by Cooper Lee Bombardier, Collaborative Editor
My debut book was set to launch in May 2020. If you know anything about traditional publishing, then you know that this date was set nearly two years prior. No one could have anticipated a global pandemic and its rippling effect on all our plans, especially not my small, independent publisher based in New York City. By March I suspected that COVID-19 was going to evolve into something far greater than we’d wanted to acknowledge in North America, and by April I emailed my publisher to discuss the likelihood that I would no longer be embarking upon the planned tour in support of the book. It would be an understatement to say I felt disappointed and sad about the whole thing.
Then, due to printing and shipping delays due to the evolving pandemic, the pub date got pushed to mid-June. This moment I’d anticipated and worked toward for years fizzled away, a great big expectation hissing out to utter flatness like a slow leak. And yet, in the face of everything else going on in our lives, which we suddenly could no longer ignore as interconnected, I felt guilty for even feeling badly about the canceled tour. How could such a thing be a big deal amid so much fear, confusion, death, and the simultaneous, life-giving uprising around the United States against racist violence against Black Americans? Well, I eventually realized that all of these things could be true at the same time: Things could be really dire, we could all be negotiating life-or-death concerns, we could push for needed justice, and I could be disappointed about my canceled book tour. But I still kept my feelings about it all largely to myself, not wanting to take up space with them.
Several of the scheduled events transitioned over to virtual events, and very quickly, it seemed that those bookstores that could adapt and keep up with the pressures of keeping an independent shop alive as well were happy to do so. I do not begrudge the ones who had to clear their calendars altogether, though. Everything was so overwhelming. I had an anxiety-fueled headache that seemed to ignite specifically in the face of logistics.
On the evening of my new official pub date, the incredible Charis Books and More in Decatur, Georgia, a longtime feminist and social justice–focused independent bookstore, hosted my launch virtually. My friend and fellow Lambda Literary Fellow Errol “E.R.” Anderson hosted the event and asked specific and insightful questions that kept the conversation flowing.
As I sat in my tiny writing office in Atlantic Canada, with a ring light balanced precariously on my large monitor and my nerves jangling, I noticed the attendee count: over one hundred participants? On a weeknight? I was stunned. But more than the number of attendees, what really struck me was who turned out: two of my aunts, separately, a handful of my favorite authors (some friends, some mentors, and some heroes), a bunch of avid readers, my publisher, and a whole bunch of folks connected to the bookstore or trans literature or both who seemed to have popped in just to check it out. An art school friend I’d not seen in decades tuned in; it was the middle of the night for her in Berlin. A couple of people from my hometown, a place I’d left long ago and only returned to sporadically, attended my book launch. I was humbled and moved by this collection of people from all of these various facets of my life, together and yet not together, hanging together in a tiny portal of the ether for a moment in space/time.
The other virtual events ran the gamut. For at least two, I was pretty sure the person hosting and leading the Q&A had not read my book. I didn’t blame them at all; they were probably busy figuring out how to survive or to take care of an ill family member. One event turned out to be a local LGBTQ cable-access-type program where I was asked to weigh in on the trans politics of a small Midwest city—I deferred to the expertise of the local community, who could better speak to their needs than I could. I was definitely asked a lot about “trans stuff” like bathroom bills by some hosts much more than the elements of craft or form at work in my memoir, which is kind of the burden of being any kind of marginalized identity and an author: you’ll be asked to speak for everyone like you in that way, rather than be asked to speak as a writer, but I quickly prepped myself to anticipate this phenomenon better and to be able to shift the conversation toward what I wanted to talk about (creative nonfiction) and away from what I was less interested in discussing (speaking for all transkind about public washrooms). For a virtual reading at Bluestockings NYC, I asked my friend Carter Sickels, whose beautiful new novel had also just launched, to be in conversation with me. This particular event didn’t surpass attendance records by any means, but those who were there were so engaged, and the Q&A session ended up being a wonderful, intimate, and involved discussion between trans writers talking about trans writing. And I never wanted it to end. My mostly canceled, partially virtual book tour was a weird, wonderful mixed bag, and I was so grateful for all of it.
A year later, I’ve gleaned some takeaways about the whole process of pandemic book launches:
- Virtual events and in-person readings are both vital and necessary and amazing, with different pros and cons.
- The joy of virtual events is access: you never know who is going to turn up. And the cross-sections of attendees from all over would not be possible for live events.
- More on access: specifically, accessibility. Virtual events offer a base level of accessibility that we must continue to build upon. Captioning, ASL, a reduction of physical barriers to participation, no narrow metal folding chairs to contend with, no transportation costs, are just a few of the upshots of virtual events, but are things that always seem like the last consideration for many in-person events, especially at underfunded indie/DIY spaces in non-ADA compliant buildings with washroom doors that exclude people using wheelchairs. I hope this moment has expanded how we all negotiate accessibility in our future events, both virtual and live—I know this moment caused me to reckon with my growing edges around accessibility and inspired me to do better to increase inclusion.
- The pandemic seemed to infuse these events and subsequent interactions with a sweet air of patience, grace, and earthiness—it seemed we all got to be human and imperfect and valuable nonetheless and practice universal positive regard. I want to transfer that level of patience and grace to all future human interactions, virtual or not.
- I felt guilty for being bummed out that I wouldn’t be traveling around the United States for my book tour, but what this pandemic has reinforced for me is that art is necessary, not optional, for our lives. Imagine the last eighteen-something months without books, music, film, television, video games, visual art.
- Virtual book events seem to work best when partnered with a bookstore liaison and another author to host and lead the Q&A. Maybe the bookstore liaison is also an author, as in the case of my event with Charis Books and More, or my event with Venus Envy in Halifax, where I was interviewed by the award-winning author Francesca Ekwuyasi.
- Get ARCS to your liaison ASAP—give folks plenty of time to read the book, and have your publisher offer to put you in contact in case they want to discuss run of show in advance. Consider having a list of possible questions you’d like to be asked and offer them if needed to the Q&A host.
- Have a few selections from your book flagged with sticky notes, and practice reading them in advance. It is difficult to “perform” on Zoom. However, your reading is still a performance, so practicing will help everything go smoothly and feel more natural for you. And, if your ring light tends to fall over, you’ll know this before you are on camera.
- Be grateful and appreciate the generosity of the adaptations our beloved booksellers are making to navigate these moments. We needed books to get through this time, and we won’t stop needing them anytime soon. Be generous and grateful to those who take the time to hang out online with you to learn more about your book, and extend gratitude to everyone who tells you they’ve purchased your book or requested their local library acquires it. It’s a small thing, but whenever someone tagged my book on Instagram, I would repost the picture with some thank-you gifs. It was a small, public gesture of gratitude.
- My relationship to time has changed over the last year and a half, and perhaps this is true for you too. I am now thinking of my book launch as a more elongated, slower-moving process rather than a quick, hot moment that would have lasted a couple of weeks. I am still doing events for the book, and even am booking events into 2022 to promote it and speak on it.
- Personal connections sell books, even virtually. I’ve not been an Oprah pick, and I didn’t win any fancy awards (though I did get a lovely finalist nod), but every week I get wonderful messages from people I’ve never met who’ve read the book and found resonance there. I always write back and offer my gratitude.
- Give books away if you can. I’ve sent approximately 15 copies to prisoner literature projects and have sent free copies to people who wanted one but couldn’t afford it.
- If you are reading this and you are wondering how to support authors during this time, here are a few things that can make a huge difference: Post reviews (or at least stars) for books on Goodreads and Amazon. Share pics of books you love on social media and tag the author, publisher, or both! Preorder books whenever you can, particularly from the publisher—this works magic with pub-date sales numbers. Invite authors to come to your school, university, book club, community center, et cetera—remember, this can happen virtually now. And if you invite an author from an institution with a budget for speakers, you absolutely must pay the author an honorarium, even for a virtual event. Paying authors for their time and expertise is a great way to support them! Consider sending a friend a copy of a book you loved reading.
The pandemic has thrown us all off-center, causing us to find a new sense of balance. But some unexpected wonders have emerged from this time, and I hope we will carry these lessons forward into the near future of who we will be as authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers.
Cooper Lee Bombardier is a collaborative editor at Indigo. He is the author of the memoir-in-essays Pass With Care, a 2021 Firecracker Award Finalist in creative nonfiction. His writing appears in The Kenyon Review, The Malahat Review, Ninth Letter, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, Longreads, Narratively, BOMB, and The Rumpus; and in 17 anthologies, including the Lambda Literary Award–winning anthology The Remedy—Essays on Queer Health Issues, and the Lambda-finalist anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction from Transgender Writers, which won a 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at University of King’s College and in women and gender studies at Saint Mary’s University.