Just two weeks ago, the idea of a “virtual author event” was still a novel concept, an out-of-the-box idea. How quickly things have changed. I was in a Zoom meeting with SIBA on March 10 when Wanda Jewell suggested that bookstores might consider using the platform to host an online event. My store, The Snail on the Wall, had just gotten word that our next event on the calendar was canceled: a ticketed Conversation with Christina Lauren, aka authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, who were scheduled to be on book tour for their newest romantic comedy, The Honey-Don’t List. On a whim, after hearing Wanda’s idea, I shot an e-mail to the publicist to ask if the authors would consider trying a virtual event. A day later, she replied with a resounding “yes!” And I panicked. My only experience with Zoom was attending a few ABA marketing meet-ups and SIBA meetings. In one recent meeting, I accidentally brushed my teeth in front of everyone after attempting to turn off my camera, but evidently hitting the wrong button. I was a Zoom novice about to become a host.
In a few days, I did a flurry of information gathering, trying to figure out the logistics of the meeting before promoting it. I upgraded to a $14.99/month Zoom Pro account so that I could have some added features (longer than 40 minutes for the meeting, multiple cohosts, etc.). I sat in on a club meeting hosted by Anne Bogel, who’s been hosting virtual gatherings on Zoom for years. I talked with a local friend who has moderated some of those meetings, who agreed to moderate the chat for our event. And I talked with Nicki Leone, who walked me through the finer points of Zoom and told me how to run a test meeting with the authors.
Still, I didn’t advertise the event. I couldn’t stop thinking about the unknowns and fears: Should I charge for tickets? Would I sell books if I didn’t? Would I be able to work the technology? Would Zoom and the Internet continue to sustain the weight of so many new users? Would guests show up? Would it seem weird to talk about rom-coms in the midst of a pandemic?
Finally, on the Thursday before the Sunday event, I put it into the world: A Conversation with Christina Lauren: The Virtual Version. I decided on a free ticketed event, using Eventbrite. That way, I could send a blanket e-mail to guests with the Zoom meeting code, and then follow up after the event with a link to purchase books. Making it free felt like the right choice for an experimental meeting with an inexperienced host.
The day before, I ran a test meeting with the two authors, who live in Utah and California, respectively. It gave us a chance to meet for the first time, talk through a format, and check sound. They agreed to log on 10 minutes before the event so I could admit them first and have the three of us ready for our audience at the 5:30 pm start time. I could turn their audio on early, and then admit everyone else from the waiting room all at once.
By Sunday, 55 guests had registered. That sounded like a lot of people to manage in a virtual meeting, but I felt ok about the plan. But 15 minutes before the event, the plan fell apart when I logged on and a few guests were already there. I could see those first three participants, but no one else—including my authors. I couldn’t find among the gathering crowd. I immediately called Nicki, who had agreed to show up and make sure all was well. Together, across the miles, we clicked, searched support, and scrambled to figure out what to do, as more guests filled the waiting room. I ended up letting guests in a little early and just being honest; I asked them to sit tight while I found my lost authors (one of whom was having trouble getting connected).
Once the conversation started a few minutes later, it rolled smoothly. After the authors opened by talking about themselves and the new book, I had some questions ready, which I needed because guests didn’t engage right away. But the more we talked, the audience got interested and started typing questions. The most interesting topic of our discussion was the idea of working remotely, which has been the norm for these co-authors who have written 25 novels in 7 years while living in different states. And then we talked mostly about romantic comedy and fan fiction, which everyone embraced as a welcome escape from the realities of right now.
I came away with a lot of positive feedback from my audience (some of whom are new to my store), a respectable number of book sales, and some important lessons learned for the future, which continues to look very much virtual. I’m happy to share, and I’m grateful to SIBA for the inspiration and idea—not to mention the help in executing it.
- It helped to have a moderator/co-host, not only to help monitor the tech but also to keep track of questions on the chat so I could focus on listening to the authors and engaging in a real conversation with them, without too much distraction.
- My moderator was able to answer participants’ questions in the chat, too, about buying books and more. A couple of times throughout the event, she reminded readers of the books by posting hyper-links to my store’s website, where all the books were available for purchase on one event page.
- I had some slides ready to share featuring available titles (though I forgot to show them in the heat of the moment).
- I was grateful for two authors instead of one, because it filled the time and the silence more easily and naturally.
- I don’t think you can have too many questions prepared ahead of time. Zoom feels a lot less spontaneous and organic than a live event, where everyone is together and feeding off of one another. Prepare and be ready to fill the awkward silences.