In the face of the pandemic, bookstores find a way to keep the engine running

Ever since you were a child you knew you wanted to write a novel. But as the years went by, life and career kept you from pursuing your dream. Finally, in your 40s, you crafted your story, the one that had been stuck in your head for more than a decade. You spent years fine tuning it as best you could before submitting it for publication. However, after a while, you began to dread checking your email account because every few weeks you’d get a rejection from another literary agent. But each time they knocked you down with “we wish you the best in placing it elsewhere,” you’d pick yourself back up and try again.

Nearly a decade after you keyed in the first words on the first page of the first chapter of your dream project, you wanted to give up, deeming your dream nothing but childhood folly. You cried yourself to sleep many nights.

Then a small press accepted your novel. You were giddy. You pasted the acceptance email to your cubicle at work and read it over and over every day. Your co-workers clapped you on the back in support.

Then the book’s release was delayed because of budget cuts at the small press. The editor assured you that the book would be published the following year.

As the days and months peeled away, you made plans for your book launch: a book party in your hometown, a signing at your church, a celebration with your potluck Sunday once-a-month afternoon book club. The publicist you hired for a handsome fee worked feverishly to bring the novel national attention.

Then the pandemic happened. You understood why much of society had to shut down and you fully supported social distancing. You accepted the fact that nearly all of your book promotion plans would have to be canceled. But still it hurt.

This is my story, my publishing journey, and with a few details changed here and there, the story of so many debut novelists this season.

We are worried about the health of our nation and the world at large. At the same time, we are feeling the sting of the pandemic as we try to establish a foothold in the crowded and competitive literary field knowing we need to give our books the best chance of success during the small window of time of our debut weeks. This unprecedented period has disrupted all the systems in place to help us promote our novels.

As my fellow Debutante blogger Amy Klein said so well in a recent article in Electric Literature, there are actions we can take to try to avoid becoming sick or passing the coronavirus along to others, but with major book festivals and author events—the lifeblood of bookstores—being called off, it feels like there’s no control over what first-time authors can do to keep their books from languishing.

I was happy to discover that things may not be so dire. An encouraging development is the effort that bookstores are making to continue selling reading material to their customers and to showcase authors in spite of the shutdown of their businesses.

The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, for example, is offering local customers free delivery of books and shipping to customers outside of the area. Private, 30-minute browsing appointments are being offered in-store. On its website, the bookstore hinted at some “fun virtual activities” that are in the planning stages.

Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. is now streaming its author appearances on the platform Crowdcast. These virtual events will follow the same format the in-store ones did—that is, the author will speak first, then take questions from those watching. One benefit of this internet set-up is that “attendees” won’t have to be in the D.C. area to participate. Anyone with access to the internet will be able to join in.

At Novel, a bookstore in Memphis, Tenn., people will hold a book group discussion on a novel over a Zoom conference call. The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, is moving a major literary festival online.

Onyew Kim, a manager at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, Ga. will be delivering books by bike. Her plan is to loads 10 or so books into her bike bag, map out her route and then cycle around Atlanta.

It is a relief to know that even though much of commerce has shut down for necessary reasons that we in the book world fully support, there are measures in place and underway at bookshops across the country to keep the dreams of debut novelists alive.

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Lisa Braxton

Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. Her debut novel, The Talking Drum, is forthcoming from Inanna Publications in spring 2020. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and a book reviewer for 2040 Review. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines and journals. She received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest magazine’s 84th and 86th annual writing contests in the inspirational essay category. Her website: www.lisabraxton.com

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