AJC Bookshelf: Finding the silver lining in virtual book events

Remote author events reach new audiences, boost programming.

Publishing a book is a lot like birthing a baby. The author spends a gestation period nurturing and growing the manuscript until the day it becomes a fully formed book, at which point it is released to the world with a celebratory huzzah. The comparison ends there, though, because while the parent continues to nurture and grow the child, the author has to hit the road selling the book at events and signings.

Now that live author events are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, writers are turning to the virtual world to promote the birth of their book babies. It’s not the same, of course. Nothing can replace the thrill of seeing your favorite authors in person and chatting them up while they sign books.

But some surprising benefits have come out of virtual author events, says Kate Whitman, vice president of public programs for the Atlanta History Center. The ease of watching an author talk online has broadened the institution's audience.

“What’s been nice is that it’s not location specific, so people in California can watch our virtual events,” says Whitman. “I notice that a lot of people are tuning in from other places.”

The events are reaching new local audiences, too. “People who are interested in something but don’t like going by themselves find watching something in their house a little bit easier,” says Whitman.

So far, virtual attendance has not risen to the level of live events for high-profile authors. Recent virtual events with Sue Monk Kidd and Stacey Abrams drew about 200 viewers each. Had they been live, Whitman says, Kidd would have probably drawn 400 people and Abrams could have filled the ballroom with 700. But for mid-list fiction authors, attendance has increased by as much as 25%.

Virtual events also lend themselves to enhanced programming. Take for instance the Atlanta History Center's event on July 7 with New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld. She is promoting her book "Rodham: A Novel," which imagines Hillary Clinton's life had she not married Bill Clinton. Forced to pivot from a live event to a virtual one, the author was able to invite "Hunger" author Roxane Gay to join her in conversation while they both remain safely social distanced in their respective homes. The combination of these two outspoken, feminist authors in conversation promises to be riveting. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free on Zoom with a password available at atlantahistorycenter.com.

Another highly anticipated Atlanta History Center event is a conversation between memoirists Saeed Jones ("How We Fight for Our Lives") and Kiese Laymon ("Heavy"), who both write about growing up Black in the South. The free event is at 7 p.m. July 16.

The AJC Decatur Book Festival recently announced that its annual Labor Day weekend event will take place online this year. Participants so far include National Book Award winner Jericho Brown and former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Meanwhile, the festival is hosting a series of virtual events with Atlanta author Joshilyn Jackson ("Never Have I Ever") in conversation with emerging new authors, as well as well-established veterans. Upcoming is a talk with Sameer Pandya ("Members Only") and Kiley Reid ("Such a Fun Age") at 4 p.m. July 28. The event is free but requires registration at decaturbookfestival.com.

Here are more virtual events on the horizon:

Friends and Fiction. Authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe gather for a weekly Facebook Live coffee klatch-style chat about books every Wednesday. Sometimes they invite other authors to participate, and questions from viewers are welcomed. For details, go to facebook.com/groups/FriendsandFiction.

Chris Frantz. A Cappella Books hosts a virtual event with the Talking Heads co-founder and drummer who is promoting his memoir "Remain in Love" on Zoom at 8 p.m. July 22. He'll be interviewed by Atlanta music journalist Chad Radford and will take questions from viewers. The event is limited to 100 viewers and requires advance purchase of the book at acappellabooks.com.

Odie Lindsey. A Mississippi murder that shapes the lives of three generations drives the narrative of Lindsey's debut novel, "Some Go Home." Eagle Eye Bookshop hosts a talk with the author in conversation with Chanelle Benz, author of "Gone Dead," on Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. Register for free at eagleeyebooks.com.

Karen MacNeil. Grab a glass of chardonnay and learn everything you ever wanted to know about vino from the author of the newly revised "The Wine Bible." FoxTale Book Shoppe presents the author talk via Zoom on July 21 at 6:30 p.m. Book purchase required at foxtalebookshoppe.com.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com