The future of book publicity events: a cocktail of old and new

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

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Bookshops are back, business is booming, and many of us are once again happily accumulating new books that we’re not quite sure when we’ll get round to reading. Next on the bookish wish list: the return of live events, in-person book launches, festivals, conventions and fairs. With the Hay Festival and upcoming London Book Fair going digital this year, many are wondering whether we will ever see the return of physical book events in our ‘new normal’. 

For many of our PR partners, the pandemic caused continuous disruption for publicity events; Dotti Irving, Culture Chief Executive at Four Communications, was forced to ‘pivot all events – individual book launches, press conferences and round-tables, the Booker Prize dinner for 500 people in the Guildhall – into virtual events’. While she admits that this has had both positive and negative effects, ‘going forward, we are likely to be looking at a hybrid combination of simultaneous in the room and out there events’, with digital events here to stay.

Along with the rest of the world, publicists had to learn to adapt to a vastly different and constantly changing landscape, one in which group gatherings were no longer allowed. Milly Reid, Senior Publicity Manager at Quercus Books and MacLehose Press, says that ‘despite some initial teething problems setting up bookselling and finding the right platforms, being forced to move our events online has meant we’ve expanded our audience. Anyone from around the world can now tune in to our events, often with a lower price point, making them more accessible.’ So attendees are no longer restricted by geography and authors have a more cost-effective platform to share their message that goes beyond the people in the room.

Launching a new book into such an uncertain and frankly bleak world has been an incredibly daunting prospect for many authors. While the pandemic may have increased accessibility and unleashed a wave of creativity regarding ideas for online book promotion, authors are eager for in-person events to resume. Book launches are undoubtedly beneficial for increasing sales, creating a forum for discussion and bringing people together to celebrate the author and their work. The latter is vital, especially for whitefox authors who are so deeply involved in every aspect of their book’s creation; this is their long-awaited moment to truly commemorate their achievement after years of hard work.

While this has been a whirlwind of a year with the cancellation of so many anticipated events, some experts claim that book launches were already on their way out before 2020. As Fiona Smith, founder of the publicity agency Smith & Baxter, points out, ‘book launches can be costly and take up so much time for publicists’ that could be better spent on digital marketing and more effective promotional campaigns. Instead, a recent shift in emphasis has occurred towards online pre-orders, which Georgina Moore, Director of Books and Publishing at Midas PR, highlights as far more essential to a book’s success: ‘A good pre-order sales number can be the difference between a number-one position and not making it onto the bestseller list at all. A book that achieves a bestseller position will create its own momentum and profile that will lead to more sales.’ The deprioritisation of physical book launches is a positive opportunity for self-published authors, something we at whitefox are observing with our own authors, among them David Hargreaves, whose crowdfunding efforts resulted in the publication of his World War 1 four-book epic box set As We Were, priced at £100.

Book launches are now seen as more of a celebration for the author and their friends, family members and contacts, rather than a bookselling venture. The pandemic has accelerated this shift, but US-based Smith Publicity also believe competition to be a driving factor: ‘With the number of books published every day increasing exponentially year over year, the pre-launch stage has become more and more important. Today’s readers are eager to purchase the newest, most highly anticipated, or talked about book, so taking advantage of the time leading up to launch – before thousands of new books are published in the weeks and months that follow – is what can help an author stand out from the competition.’

Looking towards the post-pandemic future, publicists predict a hybrid of physical and virtual book events. Sophie Toumazis, CEO and founder of tpr media consultants, believes that lockdown has ‘made us realise that online events do hold value. This creates an opportunity for authors with smaller budgets to do book launches at a far lower cost, capitalising on some extra PR without the financial burden of a live event.’ Although online events are bound to have a couple of technical hiccups and aren’t necessarily the moment in the sun that many authors have imagined, with the glorious sound of popping champagne corks and enthusiastic readers lining the streets, virtual launches cast a much wider net, offering authors the opportunity to connect with a global audience.

This is echoed by Midas’s Georgina Moore: ‘Virtual events have proved themselves to be a useful part of the PR armoury. They are useful for authors because they do not include expensive or time-consuming travel and can bring authors together all over the world. They can also attract book readers who perhaps feel awkward about attending literary festivals because they can feel “exclusive”.’ Although there aren’t many recognisable positives to come out of a dark, dingy year of lockdowns and loo-roll shortages, book publicity events are emerging as far more inclusive and accessible while still providing the chance for some people to mingle and enjoy their free glass of white wine.

Overall, this is all great news for indie authors who may not have the budget to throw large launch parties and in-person soirées. Instead, virtual events offer the opportunity for authors to connect with readers from all around the world and ultimately generate more sales than a launch at their local bookshop. This shift towards online and the reduced reliance on physical book events seemed inevitable; pre-sales have become vitally important to a new book’s success and they allow for a staggered approach to publicity and marketing, creating pre-publication buzz and keeping a book relevant for longer. The erosion of physical book launches as a necessity for promotion not only saves time and money that could be better spent elsewhere, but relinquishes the pressure placed on authors who deserve to truly enjoy their publication day.

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.