Book launches just got better

It’s pretty obvious that the book industry, along with nearly all other businesses, will be hammered by the plague. The damage is somewhat mitigated by online ordering and delivery of printed books from you-know-who and by digital delivery of e-books and audiobooks. But that cannot compensate for traditional booksellers having to close their doors and media focussing almost exclusively on the many aspects of the crisis to the detriment of coverage of books.

There is, however, a silver lining. It is a cliché to describe book launch parties as suffering warm white wine and Twiglets (if you’re lucky). They are typically held in a bookshop with narrow aisles and lousy acoustics. A few copies are sold to loyal friends and family of the author and these sales matter because even twenty copies can lift a book in the best seller lists. There may be some press downing the free booze and even a mention of the event in the Evening Standard’s Londoners’ Diary.

The publisher will make a short speech expressing his/her admiration for the book, the author, and if necessary for the publisher’s managing director. The author’s speech will be longer and better constructed but lost in the hum of continuing conversations. Then it’s all over. The unsold books are packed up and returned for a credit note. The author might go out for dinner with the editor, or not, depending on whether they are still speaking. The party will be forgotten very quickly and not much harm done except a few hundred pounds wasted.

My own business, Mensch Publishing, has resolutely resisted paying for launch parties but authors frequently would like to have one to say thank you to their family, advisers and so forth. Nothing wrong with that providing they pay. A couple of weeks ago, Mensch published two books on the same day . Both the authors, Vanessa Branson and John Willis, had arranged launch parties; one in a very posh Mayfair art gallery the other in a less upmarket but no less attractive Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. They both had to be cancelled for obvious reasons, but both authors decided to have Zoom launches instead.

They were enormous fun. The authors were interviewed professionally. Short extracts were read beautifully (and you could hear them perfectly). The wine was of the highest quality, at least in my case and was well-chilled. Nobody had to fight for transport afterwards. Books in all formats were purchased over the Internet. Most importantly the parties were recorded, creating marketing assets and a permanent record.

Of her ‘in conversation’ event with Matthew Bannister (still viewable here), Vanessa says, "260 computers zoomed in for my book launch many with entire families watching with drinks in hand while Matthew Bannister and I discussed all aspects of One Hundred Summers. An altogether brilliant way to get word out there - there is also the added bonus of the edited version being up on You tube to entice potential purchases or for those to refer to while reading the book."

John Willis’ event, which included a reading by Poldark actor Robin Ellis, was a more intimate gathering, but went so well he’s planning a second, public event on 10 June, partnering with independent bookseller Rossiter Books who will be supplying signed copies. He writes, "The 75 guests absolutely loved it. It was curiously intimate despite being virtual. Everyone listened intently to the readings from Churchill’s Few. You could not hear a pin drop in the virtual room, which stretched from New York to North Yorkshire."

Other publishers are also finding this possible silver lining.  Finding themselves locked down in April, Faber launched their lead debut, Ingrid Persaud’s novel, Love After Love, online.  Sophie Portas says, "It was early days in the way of online events (the book published on 2nd April), so we hosted it via Google Hangout. Her editor interviewed her and then we invited questions from participants - there were over 100 of her friends and family from across the world."  At that time, lockdown had just happened so they weren’t able to work with a bookseller, so offered a discount to buy book through their website. 

Sophie will be launching a July lead title, Luke Harding’s Shadow State, on 2 July on a different platform, GoToWebinar - which in her view is better suited to large scale events than Google Hangout. As an industry we are learning fast.

Last week, at Penguin, publicist Jane Gentle launched Jane Corry’s I Made a Mistake with a virtual afternoon tea (via Zoom), attended by more than 75 guests.  In addition to speeches from Jane and her editor Katy Loftus, the author read a passage from the book, discussed the novel in a Q&A with Katy, and took questions from the guests.  The author’s local independent bookseller, Winstone’s, participated in the chat.

I am all for real parties but I do think the book launch party may be in steep decline replaced by far superior events. This silver lining might well last.