Like so many authors publishing books in the time of COVID-19, I’d already scheduled an in-person book launch party when everything social suddenly moved online. I’d never hosted a virtual meeting for more than a few people, and I was instantly overwhelmed by the details of gathering 100-plus readers together: what host would be best? Would the meeting be secure? And most importantly, how could I keep so many distracted people engaged for an entire hour, just by talking about my latest novel?
I now believe that a creative online launch can be the most memorable way to celebrate and share the excitement of bringing a book into the world. Long after they clicked “end meeting,” a surprisingly large number of guests reached out to say they’d enjoyed being part of it. “What was your favorite aspect?” I asked each one—and no two answers were the same; there was enough variety for everyone. I even heard from a stranger who joined, not knowing what to expect, and was inspired to buy the book.
To help others create their own memorable book launch, here are six tips based on my own recent experience.
1. Take your audience on a ride
The title of my book is Ferry to Cooperation Island, so a virtual “ferry ride” became our organizational theme. Two friends signed on as co-hosts (and, at the last minute, I also asked my husband Paul to oversee the chat). My friend Liz is a licensed captain, so she opened the meeting with a welcoming “safety briefing” that mimicked what would be said before pushing away from an actual dock. It was an entertaining way to remind guests to turn off video and audio, and to suggest screen settings that would show both shared visuals and the speaker. Liz also reminded folks that it was okay to leave early—though she added that we’d still be at sea, so it might be “quite wet.” Then I toasted the book’s official launch with a glass of Cooperation Punch (I’d chatted up possible recipes on my blog), and we set off together on our adventure.
2. Talk with, not at
Once we were safely underway, my other co-host Kim introduced me and asked me 10 prepared questions about the book’s inspiration, setting, and characters. Despite all our rehearsal time, it came across as a friendly, casual chat rather than a talking-head lecture—just as I’d hoped. And I was able to convey my excitement about the book to a wide audience that included both friends and unknown readers, without ever wondering if I was boring anyone.
3. Stick to the itinerary, but vary the scenery
Every good “ride” departs from and arrives back at a pre-planned point, but the unexpected sights along the way are what people will remember. The overarching goal for this party was to share my three inspirations for writing the book (Cooperation, Coastline, and a ferry Captain), so while Kim and I were chatting, Captain Liz screen shared photos and graphics I’d collected as part of my research. The only time I insisted on being on-screen myself was for a two-minute reading of the main characters’ first meeting.
4. Add humor and variety, but don’t overcomplicate it
Just before our final rehearsal, I decided to include a photo of the five-year-old me—and I’m sure it sparked some drink-spitting laughter. Many of those after-comments specifically mentioned that particular picture. (“Those red sneakers were so darned cute!”) We also paused halfway through the prepared questions for two Zoom polls; we’d originally planned on four, but realized during the final run-through that was two too many. The polls gave viewers a chance to interact with us without disrupting the planned-out portion of the evening. And the answers provided useful data about how many of my previous books they had read, and whether they already owned a copy of this one.
5. Make everyone feel heard
Once she was finished with the visuals, Captain Liz moderated questions that came in via chat. (Husband Paul definitely helped by pasting the early ones into a private chat, so we didn’t have to wait for her to scroll back through the feed.) Liz also called on people who virtually raised their hands, and they were able to ask a “live” question. That system allowed us to maintain some control of the unplanned portion of the evening, while giving everyone who wanted it the chance to feel heard. It also meant I was free to focus on answering well, because others were handling the logistics.
6. End on time, and close well
At the one-hour mark, Captain Liz announced that we’d made it safely back to the dock and asked everyone to watch their step when disembarking. Then I raised my glass again and thanked everyone for coming. This bookended the introduction in a very satisfying way, and all good stories need a satisfying ending!
When I first started to plan this virtual book launch, it was easy to get completely overwhelmed by the mechanical details. What I now realize is that, online or in person, the basics of public speaking are still what matter most. Prepare a story that will capture your audience and make them feel included, mix in plenty of variety and sensory detail, and frame it well so everyone knows where you’re headed and how long it will take to get there. That’s what turned this virtual launch into such a memorable occasion, and that’s what will work for you too. Who knows, you might even end up agreeing with my conclusion: that online launches are the most satisfying way to share the excitement of publishing our books.