Author Book Events in the Time of Covid

The following is a guest blog post from Georgann Eubanks, author of Saving The Wild South: The Fight for Native Plants on the Brink of Extinction. The American South is famous for its astonishingly rich biodiversity. In this book, Georgann Eubanks takes a wondrous trek from Alabama to North Carolina to search out native plants that are endangered and wavering on the edge of erasure. Even as she reveals the intricate beauty and biology of the South’s plant life, she also shows how local development and global climate change are threatening many species, some of which have been graduated to the federal list of endangered species.

Booksellers, like restaurateurs, have burnished their creativity during the limits imposed by Covid. Hosting author presentations online in lieu of launch parties became the new normal. In temperate weather, some stores adopted bookselling alfresco, stacking new releases on a sidewalk table, leaving passersby to guess if that masked person seated expectantly with a Sharpie could be someone famous–a writer they should know? 

Savvy sellers quickly identified inhouse staff who are comfortable on camera and conversant with video lighting and software. Malaprop’s in Asheville has a brilliant team of two. Marketing director Stephanie Jones-Byrne beams her intelligent questions while longtime media maven Patricia Furnish works Zoom’s dropdown menus from the stock room.  

Now, a month into my book “tour” with Saving the Wild South, I have come to appreciate the online conversations and interviews, and I’ve squeamishly adapted to the solo Zoom performance when required. It was a shock the first time to hear not even a titter at my jokes while working my way through the presentation–finally, gleefully arriving at the Q&A when the audience would be unmuted. Speaking and reading into in the dark maw of Zoom for 30 minutes is far lonelier than a book signing table in the fresh air of a parking lot, believe me.  

But perhaps our confinement is ending at last. I was lucky enough to be the first author to resume in-person presentations at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro, NC.  This elegant bookstore has always offered a lushly carpeted room, outfitted with AV and set apart from the rest of the store, for author events. In the old days, the room could hold a crowd of 50 with standing room around the edges. But in the present, with chairs spaced six feet apart, it could only accommodate 20. Proprietors Keebe Fitch and Peter Mock required reservations for all attendees, along with a five-dollar deposit toward the purchase of my book. That way, they could control the numbers, avoid disappointing guests, and guarantee some sales. It almost felt like the old days. Keebe confided that the store was doing better financially than two years before, even though they had reduced their hours by two days a week. Narrowing your availability is not a bad thing, apparently.

At the nonprofit behemoth known as Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, nature writer Bland Simpson (North Carolina: Land of Water Land of Sky) and I recently had the pleasure of sharing an in-person conversation about our new books with activist Jamie Maier of the Piedmont Environmental Alliance. Jamie engaged the enthusiastic if smallish gathering from the get-go. To share informal talk in the middle of the bookstore was a gushing relief, even if masks were still required. 

I asked the Charleston-based book publicist Hannah Larrew what she’s seen with her clients. “One of the most creative tactics from bookstores has been live streaming book news from staff members on Instagram or Facebook Live,” she said, “making it super easy for folks to feel like they’re present at the store. For many, the experience of going to the bookstore is a huge influencer in which books they end up buying. Bookstores that have been able to recreate the browsing experience virtually, have been able to keep patrons excited about adding new books to their shelves.” 

Hannah also mentioned McIntyre’s Stay-at-Home Storytime—a weekly series featuring staff members reading children’s books to young audiences on Instagram. Other stores have offered drive-through events where buyers select titles online and then pick up bundles from staff members who run them out to the car and chat a bit. Flyleaf in Chapel Hill, Bookmarks, and Blue Bicycle in Charleston used this tool to reconnect with readers.

For authors, I find there is still some awkwardness and hesitation, whether the presentation is virtual, hybrid, or in-person. If the only contagion were the love of books, but alas it is not. However, the creative measures—discussions and dual author programs, virtual and hybrid—have injected a new energy into the bookstream. I hope these practices will endure, even as bookstore doors open wider again.  

Georgann Eubanks is a writer and Emmy-winning documentarian. Her most recent book is The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year