All of us have had our working lives changed in some way during 2020. Although writers are long used to working in isolation, I’ve been pondering how Covid-19 has impacted my working year, and how it may continue to. Have we authors been stifled by these events, or liberated?
The old joke used to be that Russia was the only country in the world where the past was less predictable than the future. But Russia has been more futuristic than all of us in the west on one thing: the “virtual” book tour. Because of its vast geographical mass, the kind of cross-country (US, Australian and German) overseas tours many of us have done are not feasible there. But I did my first “virtual” tour in Russia in 2014.
From my office in Sussex, I gave talks in a number of bookstores and libraries in Moscow and St Petersburg via Skype, with huge screens set up in the stores, and interacting with the audiences via a translator. In November 2018, while on a physical book tour to Russia, I did another “virtual” event, talking live, in a conference room with 47 monitors in front of me, to people in 47 public libraries across all 11 of Russia’s time zones. Little did I realise it was a foretaste of what was to come here…
In 2020, instead of my usual book launch on Brighton’s Palace Pier, I did a virtual launch by Zoom. We had more than 400 attendees from all around the world, people who could never have made it to an actual book launch. It was hosted in sync with City Books, the wonderful Brighton indie, with attendees getting the option of personally signed book plates. And I’ve done countless “virtual” festivals, TV appearances, podcast and radio interviews, all without leaving my desk.
The pandemic has led me to start assessing what I’ve missed this year and what I haven’t.
All fellow authors I’ve done events with, including Ian Rankin, Ruth Ware, Adele Parks, Mark Billingham, Karin Slaughter and many others agree what we have missed, most of all, is what makes festivals and events fun: the socialising, the drinks and meals together. I’ve missed those a lot. But there are things I’ve not missed at all…
Back in the 1980s, when I was first published, every city and town of note in the UK had two newspapers, and both a commercial and a BBC regional radio station. Authors would spend three gruelling weeks on tour. Each day would start with a hungover breakfast interview with a reporter (who pretended to have read your book), then a radio presenter (who didn’t bother to pretend), then a bookshop signing, which, for me, usually consisted of three people: two bookshop staff and my one fan in the town! Then a bookshop talk, where my average audience would be six little old ladies with tartan rugs on their knees asleep in the back row, thinking they had come to see P D James. Then on to a new town, and a boozy dinner with another newspaper reporter…
On tour for Macdonald Futura in 1991, I was one interview behind Ben Elton, who was promoting Gridlock. I sat in the lobby of BBC Radio Leicester, which doubled as its green room, listening to Ben. After a couple of dumb questions, Ben rounded on the interviewer, asking him, “Have you actually read my book?” To which the hapless man responded, “I’ve dipped in an out of it.”
“If it was a movie, would you have dipped in and out of that?” demanded a tired and fractious Elton. “I tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to fucking dip in and out of this interview!” And he did, coming in and sitting beside me before returning, then coming out again. I have to say I was full of admiration for Ben, and wished I’d had the courage to have done the same when my turn came.
My all-time low was on that tour. I had been driven from Newcastle to Glasgow by the Geordie rep, to meet the Scottish rep, who informed me I had a 7 a.m. breakfast interview with the prestigious Scotsman. Kudos! After two weeks on the road, I was exhausted and all I wanted was to check into the hotel, have room service and then sleep. But the reps would have none of it. Before heading to the hotel, they were going to show me some of Glasgow’s finest pubs, beers and whiskies. And they did. Pub after pub, whisky chaser after whisky. Finally, drunk and starving, they then decided to take me to Glasgow’s finest curry house.
Some time after midnight, a cabbie, looking at us dubiously, drove us to our hotel in pelting rain. When we got there, all we could see was a demolition site... “Fuck me”, slurred a very drunk Scottish rep. “The bastards took my reservation!” With a major conference in the city, every decent hotel was full. We finally checked into a one-star dump at 2 a.m., which had just one available bedroom—in the attic. And one bed. The three of us slept in the bed together, rain dripping onto me from the ceiling all night. In the morning, I leaned against a partition wall in the dining room of the Albany Hotel, posing for the Scotsman photographer. The wall and I fell backwards into a conference of double-glazing salesman on the far side, who looked at me somewhat bemused…
I don’t really miss the book tour—or do I? And more importantly, is the book tour dead? Far from it. One of the few good things to emerge from this pandemic is that there are really great new opportunities for authors to promote their work around the world in ways we never dreamed possible, which I will explore in my next article.
In the meantime, happy new year, everyone.
Peter James is a bestselling crime fiction author. His next Roy Grace novel, Left You Dead (Macmillan), is to be published in May.