It’s the beginning of March, 2020. I’ve just gotten off the phone with my publicists at Algonquin about my upcoming book tour for With or Without You, which is about to hit the stores on August 31. I’m a New York Times bestselling author, so I’m grateful to have a fan base. Algonquin’s planning lots of events, ads, and promotions, and my very first event is to speak in Houston in front of 100 librarians, with two other big authors. I have memorized a speech, complete with hand gestures. I’ve already bought new shoes, new earrings, and new dresses for my tour, all perfectly hung in my closet, ready to go.
I’m thinking of all the cities I’ll see, the writers and readers, too. My book cover’s been specially designed by Algonquin to attract attention, and it’s so gorgeous I even tracked down the artist to get an actual canvas. And not only that, they’re going to pair it with a new cover for an older novel, Pictures of You, to make the most of marketing. I’m so excited about everything I cannot sit still.
Except none of it happens. Instead, the pandemic does, creeping in as a rumor and then slamming things into lockdown and curfews. People are getting sick, stores and restaurants are shuttering. It all feels surreal. My publisher calls me. “Everything,” they tell me, “is canceled.”
Of course I weep. Of course, I am terrified about COVID, but I’m terrified about my book, too, one I worked six years on. As the days drag on, the hours trapped in my house worrying, I fill the time by recording the speech I had planned on Zoom, in my new dress, with my hand motions, and I send it to Algonquin who loves it so much, they tell me they are going to send it out as a promo. And that’s when I have an idea.
I start the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour. I put up a small notice on FB to writers, telling them if they have a book coming out, to make me a six-minute video, shout out another author, and shout out an indie bookstore. I will, I promise, get it everywhere. I feel better doing something, even a little for my book. I expect 10 authors.
Instead, two days after I put up the notice, I get over 200. I immediately get to work, happy to shove away the Doomsday scenarios with something positive. To my surprise, Ron Charles, the book editor of the Washington Post calls me. “What are you doing, Caroline?” he asks, and I answer truthfully, “I have no idea.” We both laugh. “Well, keep on doing it,” I’m told.
Things steamroll and suddenly more and more people are aware of me and how and why I am doing this Virtual Book Tour. People began pre-ordering not just my novel, but the books of other authors, too. Thank you, I’m told. Thank you. I’m turning hopeful and overwhelmed until I get a call from my friend, author Jenna Blum. “Hey,” she says calmly. “Do you need help? Because I have some knockout ideas.”
Together, Jenna and I, two women writers in yoga pants, start A Mighty Blaze, name courtesy of Jenna, a totally all online initiative meant to help authors and indie bookstores in the pandemic. At first, it saves us, because Jenna and I are working 10-to-15-hour days, emailing places and people to get support (We get the Authors Guild! The Washington Post! Lit Hub! Poets & Writers and Publisher’s Weekly!) trying to figure out how we are going to do this. We get a website, a Facebook page, and we begin to actually go live with a small Tuesday pub day, which is when most books publish. We start to do live interviews, and, to our surprise, the biggest names want to do them. John Irving. Sue Miller, Elizabeth Strout, George Saunders, and Anne Lamott!
We bring in bookstores and have authors interview them, creating more sales for the stores, which only have an online presence. Suddenly, Jenna and I are also people of interest and we are being interviewed everywhere, which brings more publicity shining on A Mighty Blaze—and on my about-to-be-birthed new novel. And to our surprise, we have to hire more people, who are as passionate as we are. We start to have to turn authors away because we are so busy. Publicists begin to email us. We start to be “known” as the women who are changing the book industry in the pandemic.
By summer, when my book comes out, A Mighty Blaze has so many authors we’ve helped that my mailing list for With or Without You is huger than I have ever had, my schedule more packed. And I begin to see the benefits of all things virtual in ways I never expected.
Before, I would have to fly out to an event and get there the night before. Then there was the event, and then dinner, and then I would fly home the next morning, or sometimes at two in the morning because that was the only flight they had. There was the anxiety of missing connecting flights, missing my husband, being overwhelmed, worrying about who would and wouldn’t show up.
And if someone missed an event, then that event was gone forever. But with Zoom, suddenly, I was doing four events a day, and all of them lived on social media forever. People who might not have come out for a live event, who now had hours and hours of time to spare, came out in droves. The loveliest part was I could do events in pajama pants in my home and be done in time to have dinner with Jeff, my husband!
Of course, I missed meeting up with other authors, but I still met up with them virtually on Zoom! And A Mighty Blaze, thanks to Jenna, began to host virtual lit festivals and even virtual cocktail parties and to teach bookstores and publishers how to utilize Zoom and social media to drive sales. We banded together with Bookshop.org, so every author who comes on has their link right there. Friends & Fiction had an astonishing event with breakout rooms so attendees could actually talk with authors. The feeling of community in a pandemic was incredible, and truthfully, I felt it much more than during a live tour.
When we started A Mighty Blaze, we thought it would be just for a few months, but it’s expanded so pandemic or not, we consider it permanent. We now have cooking and poetry shows. We have nearly 30 passionate volunteers working for us. There is something so startlingly intimate about the interviews our hosts do, that we realized that viewers felt that they really got a chance to meet authors and to be met themselves, to be seen as well as heard. But then a year passed, and my paperback was coming out on June 29 and I began to panic yet again.
Traditionally, publishers don’t really do that much with paperbacks. You can get “new in paperback” listings from newspapers and magazines. But the big buy is from bookstores where the books are arranged on tables and people see the covers, like a shock of recognition that a book they couldn’t spend the money on now was reasonably priced, or it was just enticing. Because of all the work I had done with A Mighty Blaze, I had more major reviews, features, “best book” attritions, NPR, and praise for With or Without You than I had had for any other book. But was that enough to sell the paperback?
Of course, my publisher was going to do things (honest, they have the best publicity in the business). But things had changed so radically. I knew that social media mattered even more now. I read about young TikTok bloggers who turned books into bestsellers. I had never hired anyone before but I had seen first-hand how the out-of-the-box thinking of the Blaze’s publicist Laura Rossi had worked, so I hired her to help me. I hired Sara Divello, the Blaze’s social media expert, to help me better navigate Instagram, and she showed me how to make little movies, how to hashtag bookstores, readers, and other writers to reach an even bigger audience. I hired Suzy Leopold to do a blogger book tour, too. And because there is such a need in the pandemic for human connection, I got personal, writing essays, getting a blog/column on Psychology Today so every two weeks, I could connect with readers.
I’ve already sold my next book to Algonquin, tentatively called Days of Wonder, not due until October, probably not coming out until 2022. Who knows what the world will look like then? Will live book tours have come back, or will the industry have found out that they really cannot be sustainable?
My heart was broken by the pandemic. But vaccines, a new election, and the fierce sense of community in the book world helped healed it. And most happily, I’ve learned that when everything is canceled, there’s always room for new things to begin.