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Searching for book buzz, authors turn to online launches for new releases

Author Sidura Ludwig had planned to tour the locations featured in her new book, "You Are Not What We Expected," on a vintage bus as part of a promotional launch that was set for this spring.

Author Sidura Ludwig had planned to tour the locations featured in her new book, "You Are Not What We Expected," on a vintage bus as part of a promotional launch that was set for this spring.

A reception and book signing were also planned in her hometown of Thornhill, Ont., but it was all called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other writers releasing books this season, Ludwig had to pivot to online promotional efforts to help generate interest.

It's a familiar story throughout Canada's literary ecosystem. Festivals, sellers and writers have had springtime plans cancelled or postponed, losing out on valuable in-person buzz that benefits everyone.

"It's painful right now, I think we're going to be like this for a little bit of time," said Booknet Canada CEO Noah Genner. "But I don't think books are going anywhere. Everyone has stories they want to tell and so we just need to make sure that we're getting the content out to the people."

From mid-March through mid-May, English-language bookstore sales were down almost 63 per cent on a year-over-year basis, Genner said in a recent interview.

Unit sales bottomed out in early April but have been on a slow, steady rise since, he added. Specific numbers from the not-for-profit trade association weren't available. 

Many bookstores and retail outlets shifted to online sales, curbside pickup and delivery after the pandemic's arrival. Stores have slowly started to reopen over the last few weeks with physical distancing measures in place.

Ebook sales, meanwhile, rose to 26 per cent of the overall market in Booknet's surveying, Genner said, a significant uptick from its usual level of about 17 per cent. Audiobook sales, which have hovered between four and five per cent, climbed one per cent that month.

Ludwig, whose book was released last month by House of Anansi Press, was able to participate in a recent online launch through a National Arts Centre/Facebook Canada series called #CanadaPerforms.

Her original plan also included promotional stops in Winnipeg and other Canadian markets. While those trips are on hold indefinitely, her online experience was a positive one.  

"It turned out to be a way to bring everybody together," Ludwig said. "It ended up feeling very celebratory, which I wasn't expecting and was really touched by in the end."

In the past, Ludwig would make promotional appearances at book clubs, community gatherings, author talks and festivals. She said she's grateful for Zoom calls and the online interaction but misses being with people.

"Social media in some ways can be wonderful in terms of being able to do that," she said. "But it doesn't replace that face-to-face contact. That intimacy that exists when you're standing in front of a group of people who have come together to talk with you and learn about your process and learn about your book." 

Author Anita Daher, chair of the Writers' Union of Canada, planned to launch her latest book, "You Don't Have to Die in the End," in Winnipeg this spring before the pandemic forced a change of plans. 

"Any sort of buzz that might have happened with that (was gone and) any sort of media that might have happened with that (too)," she said from Gimli, Man. "Bookstores cancelled orders because of course they didn't want to bring in extra books that are just going to sit on their shelves. And so I had to pivot."

Daher did a livestream launch in April and has increased her online video sessions, YouTube presence and social media output.

"Some of us were able to develop new skills that I think are going to carry on," she said. "People like sitting and watching livestream events. And so that can't take the place of the in-person events because that's still the staple of what we do. (But) we've developed skills and we've learned that there's new ways of reaching out and connecting with audiences."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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