Social media gets a bad rap. I have a complicated relationship with apps and have spent time assessing how I interact with certain websites so they’re beneficial to my life rather than disruptive. I agree with the wider world that we need to reconsider the role that technology plays in society (Instagram influencers and Twitter ranters, I’m looking at you). But it also has the power to connect us globally when it’s impossible to be together physically. The good side, the one that isn’t hawking weight loss products to kids, allows us to feel less alone.
We’re currently in the middle of a global pandemic where it’s imperative to stay indoors. People are being urged to work from home where possible and the only way we can communicate with friends and loved ones outside of our houses is by phone or social media. Meetings are going digital (proving that, yes, that two-hour briefing could have been an email), and we’re turning to online retailers to buy supplies as well as using internet resources for PE classes.
But what are the implications for industries that rely on personal contact? While online retail giants have a monopoly on book sales, the literary trade relies, for the most part, on face-to-face events such as literary festivals, author Q&As and book launches to promote new titles. So what happens when an author is due to launch their book during a global crisis? Well, they cancel the physical event, of course. What happens next? And how do we continue to support authors and publishers from the safety of our homes? The answer is social media.
One such author is Sarah Jasmon whose latest novel, You Never Told Me was set to launch at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation last weekend. The event also coincided with Jasmon’s 50th birthday celebrations. But as news of the increasing risk of exposure to COVID-19, the launch was cancelled and, interestingly, moved online to Facebook.
I joined the live stream with someone who was also due to attend the event. We squeezed onto his sofa (next to his lightly snoring elderly dog), each clutching a mug of tea. It was hardly the night out in Manchester that we were looking forward to, but there’s something novel about attending a book launch dressed in joggers and slipper socks.
It felt more intimate than a more traditional launch. I’ve attended a number of online gatherings (things like joint yoga and meditation classes, meetings and courses) via tools such as Facebook Live and Zoom, and I’ve always been surprised by the warmth of the calls. Jasmon is an excellent storyteller and there was something comforting about listening to her speak from a laptop, much like being told a bedtime story. It also prompted us to pay closer attention to the words as there were fewer distractions (and squeaky mics).
Speaking to Northern Soul, Jasmon said: “It really did feel like everyone was there, as well, and I’d maybe even choose it above a physical one.”
The Q&A portion of the evening came via the chat box included in a Facebook Live stream (for those who might not be familiar with the tool, it appears automatically when you choose to connect to the live feed) and people quickly tapped out questions for Jasmon to answer. It was an enjoyable experience particularly because I was snaffling a box of Maltesers without fear of judgement.
Not content with harnessing the power of the internet to launch her book, Jasmon pitched another idea to her team and Books from the Boat, a Facebook page where Jasmon will continue to read parts of You Never Told Me to a live audience. “My editor was super enthusiastic about the idea of reading the book out a chapter at a time,” she said. “So, I’m going to do it. There’s a Facebook page where it’s all happening, but I’ll also look into putting it on YouTube for non-Facebook users. It’s an interesting avenue.”
The literary community in the North has always been collaborative and supportive, so it comes as no surprise that a global pandemic would spur its members to discover innovative and mostly digital ways to support writers, publishers and organisations.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor