During the past year of COVID isolation, many Indie Authors – indeed, most Indie Authors – have been forced to cancel plans for fairs, festivals, and bookshop signing events. For those of you who are unfamiliar, these events are the best way for Indie Authors to meet new readers, make (what we hope will be) a lasting connection, and sell books. These events are not only for the readers, but for the authors, too. It is a way for Indie Authors to network with other authors, gain valuable insight into craft concepts, marketing tips, and simply build new friendships with people who “get it”. One who writes, after all, is a specialized brand of unique. We talk with our imaginary friends regularly, and they tell us some of the most fascinating stories, that we are then compelled to record and share. People who don’t engage in this process may not fully understand. But the other writers – oh yeah – they get it. So, events where we can connect with both the storytellers and the readers of the world are critical to our sanity. One fuels the process to continue, the other legitimizes it.
Over the past year, I’ve been privileged to host three very different Virtual Book Festivals. Why? Because I noticed that Indie Authors needed another option for outreach. Because I noticed that readers were complaining about a lack of new book discovery. Because I missed my tribe. And, because I live by the philosophy that says, “You don’t get to complain if you don’t take action.” So, I jumped in the deep end, and launched headlong into what has been, and might become, one of the most positive community engagement opportunities I’ve ever done.
That first Virtual Book Festival, back in June of 2020, was a bit shaky, to say the least. Zoom was new technology to me, and I didn’t have what I would call a solid outline. I’d hosted in-person festivals in the past, and even produced fifty-four episodes of a TV program spotlighting and interviewing Indie Authors, but those are vastly different from entering into a digital world, attempting to achieve the same ends. I designed a loose format of interviews and readings, hoping that it would all work out. That first Virtual Book Festival simply reinforced the fact that, creatively, I cannot survive as a Pantser! I enjoy the flexibility structure offers… and the back up plan when things don’t go so smoothly. So I tried again in October.
The Autumn Virtual Book Festival was similar in many ways, but different, too. In my very Plotter nature, I made a plan, devised a theme, and tried to build games and prizes that supported the idea. Some of it went well, some of it didn’t. It turns out that there is indeed such a thing as over-planning, and over committing to too many subplots. It was a fun festival, with nearly sixty-five separate events, each author getting two days of airtime… but it was difficult to convey the core of the message – extraordinary books and authors – to readers, and it was exhausting for me. So, I did what I do with my writing, I enlisted the help of editors and beta readers that I trust, and I killed my darlings. After that process of evaluation, I figured, what the heck, I’ll take what I’ve learned, and try again in February. After all, one doesn’t stop writing simply because one doesn’t sell thousands of books with the first two offerings. And, I wasn’t doing anything in the middle of winter, anyway.
So, I revamped my plan. I reduced the number of events, scaling back to just one per day (instead of two or three), combined authors in genre groups, rather than in individual segments, and added an element of fun and mystery with a Blind Date marketing platform. To create a greater level of security, and (I hoped) to create a more welcoming (and less intimidating) interaction, I limited the onscreen video to presenting authors and backstage crew. I added mini-workshops to support aspiring writers and authors with their craft, and changed the contest/prize schema to once per day, rather than once per week, with three fun bonus prizes, and a super bonus prize for the really courageous who chose to be silly along the way. Again, some aspects of this festival were more effective and engaging than others, and I learned a lot. The most important lesson… what is a creative marketing hook for me, is a decisive challenge for others, even after I explain my vision. Will I ever do a Blind Date event again… perhaps not. It was a tricky wicket for some. However, not to be deterred completely, and because plotting is certainly my strength, even before February was over, I began planning for the June 2021 Virtual Book Festival… in the event that there was interest to continue from the authors. It turns out, there was some interest… so, onward ho!
Now, as I’ve once again launched my skiff into an unknown sea, I find myself in the doldrums of self-doubt and continuous creative self-recrimination. Am I actually providing a thing – writing a Festival Story – that people want? I know that my motives are equal parts selfishness in my own discovery of new authors and their books, and a sincere desire to help those in my tribe to be more successful and thrive in this unusual preoccupation we share. Yet, in the dead air of day, with the tell-tails laying flat against the canvas… I begin to hallucinate mirages of mutiny on the horizon. Yes, I’ve got cabin fever, as do a lot of us… but is that reason enough... is another Virtual Book Festival solution enough... to outweigh the investment of my, and everyone else’s, time, attention, and money? The promise I made to myself was that I would continue until I was told to stop… as with my writing.
And yet, one must consider the perspective that silence may also be the answer that should direct one’s action; at least until the voices are brave enough to deny and decry. After all, if it can happen to Dr. Suess, can’t it also happen to me? Is that a risk that’s worth taking in the promotion of myself? In my promotion of others? In my practice of writing?
I have set my sails, plotted my course, and made the commitment. Once more, I will cast my dock lines aside this June. Beyond that… the sea is a fickle mistress, and perhaps my time and energy as lighthouse keeper will become moot.
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