Julia Spencer-Fleming participated in a virtual book talk hosted by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance that attracted an audience of 115. Image courtesy of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance

Virtual book launches have gone so well, Gibson Fay-LeBlanc wonders why the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance hasn’t been doing them all along.

“And I certainly don’t see any reason why these virtual events wouldn’t become a regular part of what every author will be doing out in the world going forward,” said the executive director of Maine’s largest literary organization. “It’s better to have a group of humans in a room together, but especially in Maine, so often there are a lot of people we just can’t get to. If they have an internet connection or even a phone, they can jump on with us and feel like they are a part of the community.”

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, book stores, libraries and galleries are arranging public conversations with writers through Zoom and other digital platforms and reaching audiences in numbers often much larger than they would attract to a live event. Maine Writers and Publishers experimented with its first virtual book launch a few weeks ago when Portland writer Richard Russo hosted a conversation with novelist Jessica Anthony about her new Little Brown novel “Enter the Aardvark.” It was supposed to be at Print: A Bookstore in Portland, and was moved online. About 85 people tuned in.

Two weeks later, the MWPA arranged an online conversation between Paul Doiron and Julia Spencer-Fleming, and 115 people participated.

Next week, it’s a full house. Phuc Tran discusses his new book, “Sigh, Gone,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Russo hosts a conversation with Jennifer Finney Boylan about Boylan’s new book, “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Portland Public Library has put together virtual chats as well, and novelist Lily King discusses her new book, “Writers & Lovers,” with Susan Conley at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Writer Bill Roorbach poses outside his Scarborough home, where he’s been hosting virtual book talks with authors as part of the Speedwell Live series. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The writer Bill Roorbach is co-hosting Speedwell Live, twice-weekly conversations with artists presented by Speedwell Projects in Portland. Literary guests have included King, Maine poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum and author and columnist Danielle Trussoni. The list of guests is ever-evolving. Roorbach hosts from his home in Scarborough.


“A few weeks ago, I didn’t know what Zoom was, and now I am already using the expression ‘Zoomed out,’ ” Roorbach quipped. Technical glitches aside, the events have gone far better than expected. Attendance for Speedwell’s virtual events is capped at 100, because of limits on the Zoom account, which has necessitated the use of waiting lists. Because of that interest, the Speedwell Live series may become part of the gallery’s regular community outreach going forward, said Roorbach, co-producer of the series.

“You get 100 people to a normal literary event, that’s a feat,” he said. “Now we are starting to think it’s something that could outlast the pandemic and become something with its own identity and its own usefulness, even when people are back to normal, whatever normal is. People are going to be excited to go out and people will be Zoomed out for sure. But it’s something we can keep going over time.”

Roorbach thinks the events are popular because people are looking for things to do during the shutdown and also because people are not restricted by the geography of a live book event.

Gracie Dietshe, events coordinator at the Portland bookstore Print, said virtual-event attendance would fill the store beyond capacity. So far, book sales have been similar to in-store events, she wrote in an email. And while she hopes virtual events do not replace in-store activities when things open up, she agrees that they do present possibilities for authors and bookstores alike. “Ultimately, it’s another way to bring books into people’s lives, so it’s a win for the publishing and book-selling industry,” she wrote.

Tran is looking forward to the adventure and uncertainty of Tuesday’s online book launch. His live event was supposed to be at Space. When it got canceled, the three presenters – Space, Print and MWPA – collaborated for the online event. His memoir, “Sigh, Gone,” is a bit of an ode to his punk-rock attitude, so the idea of going with the flow suits him well and creates new opportunities. His 12-date book tour canceled or postponed, he made a book trailer with Portland filmmaker Alex Coppola instead. The movie will debut at Tuesday’s book launch, and Tran will use it for other events.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out what the best digital platform is for what they want to do. Every venue, every organization has different parameters. Anything they want to do, I am willing to do,” he said.


Among the events still on Tran’s calendar – and a good candidate to move online – is a May 20 Literary Lunch at the Portland Public Library, hosted by Jaed Coffin.

“In a weird way, the pandemic has blown up the rule book, which means anything goes. It’s really DIY, that do-it-yourself spirit, which I love,” Tran said. “It gives me a chance to work with other artists and Portland creatives. In a way, it feels like an old-school barn raising, done online. It’s not like the music industry, where you need a live audience and you need people buying drinks at the bar. The on-ramp to the digital world seems easier for writers.”

Doiron, the crime novelist, agrees. “It’s amazing how quickly people have adapted to using this technology. Obviously, it works better in some situations than others, but for something like a conversation between two authors with a question-and-answer period, honestly, it’s about as close to the real thing as you can get, short of the opportunity to have the book signed on the spot,” he said.

Print is trying to create the spirit of a live event as much as possible by selling signed, personalized books with free shipping for orders of $20 or more.

If the success of virtual book launches does not change how the publishing industry approaches book tours, it should, Doiron added. At the very least, publishers should incorporate virtual events as complements to in-person readings, he said. His 11th novel, “One Last Lie,” is coming out in June. Doiron is hopeful he doesn’t have to do his book launch by Zoom, “but I am much more relaxed about that prospect than I was a few weeks ago,” he said.

If that happens, Doiron may want to consider using a different room than the one he used for his talk with Spencer-Fleming. Because of lighting issues, he was forced into a large closet, with his wardrobe visible.


“I live in Camden and my writing office is in Rockland. Writing crime novels falls under the category of a non-essential business, so I try not to go there on a regular basis,” he said, laughing. “But I do have a little desk in a room that primarily contains clothing and all kinds of books. It offered the best light for a video production.”

That’s something Fay-LeBlanc said he has enjoyed about Zoom, being able to see writers in their homes. The video feed offers a window into writers’ private worlds and often a glimpse of the books on their shelves or the art on their walls. He admits to rearranging a few titles in his background shot for his introductory remarks.

Roorbach also likes looking in on people’s private lives. “It’s fun seeing into people’s homes, seeing them making dinner, dealing with the children or dogs lapping over the computer, husbands sticking their heads in the shot,” he said.

He encouraged people to tune in. “And bring your dog.”

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