The Bookseller – Commentary – Did Zoom kill the author’s visit?

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Before the pandemic, I had only used video conferencing twice. The first time was a misguided attempt to show my dear deceased grandmother her last great-grandchild, which resulted in a long conversation with her right ear. The second was with an international school in Poland with which, in our enthusiasm to break down geographical boundaries, we failed to establish whether we spoke the same geographical language. Although pleasantly, “you’re muted” was already internationally communicable at the time.

Clinging to the positives of the past two years, they’ve certainly dragged Luddite technophobes like me, if not up to date, certainly closer to about 2011. Schools too, institutions that (through no fault of their own) tend to not being inundated with tech, had to get up to speed quickly with video conferencing in order to do the incredibly good job they’ve been doing educating our young people. There may be few industries that haven’t been touched by the Zoom/Teams/Meet revolution and while I miss the human touch of 3D meetings, there’s a guilty bourgeois luxury to lead much of your life. professional in pajama bottoms.

As physical author/illustrator tours continue to prove everything between impractical and impossible thanks to school budgets and seething measures, virtual tours have come into their own. There are many advantages for the creator and the school: no travel, no accommodation, they are accessible, shorter, easier to organize and execute, fit better into a school day, creators can visit schools across the country – across the world – with ease and most importantly, they are cheaper for everyone involved and pose no risk of infection. And, as noted above, outdoor clothing is optional below the navel.

But they are not as lucrative. And they just aren’t the same.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the virtual tour is that book sales don’t happen “in the room.” While sales shouldn’t be the sole focus of a paid school visit, they’re not half of a useful social benefit.

In a highly scientific Twitter poll I recently conducted, out of 96 respondents, 46% of creators said that, compared to pre-pandemic times, they were doing more virtual than physical visits. Only 5.2% made more in-person visits, with 11.5% saying about the same. Rather worryingly, 37% said they were doing less of one or the other. With visits making up a major, if not the majority, portion of creator revenue, few of us can afford not to re-evaluate our business models with this in mind.

One of the biggest downsides to the virtual tour is that book sales don’t happen “in the room.” While sales shouldn’t be the sole focus of a paid school visit, they’re not half of a useful social benefit. I’ve spoken with many creators about post-Zoom sales enticement, none have yet found a winning formula. I’m sure we would all be very interested to hear from someone who has.

However, this point requires a major reservation. Book sales at physical visits have always been hit or miss at the best of times and I feel it even more after the pandemic. Understandably, booksellers are increasingly unwilling or simply unable to provide staff and stock for these capricious events. I’ve seen a big shift towards pre-orders, which while convenient, are rarely as profitable as a physical post-event sale. And in these austere times, everyone is feeling the pinch – books can be seen as a luxury that schools feel unable to ask their parents to fund.

It’s no surprise that schools are opting for tours that are a fraction of the cost and administration. It’s a wonderful development that a school without a budget for a physical visit from an author can now be able to convey that author directly into the classrooms enjoying their books. Once Year 6’s Charlie sorts out the sound, these tours can be a joyous way to connect with readers around the world, without the creators enduring the vagaries of travel and the insidious purple glow of the Premier Inn.

Resigned to the fact that the milk-and-honey days of physical school visits might well be behind me, I reframed this part of my job from a sales tool to paying public relations. I set aside one day a week and do three 45-minute virtual tours that day, which cost me nothing and earn me income. I can talk to a class on a call, I can talk to 14 different schools – anyway, that’s more people who heard about my books than people who knew about them over breakfast. We creators never count sales “outside the room” – who knows who then comes home and orders your book, or spots it in a bookstore, or asks for it for Christmas? Just this term, I believe I’ve talked to over three thousand kids online, which isn’t bad communication. Although come to think of it, a few more Premier Inn hash browns would have been nice.

Did Zoom kill the author’s visit? I think that’s probably the case. Is this entirely a bad thing? For now at least, I’m on mute.

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