In February 2020, I began to plan the launch event for my latest novel, Falcon’s Shadow. I’d envisioned an actual gathering where we could be in the same room, high-five, clink a glass, share a laugh.
Apart from my wedding, I had no experience planning an event.
Enter Certified Special Event Professional, Julie Danaylov. With her guidance, I contacted venues in and around Toronto, made a budget, petitioned sponsors, developed a theme, set a date, and ordered promotional material.
But the pandemic had other plans. So, I adapted mine—as everyone has adapted theirs.
With the many restrictions (rightfully) in place, I’d have to take the launch of Falcon’s Shadow online—unless I opted to hang out in the backyard with my husband and dog and pass drinks to my neighbours through the trellis in our fence.
BookBub posted a timely article about the many strategies authors have been using to promote their work in the time of COVID-19. Examples included Zoom parties, Instagram Live, Twitter Chat, and Facebook Live.
Also, like many writers, I’m self-conscious and did not relish the idea of delivering a monologue to a camera for any great length.
Well, get over yourself, Me.
If I’ve learned anything these past few months, it’s how valuable and rewarding it is to engage with readers through social media platforms.
Despite my discomfort with speaking on camera, I’ve navigated Facebook with relative ease for over a decade, so for my first attempt at a virtual book launch, Facebook would be my chosen platform. The site offers a reasonably simple way to use the power of video to reach an audience in real-time and cultivate authentic relationships with fans.
Moreover, I had experience with Facebook Live, having used it for the final push as my first novel, Eight Pointed Cross, inched closer and closer to number one on Amazon’s bestseller list.
The moment Eight Pointed Cross achieved that milestone, I live-streamed my giddy gratitude to everyone who contributed to my novel’s ranking. I gushed for several blindingly joyful minutes, only to realize after ending the broadcast that my mic had not picked up the slightest note.
A good lesson about the importance of a sound-check.
Once I determined the medium, I needed to create an action plan.
I ended up with a novel-length to-do list.
For a Facebook Live?
Although a virtual book launch seems simple enough, there’s much to consider, organize, and carry out.
Also, Facebook Live has features I’d need to learn and understand to maximize the experience and reach, such as pre-scheduling a launch, deciding whether to broadcast from my personal or business page, and whether to make it “friends only” or public.
The structure of an event matters. How would it flow? What is an appropriate length for such a broadcast? What should I say? Do I just speak off-the-cuff? Then what? How would I fill the time?
Some people are highly skilled at improvisation. I am not one of those people. Hitting “Go Live” and winging it would result in an unmitigated gong-show.
I’d need to keep viewers interested the entire time because we wouldn’t be at some venue with an open bar—although I do encourage a raiding of personal liquor cabinets.
We’ve all had lengthy, incoherent, cringe-worthy wedding speeches inflicted upon us. And at least most weddings have—you guessed it—an open bar.
The solution? Draft a meaningful script.
Unless… would I have to memorise the thing?
Couldn’t I just stand in front of the laptop and read my speech off a page? If I’d held an actual gathering, I’d get to read my opening remarks. Isn’t this the same?
I called Julie.
Few people are as generous with their time and willing to help others. Humber College’s journalism program introduced us in 2000, and we’ve been good friends since. Unlike me, she pursued a career in the field and worked in broadcasting before branching off to become a successful entrepreneur.
Then, as now, all I cared about was writing stories. I had no idea about the other pieces involved in this puzzle—marketing, promotion, business, how not to look stupid on camera.
Julie is a pro at ALL that stuff.
And as always, she had the perfect solution.
Use a teleprompter.
I signed up for an account with the online teleprompter EasyPrompter, which has free and paid options. I used the free one. I fed the program my script and practised my delivery—timing, nuances, cadence, tone.
The speed at which the script rolls is adjustable, so I played around until I achieved a comfortable, breathable pace.
The word PAUSE appears throughout my speech as a reminder to take a breath and avoid racing through. I just had to remember not to read PAUSE aloud.
The use of an online teleprompter also serendipitously solved another problem for me: I wouldn’t have to stare at my own face for 45 straight minutes.
All the preparation is for nought if the script falls flat.
For me, the goal of the launch was to connect with viewers, engage them, move them, make them laugh, and ultimately, inspire them to buy books.
Storytelling is innate. As natural and reflexive as breathing. Human nature.
Personal experiences, anecdotes, and inspirations are the best methods by which to establish a connection.
Self-deprecating humour, when properly used, is also highly effective.
Avoid the false or stuttering start. Although I’d hoped people would tune in to my live-stream, research shows that most views come after. The replay has roughly three seconds to grab someone’s attention. Starting with, “Um, hi… uh, can you hear me? Okay… So…. Let’s wait a few seconds for more viewers…kay… so… hi….” is not going to hold anyone’s attention.
Once I hit Go Live, I counted down from five and opened my launch with the story of the precise moment the inspiration to write the Siege of Malta trilogy struck: “In July 2000, I travelled to Malta for a pre-college vacation…”
Then, I welcomed viewers and thanked them for tuning in—and really, the audience deserves deep gratitude because there truly is no greater gift a person can give someone than his or her time and attention.
That said, it’s wise to keep thank yous to a minimum. No one wants to sit through a list of fifty thank yous to strangers—it’s boring. Rather than thank every historian, writer, editor, or friend by name during the Live, I thanked them personally in the preface of my novel, preferable anyway due to its permanence.
A giveaway can also serve as an excellent hook.
Weeks before my launch, I asked subscribers to submit a book-related question and promised to enter their names in a draw for a signed copy of the paperback upon its release.
This approach provided some unexpected benefits. The questions I received indicated what the audience wanted to know, helping me further shape my script. And, the giveaway also gave viewers more incentive to stick around until the end for the announcement of the winner.
To keep things moving on a (hopefully) interesting trajectory, I detailed unusual experiences I had while researching my novels, from falling ill with heatstroke in an attempt to “method-write” to accidentally becoming a certified archery instructor as I pursued authentic characterization.
I also shared travel adventures (and misadventures) and discussed the real people (and dogs) behind some of my favourite characters.
And so that viewers weren’t stuck watching a talking-head the whole time, I included some artefacts and documents to show—my frangipani tree adoption papers, my beat-up notebook, my bottle of Bottega…
Between stories, I wove in calls-to-action.
As uncomfortable as it makes me to ask people for things, the goals of the launch are to promote and sell books, garner reviews, and gain subscribers.
Most fans want to help support an author they like, and they appreciate actionable ways they can help.
In my closing remarks, I repeated the calls-to-action—please sign up for my newsletter, grab a copy of my novel, post a positive review, share this video.
- I kicked off the event with the inspiration behind my trilogy
- Welcomed and thanked my viewers
- Included calls-to-action
- Shared research, travel, and other personal stories
- Responded to pre-submitted questions
- Announced the winner of the signed book giveaway
- Repeated the calls-to-action
- Said goodnight and had a glass of wine
This blooper reel signifies the importance of practising. Also, it’s amusing.
I wrote, revised, and re-revised my script.
Then, I practised that shit. A lot.
One of the main lessons I took away from the countless videos and webinars is that eye-contact is vital—look at and speak to the camera, otherwise, I’d come across like a shady weirdo.
Also, few things seem less authentic than mindlessly reading a script. I needed to ingrain my remarks enough that the teleprompter would serve only as a quick reference in case I stumbled.
I wrote the script as close to a natural conversation as possible—as natural as a one-sided conversation could sound.
For example, I avoid contractions when I write formally. But when speaking, it comes across as wooden and stiff, the way I sounded when my fifth-grade French teacher forced me to memorise a speech and recite it to the entire school.
I turned to the pros and watched TEDtalks. Damn, those speakers are incredibly skilled—engaging, confident, insightful, passionate, and funny without trying.
If only I could harness and channel all that.
As the days passed, my nerves began to fray. The notion of speaking to so many people at the same time tripped me up.
I decided to focus on one person, someone with whom I’m comfortable chatting, rather than an audience of one thousand. And depending on the subject matter, I could change who that person was—maybe I’d tell Joanna the carpet-seller story but tell Ruben about my heatstroke debacle.
The strategy would prevent the constant practice from robbing the event of spontaneity and improv. It also eased my tension because I’m never nervous conversing with __________.
Since the outset of COVID-19, my husband Brad has worked from home in the office formerly known as my writing space. Practising my script presented a challenge. I wanted him to experience the launch like everyone else, to be surprised by what I had to say, including the fact that I’d dedicated Falcon’s Shadow to him.
My solution? Whisper-practicing. Not the most effective method, but at least I familiarized myself with the words and their flow.
I created a private Facebook page on which to practice and get comfortable with the technology and delivery of my remarks. Julie, kind soul that she is, offered to critique—it’s hugely beneficial to have a trusted, knowledgeable friend offer constructive feedback.
As a result of all my whisper-practising, I sounded too breathy. I needed to speak from my diaphragm, not my throat because I came across one-note and tired.
Speaking from the diaphragm… so, like Satan in the Conjuring?
A very talented friend and colleague, Melissa Mancini, worked in theatre for many years and currently teaches high school drama. When I approached her with my voice-projection dilemma, she graciously invited me to her home and provided incredible, insightful voice-training sessions that helped me not only control but use my breath.
Thanks to Melissa’s coaching, I learned to speak in a way that conveys confidence and volume without sounding overly-rehearsed or like I was shouting.
For homework, she assigned some tongue-twisters, like unique New York x5, red-leather-yellow-leather x5, toy-boat x5. I recited them in my car and at home. Pretty sure my dog thought I’d lost my mind as I sat on the couch in lotus-pose performing tongue-twisters at top volume.
With a week to go before the launch, Brad and I escaped to a lake for the day. I paddle-boarded while he kayaked, and I fell behind as I often do.
The distance proved an unexpected gift—an excellent opportunity to incorporate my new breathing techniques into the recitation of my script.
To my astonishment, I had memorised the entire thing! I almost did a backflip on my SUP—but that would have ended with a fractured skull.
Another aspect of my virtual book launch that required planning and consideration was the setting.
I considered hosting my Live in the backyard. I have a pretty garden. Of course, there’s the risk of the people down the street blasting 80’s ballads as they tend to do. Or the sun shining too bright. Or rain. Oh dear, what if the kids with the swimming pool start shrieking as seems their preferred form of communication?
What about my dog? I’d like to include him. He’s handsome and amusing, and I did base a character on him, after all. But what if he gets bored and starts to howl or goes after (and catches!) a rabbit mid-broadcast?
Clearly, I knew nothing—like, less than Jon Snow.
I researched how best to stage a live-stream and learned about the importance of stellar lighting, of reducing echo and clutter and distractions. That eliminated the outdoors.
My writing space/Brad’s office would work—it has perfect lighting with its three lofty, south-facing windows, and it houses my desk and floating bookshelves.
With the location determined, all that remained was setting it up to see what fit into frame and how to position the standing banner that was meant to be on display at my (physical) launch.
I completed several test runs, which resulted in the addition and removal of objects. Nothing in frame is accidental. Everything is intentional.
I placed my laptop up on a box so I could angle the camera slightly down and fit all the things I wanted to appear in my video.
Based on recommendations from successful YouTubers and other social media mavens, I bought a ring light.
The thing is magic.
Initially, I assumed I’d need a giant one to fit my laptop, but a small, affordable ring light proved just as effective—and saved me a considerable amount of money.
One thing I hadn’t considered was my chair. As mentioned, I created a practice page on Facebook so I could do run-throughs of my Live and tweak as necessary. The first time I managed a complete run of the entire script, I felt confident, but when I watched it back, something felt… off. Annoying, even.
Then, I realized: the twisty chair.
It’s impossible to sit in a twisty chair and not twist. I twisted and twisted throughout my entire presentation. Insufferable to watch. Yet something I didn’t even register that I was doing at the time.
Twisty chair, gone.
This further reinforces the importance of practising—had I not done so, I’d have gone Live twisting myself into oblivion and irritating the heck out of viewers.
Despite the love I have for my dog, I decided not to directly involve him. Beyond my concern that he might be disruptive out of boredom, I had to consider how I’d angle the laptop camera to capture him, assuming I could even get him to sit still for ten seconds. Instead, I held up a picture of him as I spoke of his contributions to my work. Maybe I’ll shoot a separate video at some point that features the heroics of “Louie, Husky Avenger.”
Engaging the audience is critical. No one enjoys being talked at for three-quarters of an hour.
The amount and nature of interaction can be worked out during the planning and practice stages.
In addition to personal stories, expressing gratitude, holding a giveaway, and including calls-to-action, it’s a good idea to leave enough wiggle-room in the script for viewer engagement and questions.
To encourage participation, I initially planned to field viewer questions live. However, having attended a few FB Live events beforehand, I realized how difficult such an undertaking might be.
Comments are hard to follow in real-time, even as a viewer, let alone as the host. They move so quickly up the screen. I get all tangled up. But I wanted audience participation. So, as mentioned, I solicited questions ahead of the event.
Of the dozens that came in, I selected six that would offer the most profound responses. And, this is also where I tied in the aforementioned giveaway—I’d randomly select someone from a draw of people who sent in questions and send the winner a free, signed paperback of Falcon’s Shadow.
I boosted engagement by asking the audience questions and having them respond by clicking emojis or dropping a comment. This also provided me with a second to take a quick sip of water.
Audience participation far exceeded what I’d hoped for—people engaged not only with me but with each other, something the algorithm gods favour.
I fiddle with my hair. A lot. If it’s loose I braid it, unravel it, put it up, take it down… So for my FB Live, I knew I’d have to keep the urge to meddle with my hair at a minimum, hence the side-braid, off my face, out of my way.
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t wear makeup.
Chapstick is about as fancy as I get. I wore less on my wedding day than some people wear to the mall. But, since I was going to be on camera, I figured I should put some on—and by some, I mean foundation and concealer, mascara and lip gloss, all the stuff that frankly, freaks me out.
And due to COVID-19, aestheticians were not allowed to work, so that meant I had to figure out my eyebrows, which I’d ignored throughout the pandemic because who cares?
As for clothes, solid colours tend to show up better. Stripes or polka dots can make the camera do screwy things.
Promotion is a critical aspect of any event, whether live or virtual.
I admit, self-promotion is not my favourite thing to do—I think most writers want to focus on craft exclusively. Unfortunately, marketing is imperative, perhaps now more than ever.
But it can be a lot of fun once you start to understand how to navigate this initially intimidating landscape.
There’s no magic formula, despite the promises from thousands of marketing professionals.
A lot comes down to trial and error—and success.
Educating myself was key—a year ago, I didn’t even know what SEO meant… I have watched more webinars and instructional YouTube videos in the past six months than I have in my 40 years combined.
Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn were my platforms of choice. Also, one of the single most useful tools in a writer’s stash is an email list, which I constantly work to grow. Subscribers want to hear from me and are most likely to respond to calls-to-action and participate in events.
At Julie’s suggestion, I asked friends to host “watch parties” of my event on Facebook.
My Alma Mater, Humber College, got in touch and recommended I schedule my virtual launch and make it public so I could generate a link for promotional purposes—such a great idea!
Thanks to that link, Humber College, the Humber School for Writers, Maltese Consulates, and tourist sites across Malta promoted my launch and shared it on their social platforms.
An unexpected and amazing outcome was connecting with Darcie Friesen Hossack, fellow HSW alumna and gifted Canadian author of Mennonites Don’t Dance, shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Without even knowing me, she promoted my virtual launch on her social platforms. Having the support of such a profoundly beautiful, highly acclaimed writer was nothing short of galvanizing.
The Day Of
July 7, 2020—the last time I anticipated a date with this much excitement was my wedding, nine years earlier.
I started the morning by taking the dog for a long walk and reciting my script to him as we pounded the pavement—he’s mentioned throughout, so I don’t think he minded. I then rolled out my yoga mat for a revitalizing Zoom yoga session which I’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic shutdown. Big, heartfelt thanks to deeply thoughtful instructor Leandra Antonutti for tailoring the class to calm my frazzled nerves.
I practised my tongue-twisters and dropping my breath (belly-breathing). Folded a bunch of laundry and emptied the dishwasher and watered the garden.
In the early afternoon, I set up my station, made sure I positioned the ring light properly, placed my glasses of water within reach, and spread out my props in the order I’d need them.
Now to do one more rehearsal on my private Facebook group page to work out any remaining kinks.
And that’s when disaster struck.
The playback made it seem I was filming during an earthquake—shaky, distorted, fragmented. But why? The laptop camera was immobile and secure.
I made six or seven attempts, with the same, disconcerting results.
Really? An hour before my launch?
Before panic took over, I realized my internet connection had dropped. Once I restarted the computer, the camera worked like a dream.
The lesson here is always, always check the tech.
As the time for my virtual launch approached, I drank my energy fizz (because God help me if I yawned during my broadcast) and I cranked some hype music to get amped.
At 6:29 pm, I breathed deep, waited for the clock to indicate 6:30 and hit GO LIVE NOW.
Full disclosure: this video has been modified slightly from the live broadcast. I added images to illustrate certain references.
I cannot stress the importance of a back-up video enough.
Not only is it a fail-safe in the event of a technical issue, but filming a back-up provides the opportunity to shoot multiple takes and pick the best one. It also allowed me to film in sections, rather than do the whole thing in one shot.
I recorded my back-up video two weeks before my launch. I wore the same thing, did my hair and makeup the same, and set up the stage exactly as planned for the actual event, that way, if I had to interrupt my live broadcast due to tech issues, the back-up could be seamlessly transitioned in.
Notice the similarities? What’s different is the winner announcement, which I saved for the actual event because I didn’t want to pull the name before July 7.
Also, I have better hair in the back-up video.
Though I’d underestimated the amount of preparation that goes into a virtual launch, it paid off in ways I never imagined.
The Live, which ran for about forty-five minutes total, garnered several thousand views and pushed my book back into the number one bestseller spot. Shortly after the virtual launch, both my novels occupied number one and two spots on the list.
Most of all, I loved the interaction. Audience engagement surpassed my every hope. The replay continues to be shared and watched globally.
The launch allowed me a wonderful opportunity to connect with people who would have been otherwise unable to attend an actual event—those overseas and those quarantined or in self-isolation due to COVID-19.
In addition to Canada and the Continental US, I’ve received lovely emails from viewers in Malta, Australia, England, South Africa, Puerto Rico, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
While I plan to hold a book launch for the third and final instalment of my Siege of Malta trilogy, I had such fun and success with the virtual event that I will host another as a complement to the in-person launch, and open-bars be damned.
Writers interested in consulting with me further about planning and executing a virtual book launch, I am available to help you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my Work with Me page for more information. You can also book a consultation through my scheduling page on Calendly.