Utah authors adapt to the COVID-19 world, where ‘virtual readings’ replace in-person bookstore events

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works reads a few paragraphs at a 2016 event, hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune, to mark the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize — the sort of large bookstore event that's not possible in the age of the coronavirus.

Ever since her first book was published in 2007, author Sara Zarr has had a tradition: a book launch at one of her favorite hometown bookstores, The King’s English on Salt Lake City’s east side.

This time, with Zarr’s latest young-adult novel, “Goodbye From Nowhere” (Balzer & Bray; $18.99 hardcover), the book’s April 7 release ran up against the coronavirus pandemic.

At first, Zarr said, there was confusion. As late as April 2, “they still thought maybe they would have an event,” Zarr said. “We still didn’t have a real grasp on how serious this virus was.”

Ultimately, there would be no launch party, as The King’s English and other Utah bookstores have closed their doors to in-person events and walk-in customers.

(Photo by Jeffrey Overstreet | courtesy of HarperCollins; image courtesy of HarperCollins) Author Sara Zarr and her latest book, the young adult novel "Goodbye From Nowhere."

“I just missed that opportunity more than anything,” Zarr said, “to get together with local friends, to celebrate, have an in-person activity to mark that I’ve worked for three years on a thing and it’s done and here it is.”

For authors living in or connected to Utah, and for the independent bookstores in Salt Lake City, the pandemic has meant one of their favorite methods to sell books and connect with readers — the in-person author event, where a writer reads from their work and signs copies to sell — isn’t available, because of restrictions on large public gatherings.

Author’s readings and book signings are “a real source of income,” said Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King’s English. Such events are “also a real drawing card for the community, and it’s a drawing card for authors, because they love coming into the store.”

Catherine Weller, whose family owns Weller Book Works in Trolley Square, said that “as a bookseller, I certainly love to see the readers come and communicate with the authors, and talk with them about their books. It’s really a gratifying thing.”

There’s also a practical side to such events, Weller said.

“We’re looking at people who have worked for years towards their publication date, and this is their livelihood,” Weller said. “If their book sales go down, they don’t make money.”

For authors, in-person events are a chance to connect with their readers.

Phyllis Barber, an author living in Park City, said, “I love to give readings. You can bring your book to life. It makes people more interested in what you’re up to.”

(Photo courtesy of Phyllis Barber; image courtesy of University of Nevada Press) Author Phyllis Barber and her latest book, the historical novel "The Desert Between Us."

Barber spent seven years researching her new book — “The Desert Between Us” (University of Nevada Press; $27.95 hardcover), a historical novel set in a Mormon polygamous settlement in the Nevada territory — and “I was hoping to share that effort with people who have read my books before,” she said.

A launch party “is almost like a big party for the book,” said Jennifer Adams, a prolific Salt Lake City children’s author who also works at The King’s English. “Your friends and family come and celebrate with you — and other local authors. Salt Lake has a really supportive local author community.”

Adams has taken part in one of The King’s English’s alternatives to in-person events: a virtual story time.

The daily story time sessions — one with picture books in the morning for younger kids, one with chapter books for older kids — started not long after the pandemic shut the store down, Burton said.

The readings, Burton said, have “become a key way of selling books for us now. … Some of our local authors are taking, say, a week and doing the story hours every day.”

The story hours are popular, she said, “because all these kids are home and their parents are, frankly, desperate for something for them to do. … It’s not where you have a captive audience of little kids in person. Still, if you’re reading to little kids and they’re adoring your books, in some ways the audience can be even wider.”

Sales don’t work the same way, though. “When we have an event at the store, everybody buys the book for their child,” Burton said, adding that with a virtual event, a buyer is just as likely to get a book from an online retailer. Stores will work with publishers, she said, to create incentives. “If they put a little swag in with the book, that gives people a motive to buy the book from us,” Burton said.

Adams has participated in The King’s English’s story times, reading to kids from her latest board book, “Swan Lake” (BabyLit; $9.99 board book), and some of her other titles. Adams has two more picture books, “Goodnight, Little Dancer” and “Goodnight, Little Superhero” (Roaring Brook Press; $9.99 each), coming out on July 21.

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Adams; image courtesy of BabyLit) Author Jennifer Adams and her latest book, the children's board book "Swan Lake."

One advantage to the virtual events, Adams said, is that they are recorded. “It’s shareable,” Adams said. “I can send that video to people out of state.”

Weller said that with online events, “you don’t have those impulse buys. It’s not quite as easy for an author to move buyers and readers toward their backlist, the books previously published.”

Barber has done one online event, a virtual reading for a bookstore in St. George — which was one of the stops for the Intermountain West book tour she planned and canceled for “The Desert Between Us.”

“Everybody’s using Facebook Live as a momentary thing,” Barber said. “I don’t know how effective that is.”

Author Max Zimmer said writers should “accept the limitations” of the COVID-19 pandemic, “but also take the opportunities it presents — like the ability to cast a much wider net to readers looking to fill empty downtime right now.”

Zimmer, who’s based in New Jersey but writes books set in Utah and the West, said he has been working on a promotional plan that includes online author events, posting on Instagram and other platforms, connecting with book clubs, and selling through the online platforms of independent bookstores.

Zimmer is sending autographed copies of his latest self-published book, “Not Into Night” (paperback, $19.95), to independent bookstores. “This gives bookstores an advantage over Amazon and other online retailers — they can’t come up with signed copies,” he said, adding that he’s also making his book “Journey,” the first installment in a trilogy of which “Not Into Night” is the third book, available as a free e-book.

(Images courtesy of Max Zimmer) Author Max Zimmer and his latest book, "Not Into Night."

Virtual readings are a key part of Zimmer’s marketing plan. Such readings, he said, draw readers in his main market — in Utah and surrounding states — and beyond. “They don’t penalize readers who are kept from attending an in-person reading because they live far away from urban areas,” he said.

Also, Zimmer said, “A virtual event is better for people who are too shy to raise their hands in a bookstore, where they’re among other audience members, and they’re afraid of looking stupid,” he said.

Zarr has yet to jump into the virtual-reading pool. “I’m more of an introvert,” she said. “Every time I opened up Instagram or Twitter, an author was doing a chat or a video, or had more resources for people to download. And it felt very overwhelming to me. … I would pop into some of those Instagram Live or Facebook Live [events], and see there’s four people quote-unquote ‘attending’ the event.”

Zarr’s self-promotion involves a lot of social media, “because that’s what I do anyway,” and rebooting her podcast, “This Creative Life,” in which she converses with writers and other artists.

On the podcast, Zarr said, “I can talk about [myself] every episode and remind people I exist, without having to explicitly feel like I’m flogging my book — ‘buy my book, buy my book’ — which I don’t love.”

In-person events and book tours aren’t always about the number of books sold, Zarr said, but “about having relationships with the independent booksellers. You come into their store and they meet you, and you have an interaction. And even if only five or six people come, they have a personal relationship with you and your book.”

That interaction, she said, “pays off in ways you can’t measure for years. When it’s time to cull the shelves, and return a bunch of books to publishers, they go, ‘We’ll keep these, because we know this author and we’ve had her in the store.’”

For now, both Burton and Weller report their online book businesses are thriving, and both stores are offering delivery and curbside pickup to make up for the now-nonexistent foot traffic.

Still, Burton said, “We lose out — up, down and all the way around — by not having our doors open, except that we’re safe. That’s the important thing for us and the customers.”

“It’s a very overwhelming time,” Zarr said, and understandable if readers have bigger concerns than buying a new book. “Everyone’s kind of focused on ‘What do I need to do in my life? How am I going to pay my taxes on July 15? … What are the next six months going to look like?’”

Weller agreed. “Cutting through the noise is very difficult. There’s so much going on in the news,” she said. “There is so much media happening, so much news, and so much in the social media channels.”

“Everybody wants to talk about COVID,” said Adams. “There’s a lot less space to talk about a new book that’s not related to that.”