Societal shifts created by COVID-19 are posing both challenges and possibilities for local authors.

According to an article in Publisher’s Weekly, despite the pandemic, unit sales of print books held up somewhat well in the first quarter of the year, following the trend of other recent economic downturns. Despite the Great Recession, book unit sales rose from 760 million in 2007 to 807 million in 2012. While demand for books has been historically shaky, Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD Books, told Publisher’s Weekly that demand spiked between March 1 and April 4 in book genres touching on outdoor skills, medical history and games and activities. Print unit sales in the juvenile nonfiction and fiction segments were also up within that time compared to 2019, with juvenile nonfiction being seen as having done particularly well.

The pandemic has also changed where people buy books, according to Publisher’s Weekly, with print sales at online retailers growing since March 1 and sales at physical retailers declining.

Promotional work a challenge

Though the increase in time many are spending at home can allow for more writing, in-person events and human interaction sometimes needed to spark creative minds have been shelved.

Northfielder Joy Riggs published her book “Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man” in 2019. In a typical year, she would be heavily promoting her work and had plans to do so this summer and fall, but, due to the pandemic, her last event was in March at Northfield Rotary Club.

Even then, Riggs remembered telling the audience of the impact the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic had on her great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs. This year in Northfield, the Vintage Band Festival, considered one of the premier events on the summer calendar in Northfield, was canceled due to COVID-19.

“That was one of those examples where music helps,” Riggs said.

Fellow Northfielder Susan Hvistendahl collaborated with Jeff Sauve on the historical 2019 book “Milestones and Memories of the St. Olaf Band 1891-2018.” Their work chronicled the ascendant path of the St. Olaf Band from its founding in 1891 to a 94-piece band that undertook a concert tour of New Zealand and Australia in 2018.

Prior to the pandemic, Hvistendahl and Sauve hosted promotional events at Winter Walk and on Feb. 20, but further outreach was hampered the following month due to the pandemic.

Hvistendahl and Riggs have still promoted their books on YouTube but miss the interaction and connections formed during in-person promotional efforts.

“It’s a challenge to get the word out about the books,” Hvistendahl said.

“It’s tough,” Riggs added of book promotional work during COVID-19. “It was challenging before.”

Owatonna author Chris Norbury shared similar sentiments. An author of two self-published fiction mystery thrillers in a series set in Minnesota and a contributor to another short story, he spoke of the extensive in-person schedule he had in the spring before the pandemic resulted in the cancellation of a dozen events.

Norbury, who published his first book in April 2016 and his second in February 2019, is working on the first draft of his third story in the series.

He said he initially felt less interest in taking a few hours at a time to write during the pandemic because of the related mass shutdowns of in-person dining at coffee shops and other places to combat the spread of the virus.

He also found it difficult to write because he would find himself constantly distracted and worried about possibly contracting COVID-19. At the same time, Norbury, an older author, was tasked with changing his marketing tactics and engaging more on social media, a development he said was made more difficult by his age. Still, he has found online connections, including an online book club he participates in with a friend from Ecuador.

Now, as October nears, Norbury is again able to work in coffee shops and feels slightly less stressed about the pandemic. He is meeting with a live, in-person book club at a private Owatonna residence and will participate in an outdoor event at a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota fundraiser from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 545 Dunnell Drive. Norbury, a volunteer with the organization, contributes a percentage of the profits from each book sold to Big Brothers Big Sisters and will set up a table in the evenings.

To Norbury, the pandemic could result in more fantasy books being published as people seek a mental escape from the extensive societal changes brought on by the pandemic.

“It keeps me going, and it’s a good way to interact with people and keep my mind sharp,” he said of writing during COVID-19.

Since the pandemic started, the authors have still tried to promote their books while shuffling other responsibilities. Hvistendahl has also been proofreading the Entertainment Guide, and Riggs recently started her employment as a communications manager at Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, cutting into the time she has to devote to personal writing and book promotional work. Still, Riggs is working on an essay on her grandmother.

Norbury, Riggs and Hvistendahl will participate in the Deep Valley Virtual Book Festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 3 and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 4, representing Northfield. The history writers’ panel they were on can be found starting at 4 p.m. Oct. 3 at deepvalleybookfestival.com. The event is free, but registration is required for live events.

The author link is at https://bit.ly/3kD0DNO.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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