions buoying her fellow authors and their new books.

book publishing pandemic
Christina Baker Kline

[Editor’s note: Christina Baker Kline is the New York Times–bestselling author of eight novels, including The Exiles, Orphan Train and A Piece of the World. This piece was originally written for the Montclair Literary Festival.]

Even in the best of times, publishing a book is an odyssey. Writing and revising a manuscript can take years; if you want to publish traditionally (that is, not self-publish), you need to find an agent to represent you. You have to be willing to take that person’s advice. If you’re very lucky, an editor at a publishing house will fall in love with your story, but you’ll probably still need to revise it. One day you’ll get copyedited page proofs (more revisions!), and at a certain point, if the stars align—typically a year after you submit the final manuscript—you’ll end up with an actual book.

Then you have to get out there and promote it.

For writers with books launching in the time of Covid-19, this final part of the process is that much harder. Like every other aspect of life in the past few months, the world of book publishing has been upended. Bricks-and-mortar stores and libraries are shuttered; book-tour audiences are nonexistent. Authors and publishers are doing all they can to figure out how to give new books a fighting chance to be seen and read, but many are having a hard time cutting through the online clutter.

[RELATED: What Local Authors Are Reading Right Now]

Out of the ashes of the book tour has arisen a strange Internet creature known as Zoom, and everyone is trying to figure out how to tame it. In a world of TikTok and Twitter memes, will people tune in to see writers talking about their work—and will those eyeballs turn into sales? What format works best to grab a viewer’s fleeting attention?

Writers are strange beasts; they’re comfortable and even happy sitting alone in a room for many hours a day. This character trait is rarely seen in combination with skills useful for self-promotion, like gregariousness and salesmanship. In most cases, a writer staring into a laptop camera and talking to the void is not the best way to promote a book. It’s become clear pretty quickly that authors are generally more comfortable, and more interesting, in conversation with other people who love books.

My own forthcoming novel isn’t out until September, so for now I’m doing what I can to support authors whose tours have been cancelled. Some are writers I was scheduled to appear with in person; some are requests from publishers and booksellers—usually because I read and endorsed their book in advance of publication. This is why, at 4 pm on a Wednesday or 7 pm on a Friday, you’ll find me dragging my desk away from the window to position it in front of a bookshelf. I’ll set up the special light and the USB microphone I ordered from Amazon to avoid looking like I’m in a hostage video, open a Zoom link and spend the next hour talking with an author I admire about a book that deserves to be read and discussed.

* * *

Here are four of the authors—and one very special bookseller—I’m excited to be chatting with this spring. (Click the links below for info on watching the live or recorded conversations.)

Elizabeth Wetmore, Valentine

Barnes & Noble, May 1

This book by a 52-year-old debut novelist has been chosen for all kinds of national book clubs (B&N, The Today Show, Amazon Best Book of April, etc.) for good reason. It’s a beautifully written, complex and riveting exploration of a crime in a small Texas town.

Alex George, The Paris Hours 

A Mighty Blaze, May 7

As founder and executive director of Unbound Book Festival, and owner of Skylark Bookshop (both in Missouri), George has been well known in the writing world for years. Now, with this buzzy novel about Paris on a single day in 1927, he’s destined for writerly fame as well. You’ll find me on the back of the book saying, “Like All the Light We Cannot SeeThe Paris Hours explores the brutality of war and its lingering effects with cinematic intensity. The ending will leave you breathless.”

Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile

Montclair Literary Festival, May 9

A nonfiction book that reads like fiction, this is the story of life in London during the World War II German bombing campaign of 1940 and ’41, and Winston Churchill’s handling of the Battle of Britain. Larson says that he drew on new material in the Churchill archives that no one had found because he was interested in things no one else had been looking for.

Amy Jo Burns, Shiner

Midtown Scholar Bookstore, May 12

This novel, too, I read early and was delighted to blurb: “In spare yet lyrical prose, Amy Jo Burns brings to life a brutal landscape and its dangerous, alluring inhabitants. A haunting glimpse into a strange, mystical world with its own laws and customs, filled with fiercely independent people, this novel combines a memoir-like intimacy with the mythic power of a fable. Burns is a writer to be watched.”

Margot Sage-El of Watchung Booksellers

A Mighty Blaze, May 20

Watchung Booksellers, my favorite indie bookstore, is the beating heart of Montclair. I can’t wait to take a virtual tour with Margot and talk about all the books we’re excited to read and champion in 2020—on Zoom for now, and hopefully, one day soon, in person.

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