Launching a book into the world can be a strange and surreal experience at the best of times, but launching a book into a pandemic just got a whole lot stranger. Authors have been forced to adjust to new technologies and ways of engaging with readers, and reconcile themselves to the fact that events are now all via a screen. So I asked three authors how their recent book releases compare with their previous books — back when we were all naïve and thought pandemics belonged only in novels. Laura Elvery, Elizabeth Tan and Mirandi Riwoe share the best and the worst of their book babies going out during the time of COVID.
In the week after Ordinary Matter came out, my sister and I drove to Brisbane bookshops following an itinerary my publicist had organised. I don’t remember doing this for my first book. It was new to head into a shop and try to non-awkwardly introduce myself. It was new to sign piles of books and try to note all the locations of stacks around the shop. And the whole time sanitising, sanitising, sanitising. (Also new was somebody at one of the shops saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you had COVID because then you would have taken down all the bookstores in town?’ INDEED! A good joke!)
Strangely, I felt both a little more armoured than I did with my first book (a thicker skin, no newborn baby strapped to my chest, less time on my hands now to fret) but also less armoured (turns out some people actually knew I’d written a book and were waiting for it). In late February 2018 I was about 38 weeks pregnant. The launch for Trick of the Light was this incredibly fun party with 100 people, and it was, for me, all about making it to the event in one piece. A week or so either side and I’d have to reschedule. Look at photos of me that night and I’m just beaming — I’d made it. One week later my son made it into the world too. I sat up in the hospital bed with a stack of copies that Avid Reader had sent along for signing, my baby asleep beside me.
But, look. A book during a pandemic! Could be worse! The good bits: in Brisbane, I can actually go into bookstores and spot Ordinary Matter on a table. I had more people at this Zoom launch than at the one in 2018. My sister-in-law and my little niece sat at their dining table in Copenhagen and watched. My oldest friend in the world, now living in Townsville, could watch. I got messages from writers in other parts of Australia who tuned in. My next-door neighbour could both hear me speaking through our shared apartment wall AND through her laptop. Good times!
More good bits: that I’m published at all. That Ordinary Matter remains a 2020 title and was pushed back only by one month, not a whole year, or not indefinitely. Podcasts and radio interviews. Good reviews coming in. That it’s a privilege to be reviewed at all. That it’s validating to have reviewers mention my second book in the context of the first. That there was a first book at all.
But some disappointing parts remain. I have friends whose books have been delayed, and friends whose livelihoods have suffered. No events at any bookshop, full-stop. No in-person Q&As. After years of writing the damn thing and then receiving early invites to writers’ festivals — no writers’ festivals. That all feels a bit sad. No line of loved ones waiting for their copy to be signed, waiting to grab a hug and a photo and a glass of wine together down the road.
Laura Elvery is the author of two short story collections, Trick of the Light and Ordinary Matter, published by UQP in September 2020. She has won several short story prizes in Australia and her work is published in Griffith Review, The Saturday Paper, Meanjin and Overland. Laura has a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Studies. She lives in Brisbane.
My first book, Rubik, was launched into the world by the exuberant Brooke Davis in April 2017, at Beaufort Street Books in North Perth. While I remember the night of Rubik’s launch with incredible fondness and gratitude, I also remember hanging from tenterhooks of nervousness for the entire month. Will enough people turn up? How much wine should I buy? How am I supposed to act among all these people from various social groups smooshed together, all of whom know a different me? How can I sufficiently convey my appreciation to everyone?
As the days crept closer to the June 2020 publication date of my second book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, I worried about enduring all those anxieties again, but without that propelling energy which accompanies the release of a debut.
In late March 2020, when the whole country was locking down, my publisher, Alice Grundy, emailed me to ask if I wanted to delay the release of Smart Ovens. It was impossible for us to know the best decision. Certainly, I could see the benefit of waiting. But I knew it in my heart: it was time for the book to leave my hands.
The last story I wrote for Smart Ovens was ‘Ron Swanson’s Stencilled ’Stache’, whose protagonist is an ASMR YouTube artist. At the time Alice emailed me, virtual literary events were already popping up. I realised I’d been given the strange gift of not having to organise and navigate a big social gathering. ‘A virtual launch wouldn’t be totally out of character for this book,’ I eventually replied to Alice, adding: ‘e.g. an ASMR-themed launch?’
The launches of Rubik and Smart Ovens were incomparably different experiences — I can’t say one was better than the other. Some of my anxieties persisted, or were replaced with new anxieties, especially about the technical aspects of the launch. My partner, Shane, helped me work out the best way to record, edit, subtitle, and broadcast the launch — I couldn’t have done it without him.
One nice thing about the virtual launch was that people outside my hometown could attend and participate — especially Alice, who I’ve met in person only a handful of times. Alice recruited Bram Presser and Jane Rawson to record ASMR videos to contribute to the launch, which they did spectacularly. I also appreciated that friends who missed out on the live broadcast could still watch the launch later.
What I love most about online events is that there’s a tremendous amount of goodwill — nobody expects perfection. It’s clear that everyone is using the tools, props and software that they have on-hand. We have to be resourceful and imaginative like children. On the day of the broadcast of my launch, with the live chat humming, I felt very much like a child putting on a bizarre, gleeful play for my friends. Together, we cultivated a sweet, peculiar kind of intimacy — a perfect fit for Smart Ovens for Lonely People.
Elizabeth Tan is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. Her first book, Rubik, was published in 2017 by Brio. Her second book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, was shortlisted for the 2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. View the Smart Ovens launch: https://youtu.be/zR41sptHI-A.
At the very end of February this year, when coronavirus still seemed a distant problem, my husband and I flew to Los Angeles. We stayed in Santa Monica and visited family, rode rental bikes, ate out on the crowded pier, caught Ubers everywhere. By about 5 March, we heard news that a couple of LAX workers had contracted COVID-19 and that people in Australia were hoarding toilet paper. First, I said to my husband, jokingly, ‘I wonder if we should take some toilet paper home with us’, and then, more seriously, ‘I wonder if my book launch will go ahead.’
By the time we arrived back in Australia on the 9th, health warnings and restrictions were kicking off. It’s hard to remember how quickly everything happened, but over the next two weeks, the number of people who could attend my book launch at Avid Reader bookstore shrunk, until only a handful of people, including staff, could be spaced out on their deck. And did I really want to put older people, like my father, at risk? (My mother and two adult children had already had to cancel their air tickets to attend my launch.) Luckily, over the week before my launch the lovely people at Avid Reader practiced Zoom meetings with me a few times, and a couple of days before I was to have my launch, we all decided it was best if we went ahead with a Zoom launch instead. I think I had the first Zoom launch in Australia.
I dressed up — just as I would have if I’d had an in-person launch — in a lace cheongsam, put on my red lippy and perched on my dragon couch in front of my computer clutching a glass of champagne. Of course, I would have preferred to be surrounded by loved ones cheering me on, to hug, to gulp down a little too much wine while signing my book, (I had badges and magnets made up to give away with each book), to eat the cupcakes UQP were going to provide with my book cover iced on top, to go next door to Chop Chop Changs and eat noodles with said loved ones. But there were upsides to the Zoom launch. I get terribly nervous talking in front of a crowd, so speaking to the screen was a little less harrowing. And I got to clutch my daughter’s guinea pigs during question time. The best part of the Zoom event, though, was that so many lovely people who could not have attended the live event ended up coming to my Zoom launch — interstate family, writers and readers, who I love and admire.
Missing out on a live launch is such a miniscule thing in the scale of what is happening this year. And I’m so grateful for how supportive readers and other writers have been during this fraught period. Back in March it was very difficult to know what was going to happen. At first I wondered if the release of Stone Sky Gold Mountain should be postponed, but by the time we realised lockdowns and restrictions were going to take place, it was too late. Thankfully, a lot of people have found time to read over the last six months and I hope people continue to find solace in books. There are just so many great novels coming out, despite this pandemic.
Mirandi Riwoe’s novel Stone Sky Gold Mountain won the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction 2020. Her novella The Fish Girl won Seizure’s Viva la Novella V and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction.
To go in the draw win a book pack of Laura Elvery’s Ordinary Matter, Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People and Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain simply sign up to my newsletter (sign-up box on this page).