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Book tours are key to promoting new releases, but authors have been left stranded amid coronavirus pandemic

March 24, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

A few days before total confinement took effect in Paris, where I live, four hefty boxes arrived at my front door. Tightly packed inside were the author copies of my forthcoming second book, The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris, a project that has dominated my life and tested my emotional bandwidth for the last two years.

With the rights, representation, and lives of women all the more firmly anchored in today’s public discourse, my book, as I had imagined it, would add to the discussion. In it I break down the dangerous and reductive archetype of the Parisian woman and highlight 40 women from a range of industries and backgrounds who are influencing the fabric of the city. Their stories (and struggles) will continue to be relevant and timely for years to come, but in this moment, nothing is timelier than the universality of the coronavirus threat. That is both reassuring and heartbreaking as my release date approaches.

There is very little about writing and publishing a book that isn’t fraught with unknowns. Even after overcoming the occasional bout of crippling self-doubt—am I telling this story the right way? Am I producing my best work? Will anyone care? There is more uncertainty waiting on the other end of a completed manuscript.

The cover art for “The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris.”
Courtesy of Abrams Books

Since authors become so engrossed in our work, we easily lose sight of the fact that the world continues moving and stumbling around us. Rationally, we know that any number of events can throw a book, both the writing and releasing, off course. (I was still writing my first book, The New Paris, during the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks, and Paris tourism only really began rebounding in 2017.) Nevertheless, we expect the conditions to be as stable and linear as possible to allow us to pursue a craft that is, and has always been, eminently unpredictable.

A global pandemic rewrites all of the rules. The slow drip of hysteria, and the even slower path to containment measures, stoked a gradual realization that everything I had been planning—launch events in Paris and a multicity tour in the U.S.—would be impossible. The process to accepting that any attempts to exert control over the situation were futile was swift: I felt the profound disappointment and wild anxiety but knew that it wouldn’t change the circumstances. I decided with my publisher to postpone the release of the book to summer.

Amid this uncertainty, a few new realities are becoming clear. The marketing strategies and press outreach for books emerging now don’t only need to be readjusted but entirely rethought in a context in which books may not keep getting ordered or even delivered—and in which it feels at once devastating to let a new book languish and unsavory to promote it. Any artist who has worked for years on a project would feel the devastation of bringing it to life in a climate of anxiety and economic inertia.

But the reality is that book promotion still happens primarily through public events, either in bookstores, specialty shops, or literary festivals. With booksellers closing their doors (and unsure of reopening) and festivals indefinitely postponed, the social element of books vanishes, transferring all efforts to a saturated digital space. We need a new way forward.

David Lebovitz, whose previous work includes the cookbook “My Paris Kitchen,” just published a new book about French cocktails.
Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

The encouraging outcome of all of this has been an outpouring of empathy. Beginning in early March, the literary community began sharing messages across social platforms to drive support for fellow authors embarking blindly on this journey.

“I can’t help feeling worried about writers whose books are publishing now. Book releasing is fraught in the best of times; this is not the best of times,” tweeted bestselling novelist R.O. Kwon, opening a call for signal boosting.

That goodwill has been refreshing and widespread from prominent figures. Actor-author Amber Tamblyn offered to share upcoming book releases to her audience of more than 120,000 Twitter followers, while libraries and bookstores still operating have pushed to create conversation around authors facing uncertain futures.

Ultimately, within a rapidly evolving crisis, where normal distribution and consumption patterns are severely disrupted, there is no single “right” strategy for self-promotion.

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David Lebovitz, the prolific cookbook author, released his latest book Drinking French on March 3, just as concerns over travel were reaching a fever pitch. Although his book tour was postponed, he doesn’t feel overly concerned about his book’s life span. “I’ve been focusing on single subject cookbooks over the last few years, which seems to have a longer shelf life than other types of cookbooks, and my bestselling book on ice cream has been a strong seller since 2007,” he explains. “Initial sales may take a hit, but I hope to write books that have lasting value to readers.”

The idea that books can (and should) have a long life is keeping author and university professor Matthew Fraser optimistic. His latest book, In Truth: A History of Lies From Ancient Rome to Modern America, is slated for release on April 27, which could be the peak of the outbreak. “My approach is to carry on and keep engaged. My advice to authors coming out with books this spring is to look at the long term,” he says.

Igor Josifovic and Judith de Graaff coauthored “Plant Tribe,” a new book about advice for using plants to increase energy and creativity, and improve your overall well-being.
Courtesy of Abrams Books

Others, such as Igor Josifovic and Judith de Graaff, the coauthors of the recently released Plant Tribe, echoed my own fluctuating emotions. “Our feelings have gone from uncertainty to disappointment, doubt and concern,” Josifovic says. “But we also just started thinking of new opportunities to transfer experiences online.”

Given the conceit of their book—how living in a home brimming with plants can improve well-being, boost creativity, and increase energy—the timing may work in their favor, provided distributors are able to continue making deliveries uninterrupted. As the situation improves, the duo intend to go out on the road and meet their readers. “Gathering offline is important not only for book sales but for stronger connections to our Urban Jungle community,” says de Graaff.

Will isolation mean more time for reading and discovering new authors? Perhaps. (Though that may not extend to purchases: Publishers Weekly reports a 10% decline in print unit sales.) But with traditional avenues of promotion and selling off the table, it also means the future of publishing will require greater agility and even reinvention. “Demand will fall and supply will be hesitant as caution hits the market,” writes Jonny Geller, chairman of Curtis Brown literary agency, in a statement. “We will, doubtless, learn new patterns of reading and selling books, but this is a disruption, not an existential threat.”

On behalf of authors everywhere, I hope he is right.

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