Virtual Book Clubs In The Era Of Social Distancing

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Book events in the virtual world can’t completely replace the vibrant atmosphere of face-to-face presentations, but with some imagination, you can still keep your book sales on an upward trajectory and enhance your readership.

Writers are accustomed to working in solitude for long stretches and then getting out on the road for marketing tours and promotional events. Today, however, social distancing casts a pall on bookstore readings, conference events, discussion groups, and similar gatherings. In the absence of traditional promotional activities, virtual book clubs and online writer communities are springing up and offering surprisingly effective ways for authors to reach out to global audiences, promote their works, and gain new readers.

The following examples highlight some of the different approaches used by emerging virtual book clubs and provide tips for getting a book selected for reading and discussion.

The Fenway Stevenson mystery series

A medium-sized book club with anywhere from 45–95 members can be a good entry point for authors seeking an audience to discuss their books. Paul Austin Ardoin, author of the Fenway Stevenson mystery series, discovered a comfortable venue in The Unofficial Bestseller Experiment Book Club, a private group on Facebook that profiles a different book each month and includes hour-long interviews with authors. Authors are invited to submit their books for discussion.

In a live interview segment, made available to book club members for viewing, Ardoin discussed his life-long interest in novel writing and his struggles to complete The Reluctant Coroner (the first of the Fenway Stevenson mysteries).

virtual book clubsI asked Paul about the The Bestseller Experiment, hosted on Patreon, which provides an ongoing series of podcasts developed to inspire and inform writers. “The Bestseller Experiment,” he replied, “was founded a couple of years ago by two writers who were friends at school and who live on different continents now. They decided to write a book with the intention of hitting number one in their selected genre on Amazon, and they did. (It took a year.) They keep doing the podcasts and interviewing writers, editors, publishers, and those in the know. If you are a Patreon subscriber, you get to be in this exclusive Facebook group called the ‘BXP Team.’ The book club is for discussing books written by members of the BXP team.”

Ardoin was pleasantly surprised when his first book — released in May 2018 — was selected for discussion. “I was celebrating two years of being a published author when the book club’s leader, Robin Sarty, interviewed me over a Facebook-compatible screencast. It was great to delve into the world of my book for an hour. My wife and kids usually roll their eyes and leave the room when I do that.”

Writers are often introverts and the idea of public speaking, even to an attentive and polite group of readers in a virtual book club, presents a potential obstacle that needs to be overcome. “I had a bit of media training a million years ago,” explains Ardoin, “and the one thing that stuck with me is that the interviewer is almost always the one who controls the interview. I love talking about my characters and my writing process and how it took me eight years to write the first two chapters and what decisions I made to finish that first novel. So, I encouraged those questions and steered things around to talking about several topics I wanted to discuss.”

COVID-19 has effectively squelched opportunities for speaking at live events, which is another reason virtual book clubs are an attractive alternative. “Mysteries don’t have the convention opportunities that fantasy and science fiction have,” says Ardoin. “One of the more successful writers locally here in Sacramento sells a lot of books at ‘cons’ — he writes mostly fantasy and speculative fiction — and he performs scenes from the books as part of his conference-booth presentations. I was looking forward to attending Bouchercon this year (which is a mystery convention) and thought if there was an opportunity to do a booth there, I might do something similar… but then COVID-19 happened.” This year, Bouchercon is being conducted virtually.

“Every author’s journey is going to be different, because Author A’s readers are all hanging out at a different location than Author B’s readers,” Ardoin notes. “You must be open to trying new things and to take all the expert advice you hear with a grain of salt.”

Alpha Obsession boosts discovery and sales

Blending paranormal romance with steamy romance or erotica is part of the rocket fuel that propels the romance/erotica market, consistently the most prosperous genre in publishing. Alpha Obsession is a book club that delivers free books each month — based on a theme — to its subscribers.

Site administrator Liza Street credits Keira Blackwood as being the genius behind Alpha Obsession. The two have co-authored a recent title, Forever in Forbidden. I asked Liza about how the book club has helped authors reach new readers and grow their contact lists.

virtual book clubs“Alpha Obsession has been great for my newsletter,” says Liza. “When I add in our new book club members, the engagement rates of my automated welcome sequence go way up (as high as the engagement I get from organic subscribers), and I form one-on-one connections with those readers. The private Facebook group is another place where the AO authors are invited to interact with readers. During their feature months, we ask authors to post at least twice a week to encourage discussion about their featured book, as well as their other books and work in general. I also post memes or games related to shifter romance, so the book club doesn’t fall from anyone’s radar. We’re all allowed to share new releases in the group as long as we aren’t getting too spammy.”

This book club approach has been rewarding for the authors involved. “At the end of last year,” Liza continues, “we surveyed our AO authors. Seven out of ten responded. The average number of new subscribers (after unsubscribes) was in the thousands. One hundred percent of the respondents said they would recommend AO to other authors. They mentioned great engagement and clicks from the new subscribers, plus the benefits of reaching new readers while also having new content to share with existing fans each month.”

USA Today best-selling author Laura Greenwood has been featured in both 2019 and 2020. Greenwood says, “The main advantage of being part of Alpha Obsession is the quality of subscribers gained from it. Unsubscribes still happen, as can be expected, but the majority of the readers who have joined my lists have stuck around, and both click and buy. I also see a good amount of interest in the books mentioned in my welcome sequence. Interactions with readers via the Facebook reader group is something else that has a continuing benefit. It’s a different way to cross-promote, and I’ve found it pays off.”

Diverse viewpoints on The Virtual Book Channel

A variety of virtual literary communities are emerging to replace public events, especially those that normally take place in bookstores, creating new platforms for writers to reach readers. The Virtual Book Channel was created by Literary Hub and generates live-stream and archived programming. Episodes include book club talks, author readings, interviews, and conversations about literature.

The range of content is diverse, stimulating, and inspirational, offering varying perspectives and insights on how authors can gain visibility for their works. Rather than the formal structure common to most author interviews, group conversations let multiple authors exchange ideas about writing, literature, and career opportunities. “The Veeb,” as they call it, is an effective way to virtualize writer’s conferences, poetry readings, book festivals, and it even hosts a literary trivia game show.

Getting your book selected: Book clubs and other venues

There is no single path to getting your book chosen for a book club discussion or arranging a reading on any one of the many sites popping up in this area, but a few suggestions follow:

  • Concentrate most of your efforts on finding specialized book clubs that focus on your genre, whether fantasy, horror, romance, mystery, or humor. Generalized book clubs may have wider readership but also lessen the odds of getting selected.
  • Seek out virtual book clubs that may be affiliated with your local or nearby libraries, since these libraries are likely to highlight works by authors in the region.
  • Long timetables are common when getting your book selected. This could be anywhere from six months to a year in advance. Plan your media strategy around these timetables.
  • Offer discounts of your title to book club members to ensure wide circulation. A bulk sale of a paperback edition can be discounted to increase club member interest. Temporarily dropping an eBook price to 99¢ can generate a spike in sales, which can be beneficial to your sales ratings as well.
  • Make yourself available to book club hosts if they would like you to attend the book discussion meeting, perform a reading from the book, or participate in an interview, either with hosts or open-forum questions from members.
  • If your book is selected, take full advantage of the social media advertising benefits and tap into the added credibility this adds to your work. Let your followers know about this achievement.
  • Follow up politely through email or a social media channel, thanking those who read your book and encouraging them to post a review or to follow you on Facebook, Twitter, or another media site.

The energy and increase of book-related events in the virtual world can’t completely replace the more vibrant atmosphere of face-to-face presentations or a conference-hall event, but with some imagination, you can keep your book sales on an upward trajectory and enhance your readership.

Hybrid Author Game 
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2 COMMENTS

  1. As fate would have it, I just did a virtual book club meeting this last Sunday, and it was a tremendously positive experience! The half dozen or so club members stretched from the Great Plains to Canada. We were only scheduled for an hour but the question and answer went on for almost two hours!

    Highly recommend virtual book clubs!

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