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San Diego authors, bookshops like Warwick’s in La Jolla adapt with virtual book tours amid coronavirus crisis

Author events draw crowds and spur sales. This one, in February 2020, featured thriller writer Meg Gardiner at Warwick's books in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Warwick’s)

Author events drive a lot of sales, which have fallen because of coronavirus

San Diego author Matthew Quirk’s new thriller, “Hour of the Assassin,” opens with the main character sneaking past armed guards and security cameras into the home of a former CIA director. Timing is everything.

Quirk’s timing? Unfortunate.

His book came out Tuesday, March 31, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic that’s confined people to their homes and closed most businesses, including bookstores.

He was supposed to start a nine-city, cross-country book tour. Instead he was at home, in front of his computer’s camera, talking about his work and answering questions through the virtual worlds of Zoom and Facebook Live.

“Nothing can replace going out on the road and meeting people face to face,” Quirk said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. But the outbreak happened so quickly, it’s forcing everyone to adapt on the fly.”

Author Matthew Quirk
(Mark Finkenstaedt)

His first “virtual book tour” event was with Warwick’s in La Jolla on Tuesday afternoon, March 31. He and Amanda Qassar, one of the store’s booksellers, who was at her home, too, had a video chat over the Internet, with the public able to watch at facebook.com/warwicksbooks

Quirk talked about his beginnings as a writer for Atlantic magazine, an earlier San Diego-based book (“Cold Barrel Zero”), and the challenges of researching thrillers that involve espionage and national security.

“Assassins,” he noted, “don’t take phone calls.”

There were technical glitches that interrupted the discussion several times. “This is much harder than hand selling (making book recommendations for individual readers),” Qassar said as she tried at one point to re-establish the connection between her computer and Quirk’s.

Still to be worked out: How to get hand-signed copies of “Hour of the Assassin” to video-chat watchers and readers who might otherwise have gone to an in-person event at the store. Before the coronavirus hit, Quirk had been scheduled to appear at Warwick’s Tuesday night, March 31 in conversation with crime novelist (and Fallbrook resident) T. Jefferson Parker.

Quirk’s tour schedule also includes online chats through Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wednesday, April 1; then Murder by the Book in Houston on Thursday, April 9. Also on Thursday, April 9, at 7 p.m., he’ll be on Facebook Live with Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.

“The good news,” he said, “is that we have this other way to stay connected with readers.” Also good: His publisher, William Morrow, is spending the money that would have gone for travel on advertising for the book.

‘The original social-distancers’

Quirk isn’t the only author whose tour plans have been upended.

Julian-area crime novelist Don Winslow was scheduled to make 19 stops across the country in April; in support of “Broken,” a collection of six novellas. Three are set in San Diego and several bring back characters from earlier books.

Five of his events so far have been moved online. “New world,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Never done this before but hope you will consider joining one of these events virtually. Please know I will sign any books personally on the next in-person tour. Stay home. Stay safe.”

Don Winslow
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Writers are better positioned than many artists to weather the pandemic. They already work by themselves, at home. “Authors are the original social-distancers,” Quirk said.

What they create is consumed in isolation, too, one person at a time. No auditoriums required. And the escalating stay-at-home orders nationwide are prompting some people to read more books.

But tours have long been a lucrative way to get the word out about a new book. Authors give short talks, answer questions, sign copies for readers, who sometimes buy not just the latest release, but earlier titles. And then the readers go home and talk about the author and the books with family and friends.

While authors are touring, they sometimes also draw media attention. Interviews or reviews in local newspapers and on websites. Appearances on morning TV shows and radio broadcasts. All that spreads the word, as well.

And for many independent bookstores, author events have been an important revenue source, helping to offset the financial erosion caused by Amazon and the lower-cost ease of online retailing. Authors bring people to stores and help create a sense of community, a gathering place, that many customers say they value.

When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, Warwick’s had 23 events scheduled through the end of the month, and another 21 in April. Now the calendar on the store’s website says “CANCELLED” over and over.

“Customer sales from book events are huge for us, as they are for a lot of stores,” said Julie Slavinsky, Warwick’s director of events. “We’re trying to navigate through all this, figure out how to support the authors, their publishers, and give the readers a chance to still interact, too.”

Like several other local stores, Warwick’s is filling orders online at warwicks.com and by phone (858) 454-0347, delivering books by mail or, in some cases, by hand. It plans to do more online author visits, and hopes those will translate into sales the way in-person appearances do. “People need to support the stores that are hosting these events,” she said.

But in the short-term, it’s about adjusting to the new normal.

“You feel for the authors who have put everything into a new book, and they’re ready to release it into the world, and then this happens,” Slavinsky said. “It’s tough for them. It’s tough for us. It’s tough for everybody.”