The Virtual Author Talk: How to, and How Not To
Sure, the times are weird in CovidWorld, but we’re all making the best of it. One of those make-the-best-of-it structures is the virtual author talk. I’ve done a few virtual author events so far, and attended quite a few more, and have some thoughts about them. I won’t talk about choice of digital platform, since I’m a dope about such matters. I have thought, however, about how the basic author talk is not a great fit for the virtual format, and how to adapt it.
The basics are the same as for your Zoom meetings and virtual cocktail hours: (i) bust out a a decent item of clothing for your upper body (you can change out of it as soon as the talk is over); (ii) Place the camera a little above your face, shooting down, which is ALWAYS more flattering than a closeup of your double chins; (iii) light yourself, or do our really live in a cave?; (iv) reinforce your message with background props, including your own books, whiskey bottles, or whatever is important to your public and self images.
But, on to thoughts specially for the virtual book talk:
- A single talking head gets old/dull pretty quick. A Q&A format is livelier and easier to watch. When I’m in front of a live audience, I can gesture and point. Even walk around. The people in the audience can shift their gaze from me to the screen where I’m showing an image, and back. But the virtual environment doesn’t allow any range of activity for the single speaker and not so much the chance for shifting views (more on this below). Also, a conversation can be engaging to listen in on. Two voices! And overhearing others is sort of a guilty pleasure. Finally, the Q&A format allows for audience questions (submitted through the “chat” function), which helps engage the audience.
- I love using Powerpoint images in talks to live audiences, but I find them less helpful in the virtual space. Most images, because they’re static, become boring very quickly. In a live talk, folks usually look at the image on the screen, but their eyes quickly come back to me. I can see it. In the virtual space, viewers can get stuck with the image onscreen and this disembodied voice yammering away, maybe from planet Neptune. I am okay with showing a couple of images through a virtual talk so long as they are of particular importance, and so long as the view quickly returns to the speaker.
- The audience can be larger (infinite?) online. My church has found that at its online services are better attended than when they were in-person. But because people have less invested in attending the virtual event, not having had to travel or even get out of their sweatpants, they may bail out quickly if the event starts slow, or glitchily. Start strong. Don’t be dull.
- That lower-audience-investment factor also may contribute to the widely-reported phenomenon that book sales at virtual events are lower. You can do a buy-the-book button for Amazon, or for Bookshop.org,, or any other vendor, but you can’t make peoplespend. Some folks are experimenting with requiring a book purchase to attend the talk, or requiring an upfront payment. Not every author can impose those conditions. If you can, mazel tov!
- It’s important to have a “shakedown cruise” between the sponsor and the program participants before the event happens. Technical screw-ups are extremely annoying and may sink the whole effort.
- Preserve your book talks on YouTube, or on the host organization’s website, which gives them a longer life. I did one event that had nearly 200 viewers, which was great. After being posted online, the viewership rose to more than 300. It’s the ultimate convenience to watch whenever you like, in your underwear, from home.
Are virtual events sub-optimal? Oh, yeah. It’s one more piece of our workaround life. I miss the buzz of a live audience — my author talks are not usually confused with Game 7 of the World Series, but they’re still EVENTS. I miss the chance to gauge the response of the audience by their posture or laughter or (worst case) snoring. I miss the chance to chat with old and new friends afterward. But it’s what we’ve got.
So, what do you like, or not like, about the virtual events? How can we all get better at them?
When the Washington Biography Group moved from in-person meetings to Zoom meetings, we lost a few regulars from the standard meetings but gained participants from as far away as Hawaii — including members who used to attend but had moved. And Nancy Thorndike Greenspan’s talk about her book Atomic Spy: The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs was as interesting in that format as it would have been live, I think, and I think it was easier to ask questions. I don’t know how many copies of the book she sold, but it was a selling talk — I really wanted to know more.
We also had one member participate who still had Covid-19 — and who told us a little about the experience. So there are definite plusses to online gatherings, which I think COULD draw bigger audiences for some books/authors.