Lockdown for many authors was a gruelling challenging time with loss of income, lack of literary inspiration and dealing with illness. For disabled and chronically ill authors, despite going through the above, the technical innovation that lockdown brought about to work and leisure opened up a chink of opportunity that can be summed up in one word: Zoom.
We’ve long challenged the idea of presenteeism and campaigned for more flexible working practices to enable us to work round our conditions but it took Covid-19 for this to happen. After lockdown measures legally came into force on March 26th 2020 businesses, organisations and friends turned to the internet to communicate, work and socialise. The book community was quick off the mark to embrace new technology with online book groups, festivals, author talks and readings. Suddenly those of us who find it difficult to travel were fully able to take part online and instead of having to say no, or even worse not being asked because organisers assumed we’d not be able to join in, we could shout a resounding yes!
I don’t know what life as an author was like pre-March 2020. My first novel My Perfect Sister was published in May 2020 and the launch party planned at my local indie bookshop Kenilworth Books turned into a Facebook event with me talking to a screen for half an hour. It was an inauspicious start. But soon I networked on social media with other authors (including the d20s, a great bunch of us who debuted in 2020), bookshops and festival organisers and found a whole lot of opportunities that my physical disability would have prevented me from taking part in if I had to travel around the country.
Take the free Stay At Home Fest for example – a brilliant example of democratising and demystifying the literary scene and bringing books and authors to readers. Then there have been online book launches hosted by a number of indie bookshops including Booka and Our Bookshop in Tring, allowing readers wherever they live to order signed copies and ask questions to their favourite authors. Despite my living in the Midlands I loved taking part in Crediton’s Literary Festival way down in Devon and it was an honour to join various individual book groups around the country who had picked My Perfect Sister as their monthly read.
Of course online festivals and book groups don’t only benefit authors, they are brilliant for readers who themselves cannot travel or afford to pay for train tickets and entrance fees. They have opened up the literary world to people who may before have felt intimated by it, by enabling them to join in from the comfort of their front room. Friendships have been formed, passion for books ignited and reading as a hobby is on the rise – indeed the University of Portsmouth is currently researching how people’s reading habits are changing in the face of Covid-19.
Now, thankfully, the vaccine rollout means that the UK governments are relaxing the lockdown rules and at the time of writing they are due to end on 21st June. What will happen then? My concern, and that of other authors with disabilities and chronic illnesses, is that the publishing and arts industries will revert to business as pre-March 2020 usual. Just as some businesses are expecting bums back on office seats and rolling back flexible working, I fear that festivals will go back to in person only, author and editor/agent meetings will return to face to face and book promotion will require a whirlwind of train, bus and car journeys.
This needn’t be the case. In publishing we must seize on what we’ve learned from lockdown. We should hold on to literary festivals such as the Stay at Home Lit Fest, which featured some lesser-known authors who aren’t included by the big name literary festivals, and embrace hybrid models when it comes to the old stalwarts of Hay, Cheltenham and so on. Both formats can succeed side by side.
Disabled and chronically ill authors worry that in this crowded industry they will be penalised for not being able to physically get on a train to London for a meeting or have the stamina or concentration span to travel to a venue, take part in a panel and return home again on the same day. Such worries shouldn’t belong in our 21st century inclusive society, particularly if publishing wants to embrace diversity and encourage new voices from all communities.
My second thriller, Her New Best Friend, will be published on 5th August. I can only hope that then I, and other ADCI authors, will continue to benefit from online innovation, and not be locked out from the industry because we don’t fit the non-disabled mould.
Penny Batchelor is the author of two psychological thrillers: My Perfect Sister (out now) and Her New Best Friend (to be published on 5th August by RedDoor Press). She champions positive disability representation in fiction. Along with EC Scullion Penny is the co-founder and editor of the Thriller Women www.thrillerwomen.co.uk blog which publishes interviews with female thriller writers.