A couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the beginnings of something…a little bit magical. In the midst of lockdowns and closures and social distancing, people still wanted to talk about books. There were still books coming out, and people were still buying them (they might have even been buying more). Someone realized that they could host author talks via webinar and meeting platforms, or even on Facebook, and the trend took off. I found myself attending book talks sponsored by Loyalty Books in D.C., The Ripped Bodice in L.A., and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, among others. All from my computer in Tucson (and occasionally mirrored to my big TV).
The Tucson Festival of Books was able to include authors they’d probably been inviting for years, because this time they didn’t have to travel. Not only was I able to participate in a book community that had been becoming increasingly harder to take part in in person if you couldn’t shell out the cash to attend large conferences and conventions, but I could take the time to learn about folks I might never have encountered otherwise. Instead of trying to fly out authors to attend a book festival, anyone could join from anywhere. Instead of despairing that panelists wouldn’t use their microphones in a large room, you could turn on closed captioning in most platforms. Instead of FOMO, you had too many to choose from.
It was awesome.
As I moderated my fifth panel since the start of the pandemic (and my second Bookstore Romance Day online), I had one thought: this is going to end when the pandemic does. Whenever that might be. (The way things are going, we’re probably looking at 2025 if the world hasn’t ended by then, but you never know.)
Here are some reasons why virtual book events should become the forever norm.
As I hosted one of the two book clubs I run for my library system, one of the participants asked how long it would be on Zoom. Beyond even our own plans for holding off on in-person stuff, I expressed my hope that we could make it at least a hybrid whenever we went back to meeting in person. There were people who didn’t live in Tucson anymore, and people who were homebound or otherwise unable to make it to a library building. I, myself, am severely immunocompromised and unwilling to be around people in most situations. What would this group look like without the ability to at least offer a virtual option?
When you think about that in grander scale — looking at events like the National Book Festival and bookstores across the country who rely on launches and talks to bring new people in — who has always had access to those events? And who suddenly has access now that could be taken away from them the moment these stores and organizations decide to go back to the way it used to be? Suddenly, this worldwide community will go back to the siloed, isolated way it was before, when only people in New York could see a big author talk at The Strand, and only people in Texas could see a specific panel sponsored by the Texas Book Festival. Some might require tickets or at least the purchase of at least one book. Sure, many people attend those kinds of events specifically for the ability to talk to the author and get books signed — but there are other ways to do that.
Also, unless these are events in which attendee participation is required or someone wants to ask a question in real time, there isn’t a set time you have to be someplace. Sure, it’s great to click that link at the time the authors go live. But many virtual events are recorded, allowing for people who have jobs, or kids, or plans, or just forget, to watch them whenever. This is especially great for events that are held over one or two days, because who wants to sit in front of their computer for a full weekend?
There are two sides to the accessibility part of virtual panels. Not only can events or subsets of events be located in areas where people with mobility aids can’t reach them, but other folks, like people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, blind, and homebound might have a better chance of attending — and actually enjoying — virtual events. They can use closed captioning, or request an interpreter. They can adjust the sound if necessary, and type questions instead of asking them in a forum Q&A. Most importantly, they don’t have to leave their homes, as long as they have internet access and some kind of device.
There is a significant cost on both sides of an in-person book event that is somewhat mitigated by the online option. Mostly, travel for authors. Organizations and stores and libraries hosting events should totally still be paying authors to participate in their virtual events, but all of the extra bits — travel, hotel, food per diem, etc. — whether they’re handled by the organizer, the publisher, or the author themselves, are a factor that can run up the numbers for someone traveling to speak at an event.
The same can be said for attendees, whether they’re local or traveling to a destination event. Even for a single day’s visit to a festival or con, jacked-up food prices, buying way more books than you might have set a budget for, and all the little bits and bobs you might need to pay for along the way (souvenirs, a hat because the sun is bright, a snack and coffee to make it through that last panel of the day) can deplete some pockets.
(You might still order the same number of books via a virtual festival or a particularly fun slew of virtual panels, but at least you don’t have to carry them home.)
With the number of panels available to watch live or recorded for YouTube or another platform, you don’t have to stick to what you know. You can discover new authors, or just see more of the authors you’re familiar with. Instead of pulling straws for whose panel you might attend at a festival or con, you can watch all the ones you’d like, over the course of several days if you want. You don’t have to gamble on a good panel and skip one you really want to go to. You can wander and explore to your heart’s content, and maybe even come across someone who you never expected to enjoy. You can see someone talk from their living room or office and notice that they’re fans of something you like, and feel that bond through the screen. You can google as they talk about their research or K-dramas or a favorite author you’ve never heard of (without looking like the asshole in the front row on their phone).
This isn’t to say that every conference and every book festival and every book club should forever be online only. There is a lot to say about who has missed out on this year’s joyful moments because of the digital divide and the inability to use libraries and other places that offer free computer access to those who don’t have it at home. And there is some element of community that feels better in person — running into friends, coming across a new book or author, having snacks and wine and coffee together. But we have to figure out ways in which we can still go “back to normal” (whatever that means) while also not leaving behind those who were able to take part in ways they never could before. Because that’s what the book community should be all about.