The Impact of COVID-19 on the Thriller Writing Industry
By Dawn Ius
Andrea Bartz had big plans for the launch of her new thriller, The Herd—a multi-city book tour, in-person media events, pictures of her with her book on shelves across the nation. The novel had garnered well-earned advance praise, and Bartz was ready to celebrate.
But mere weeks before The Herd’s scheduled release on March 24, Bartz knew only one thing for certain: her launch wasn’t going to be anything like what she’d dreamed.
As COVID-19 continued to sweep across the globe, pushing its way into the US and forcing millions of people into self-isolation, events were cancelled, conferences postponed, and retailers—including bookstores—began shutting their doors in an effort to “flatten the curve.”
“It sounds dramatic to watch this book tour that I’d worked so hard to piece together starting to splinter and fall away,” Bartz says. “And to know that I wouldn’t be able to sign copies, meet booksellers and readers, and celebrate with my friends and family—the best part of launching a book, in my opinion—was so upsetting.”
She isn’t alone in her disappointment. Thousands of authors across the publishing industry are scrambling to find alternative promotional opportunities amid uncertainty about when or even if things will return to normal.
“I’ve been alternating between optimism and despair,” says Janelle Brown, whose Pretty Things is slated for an April 21 release. “Losing the ability to interact face to face with readers during the course of a book tour is a massive disappointment. But I’ve been working on replacing bookstore events with virtual Zoom events, InstagramLive events, and spending a lot more time interacting directly with readers on social media—and honestly, I’m finding that people are so desperate for human interaction these days that I’ll probably end up communicating with as many readers as I might have on a book tour. Maybe even more.”
Of course, book launches are just one hitch in a myriad of issues now facing the publishing industry, says Gina Panettieri, founder of Top Notch Literary.
“Many houses are looking to push back publication on some titles, hoping to wait out the worst of the pandemic. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are struggling with no foot traffic, and a number that have long been institutions have let go of most, if not all, of their staff,” she says. “Amazon ‘deprioritized’ shipping books and greatly reduced their orders in preference for essential items. BookExpo and foreign book fairs were canceled, forcing all of us to rethink how we intend to connect with rights partners and present the big Fall book. Yes, that part has been bedlam.”
That chaos is expected to last well into summer, with many conferences making the difficult decision to cancel or postpone. The American Library Association called off its annual conference and meeting, which was scheduled for June 25-30 in Chicago, ReadPop was forced to move the dates of BookExpo and BookCon from late May to the end of July, and ThrillerFest, the annual conference held by the International Thriller Writers, is up in the air as well.
“We’re monitoring the situation in New York City carefully, and we’re in close contact with our friends at the Hyatt,” says ThrillerFest Executive Director, Kimberley Howe. “The safety of our attendees is our absolute priority, and we’ll be keeping everyone informed about any updates. Please stay safe during these challenging times.”
If that all sounds a little doom and gloom, there’s no denying the industry is a little shook up. But Panettieri says publishing has weathered many storms, and even in the eye of this one, there are some bright spots.
“We’re all living through something right now that most of us have only envisioned in one of our thriller novels,” she says. “We have every right to be anxious. However, we also have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.”
The most recent survey from BookScan shows that Americans are continuing to buy books with a huge increase in purchases in thriller/suspense from the previous week. And in the UK, The Guardian reports that readers are devouring paperbacks during self-isolation. With libraries closed, many people are seeking bargains in buying books and publishers are racing to fill that need—particularly with e-book and audiobook specials.
“And while Amazon considers books nonessential, bookstores don’t,” Panettieri says. “This is a perfect time to show your love at Barnes & Noble. Use links other than Amazon at your website and promotional materials. Support each other online.”
That’s a message that resonates for Bartz—The Herd received tremendous online love from her author friends and fans.
“I was so touched by the support from the reading world, and the thriller-writing world in particular,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how many authors reached out ahead of time to include me in their newsletters or on their author pages, and how many helped spread the word on my actual publishing day. A few even did last-minute giveaways of my book, promising to buy a copy from an indie bookstore for the winner. What a beautiful, generous act.”
You can expect more of that, says former Penguin editor Neil Nyren. While working on an article for the Mystery Writers of America, Nyren reached out to dozens of writers whose books were just released or are slated for April and May. He asked how these writers planned to promote their novels given the circumstances.
“The answers started pouring back before I finished sending out the last emails,” he says. “There was all the shock and sadness you’d expect, but also something else. As Julia Spencer-Fleming wrote, ‘There’s going to be a lot of authors-supporting-authors posts in the next few months.’”
A quick scroll through social feeds confirms that “signal boosting” is happening everywhere—writers on Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Live, Instagram, and YouTube, not to mention the influx of virtual conferences and book clubs, have replaced boots-on-the-ground promotions. Publishers are doing their part too, with initiatives like Penguin Random House’s BooksConnectUs, an online forum where readers come together online to share their love of books. Carter Wilson, author of The Dead Girl in 2A, for instance, recently hosted an online book club, Jaden Terrell has created a virtual “retreat” for writers, and authors you might not expect to be streaming are creating new ways to connect with fans—international bestselling author Steve Berry and his wife, ITW Executive Director Liz Berry, have appeared in a couple of Facebook Lives. Popular Noir at the Bar events have gone virtual. And two writers whose promotions were cut short have joined together to establish A Mighty Blaze, a site featuring new books and authors, virtual events, and more.
“Social media is already a huge component of book promotion,” Nyren says. “And once the skies and stores open up, there’ll be plenty of live events, but I think this kind of virtual banding together is going to stick around and become very, very, important.”
That’s great for authors with agents and book deals, but what about aspiring authors—are publishers even buying books?
Karen Watson, an editor at Tyndale can attest to the fact that acquisitions meetings are happening—she just purchased the first three books in a new supernatural thriller series by Tier One authors Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson.
“Our team has both in-house and remote employees, so we are accustomed to working via Skype and Zoom on a weekly basis,” she says. “We are an important revenue generator for our company and we need to make sure that we are taking appropriate kinds of risks on new projects that can deliver. For instance, we are very excited to begin working with Andrews and Wilson. They bring a measure of expertise and opportunity that I think will be great for all of us.”
That said, Watson says knowing that the company is working with a skeletal crew back in Chicago is sobering—and at some point, the limitations of working from home will surface.
“We can create great books, but without the retail backend, we’re digging a big hole for the company,” she says. “We are looking at the possible fulfillment and replenishing delays through Amazon that could be very serious for print. I also wonder if our sell in numbers to brick and mortar will hold.”
Only time will tell, but agents and editors alike are adamant that writers should continue to stay the course—there will always be a need for stories. Just as important, though, is the need for authors to stay true to themselves and the voice that they’ve sent out into the world.
“There is nothing more wearying and false than an author writing to be significant,” she says. “Take a walk, listen to conversations (that you can get close enough to overhear), and write for a brighter future. That is what the world needs right now.”
And that’s exactly what Andrews and Wilson say they’re doing—while trying not to get overly distracted by the news and adapting to new routines.
“The truth is, we feel a twinge of guilt that our profession allows us to not just continue to work, but to flourish during this crisis,” the duo says. “Our deadlines remain in effect to get four books cranked out next year and we simply have to keep working.”
But what about those writers who don’t have a contract?
Write anyway, Wilson and Andrews say.
“Many aspiring writers are forced home from their day jobs right now due to COVID-19, and while we feel such empathy for all that the nation is going through, if there can be a silver lining to this dark cloud, it might be the ability to create at a pace usually reserved for full-time writers. We’re not trivializing the emotional impact of all that’s going on. But all of us can make time to escape this uncertainty and find our way to the worlds we’re creating.”
For some that’s already proven the case—rumor has it that George R. R. Martin plans to use this time to finally complete The Winds of Winter, the next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Let’s hope! As Shakespeare long ago demonstrated while writing King Lear during the Plague, self-isolation can be a very productive time.
It’s important to remember, though, that the first priority should always be your health and safety—both mentally and physically.
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