A little while ago, I wrote a post wondering how the publishing industry might change as a result of Covid-19. Yesterday, I believe I got a glimpse of part of the answer.
You see, I went to a book launch last night with around 80 other people. I didn’t break the UK lockdown rules, however; this wasn’t one of the hundreds of illegal parties that police have so far broken up during the pandemic. In fact, I didn’t even leave my home.
The book launch – for Maggie Brookes’s The Prisoner’s Wife, which tells the extraordinary, true-life story of a Czech woman who lived disguised as a British soldier in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War – took place online.
In the past, my general experience of attending book launches has been this. I get on the train or in my car and travel for at least an hour (usually to London). Once at the venue, I stand around making polite small-talk with strangers about how they know the author or else huddling with fellow writers and tame publishing-industry bods, sipping warm white wine and waiting for the speeches to begin. I then listen, applaud, raise toasts, buy a book, burble congratulations at the author while they sign it and make my way home.
Last night was rather different. Instead of the wait and the warm white wine, the speeches kicked off a couple of minutes after I logged into the Zoom meeting – the ice in my glass hadn’t even begun to melt as Selina Walker, publisher at Century and Arrow, began her account of what had made her fall in love with the book.
With everyone else’s microphones muted remotely by the event host, she was able to talk undisturbed for several minutes before passing the baton, not to Maggie Brookes as would usually be the case at a physical book launch, but to Kate Seaver, executive editor at US publisher Berkley, who was also in attendance (along with representatives from publishers in several other countries).
There then followed a talk and a reading from the author, and a short Q&A led by Selina Walker, exploring some of the themes and painstaking research that went into the book. It was all done within 45 minutes, allowing me to nip downstairs and kiss my daughter goodnight before she went to sleep. Throughout that time, we attendees were taken off mute only twice: once to applaud Maggie Brookes’ reading and at the end to raise a final toast.
It was a strange but rather lovely experience. While I felt for Maggie losing out on the launches she had planned at Harbour Books in Whitstable and Daunt Books in London, there was something quite magical about seeing her reading the prologue of her newly published novel in the home where she had worked so hard on it. It was also rather charming and intriguing to catch glimpses of the domestic life of other participants – from Selina Walker’s beautiful sash windows to the cat that stalked back and forth across the screen of one of the other attendees.
The minimal audience participation meant that there was little opportunity for interaction (Selina Walker did ask those of us who had contributed blurbs for the book to make ourselves known when she read out our names, but I would have felt a bit of an idiot raising my hand and am not sure if anyone else did so). It was also, of course, not possible to buy a signed copy of the novel – although we were strongly encouraged to purchase it online. However, the virtual nature of the event meant people anywhere in the world could attend, including a number who would never have been able to make the trip.
All in all, it was a great success and struck me as very much the shape of things to come. While I have no doubt that physical book launches will resume once social-distancing restrictions are eased, I expect that many may incorporate a digital or virtual element, particularly as some festivals and literary events were already tending that way before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Who knows, I may even invite you to a virtual party for my next novel!