What you need to know about Zoom launch events: interview with Bettye Kearse

Tell us about your book:

BK: According to my family’s oral history, I am the great-great-great-great granddaughter of President James Madison and an enslaved woman named Corrine.  The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family traces my family’s history from the antebellum south to present-day Virginia, Texas, and California and investigates this story, which echoes with the abuses of slavery.

Your publication date was March 24, just as the Coronavirus crisis was breaking out in the U.S. and the day the stay-at-home order was issued in New Mexico, where you live. You had a launch event scheduled for that day. What did you have planned, and how did those plans change?

BK: Originally I had a book tour set up with visits to 8 venues in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Atlanta, Sarasota, Sacramento, Oakland, Charlottesville and Boston.  Most of the events got postponed due to Coronavirus, but a couple of them, including my Santa Fe launch event hosted by Collected Works Bookstore & Coffee House, moved online using Zoom.

I’m grateful for the outstanding job Collected Works did. They took a number of steps that helped make the event a great success and brought in an audience of 100 people. They announced the event to the store’s mailing list, which is pretty big. They posted about it on Facebook in advance and did a live Facebook stream at the same time as the Zoom event. 

What were the advantages to doing the event online?

BK: One big plus is that 100 people is probably more than the number that would have attended an in-person event since many of my friends and family from the east and west coasts could also join.  

Another is that Collected Works simultaneously live streamed the event on Facebook, and later kept the link posted its Facebook page so people can still watch it and share it.  I did the same. So far, it’s gotten about 900 views.

What was the format, and how did it compare to a traditional book launch format?

BK: The Bookstore’s event producer Cecile Lipworth moderated a conversation between Sherri Burr, author of Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia, 1619 – 1865, and me. That’s a little different than the traditional launch format where the author is the only speaker, but it made the event all the more powerful. People submitted questions through the Zoom chat function, and Cecile read the questions aloud.

Being on Zoom did not fundamentally change the conversation, and I could see both Cecile and Sherri but not the audience. 

How did people buy the book?

BK: The bookstore is set up to take orders through Bookshop.org, which provides local bookstores with an online ordering platform. I hope as many people as possible ordered directly through the bookstore to help support it, but of course, everyone was free to purchase from whichever vendor they preferred.  As of now, it’s too early to see what the sales impact was since I have not yet gotten numbers from my publisher.

How did it feel to be holding your launch event remotely?

BK: Before it was cancelled, I was really excited for the live event.  So many people I know were planning to be there: friends, family, writing group buddies.  Many of them had a part in the book from having read drafts or talked with me about it for all these years, so it would have been nice for us to share in the joy together face to face.  And I’d ordered this amazing cake designed with the book cover plus matching napkins and paper plates.  That was adding to the excitement and anticipation.

It was also a little strange talking to the camera and not to people.  It feels a little like you’re daydreaming.  But I still enjoyed the experience and was glad to connect with my friends and community as best as possible.

I am still hoping to hold some of the in-person events that were originally scheduled–maybe to mark the book’s one-year anniversary in 2021.

What did you learn?

BK: Now that circumstances have led me to use Zoom, I’ve seen that it’s a wonderful way to connect with and reach people without travel.  And it’s so easy.  You can put on your best top and not worry about whether you’re wearing jeans or how they look.  You can be anywhere you want to be–even your car– and still reach people.  You can also do things internationally.

I think remote events can and should be added into the mix of things authors do when they’re launching a book.  Do hold the traditional in-person launch events once Coronavirus has died down, but in addition to those, Zoom away!

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