How I Hosted a Socially Distanced Book Event

Ed Cyzewski socially distant book event

Today’s guest post is by editor and author Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski).

It’s not ideal to release a book during a global pandemic with quarantines, social distancing, and limits on group gatherings.

It’s especially not ideal to release my current book about the many unintended and unforeseen consequences of smartphones and social media at a time when we are especially dependent on social media and digital devices to stay connected!

Authors throughout my networks are cancelling appearances at conferences, bookstores, and other events. As a small-time author in a small Kentucky town, working with a relatively small press, even I have had to dramatically change the marketing plan for my latest book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

Reconnect talks about the ways social media manipulates us, how our digital activities shape us, and how spiritual practices can lead us to greater freedom and health. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was working hard to avoid a dependence on social media for my book’s marketing.

That all changed with the many lockdowns and “healthy at home” policies.

Nevertheless, when local friends asked how they could buy a book from me in person, I decided to figure out a simple way to safely host an event in our small western Kentucky town. Sitting in our local coffee shop with my mask on and a healthy distance separating myself from other customers, I hatched an idea.

The coffee shop’s outdoor area was a perfect, shaded spot in the morning for a socially distanced book event. Cars could even pull up for easy curbside service.

Ed's outdoor sales table

Selecting a Saturday morning that coincided with the local farmer’s market down the road, I set up a time for an outdoor book event with a drive-through option and social distancing. My publicity encouraged attendees to wear masks for the sake of those with health vulnerabilities.

If you want to try hosting your own drive-through, socially distanced book event, here is what went wrong and what went right:

What Went Wrong with a Socially Distanced Book Event

1. At best, half of the folks wore a mask. While a mask is not a guarantee of safety, studies have shown that widespread mask usage makes transmission of COVID-19 far less likely. For whatever reason, many folks didn’t wear a mask even though the event posters and invites asked everyone to wear a mask.

2. Social distancing is hard in a public space. Not everyone has the same idea of social distancing, and you need to put books out for folks to handle and look at. While hosting the event outdoors made social distancing easier, I wonder if I should have set up another table to spread the books out more. Despite my best intentions, people will do what they want when it comes to precautions about the virus.

3. A lot of people still didn’t show up due to concerns about the virus. The invitation process was a little awkward. I invited my friends and colleagues, but I also gave them an easy out if they were concerned about the virus. A significant number of them wrote me to say they would be unable to make it, opting for the “Ed’s Driveway” check out option for their books instead.

What Went Right with a Socially Distanced Book Event

1. A good mix of foot traffic and book event guests bought a book. Having the event at a public place like a cafe made up for the people who didn’t show up.

If I did this again, I would try to host the event a little closer to the farmer’s market on a Saturday in order to increase foot traffic. It helped that a number of people had heard of me or my books through my press release in the local paper or through word of mouth, and they took the opportunity to buy one when they saw my table set up. 

Since I write spiritual nonfiction books, I myself wouldn’t get a spot right at the market since I don’t fit into the more general audience of a farmer’s market. But that same audience may be more receptive to a novel with a wider appeal.

2. I didn’t have to prepare a talk. I simply chatted with each person about the book, answering questions and even upselling my other book about prayer: Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians. People tended to expect conversation rather than a presentation, and that worked well for me. 

3. Limitations prompted creative ideas. We couldn’t serve food. We couldn’t have art activities at some tables (although spaced out boxes of sidewalk chalk were a hit with the kids who came with their parents). We couldn’t sit in a circle to have a discussion. With all of those ideas out of the mix, I had to think of different ways to make the event feel a little more like a party.

To make the event a little more festive, I brought a few extra novels and spirituality books that I had in duplicate. (My pile of giveaways included Light from Distant Stars and This Too Shall Last.) Early-bird customers could pick an extra book for free, and that was a big hit while also introducing great authors to new readers.

I also bought a few gift cards to the coffee shop hosting the event and hid them in a few of the books on sale.

I don’t think anyone came specifically because of those extras, but it helped to have some simple contests in the works so that I wasn’t just selling books.

4. The coffee shop got advertising and extra sales. Since I promoted my event on social media and in the local papers, the coffee shop hosting my event got some extra publicity, notifying the public that limited indoor/outdoor seating was available.

Everyone who came to buy a book also bought coffee. If I can’t support a local bookstore during my book release, I was at least able to support a cafe that has served our community as a vital gathering space for events and group meetings.

How Have You Adapted Your Book Marketing?

I know I’m not the only author experimenting with book marketing at a time with limited gathering sizes and social distancing. What have you tried with your book launches? If you’re planning a launch, which ideas do you find most promising?

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