Tuesday, December 8, 2020

THE BACK ROOM: Guest post by Hank Phillippi Ryan & Karen Dionne

Remember book launches? How much fun those used to be? An author’s book would publish, there would be a big festive party with refreshments and hugs and applause, and everyone would celebrate. For authors, it meant that their precious book, the one so close to their heart, was finally in the world.And book tours! Meeting readers face-to-face. Answering their questions, chatting with them in the signing line, and snapping selfies. Seeing old friends and making new ones while sharing our love of reading and a real sense of community. 

And then the pandemic hit. Bookstores nimbly shifted to hosting online events. Zoom interviews and Facebook Lives became the new normal. But while authors are deeply grateful that we can still speak to readers this way, online platforms have one critical (and frustrating) limitation: the author can’t see the audience. And as a result, that dynamic, energizing, and totally wonderful real-world connection between authors and readers is missing. 

After we did an online event together with Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor (and commiserated later about the format’s challenges), we realized we needed a way for readers and authors to connect online and keep that fabulous face-to-face. 

Six weeks later, our new author series, The Back Room, had its premiere. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: That Literati event was such a catalyst, wasn’t it? As we talked on the phone afterward and compared notes, we realized we both felt nostalgic for being in the same room with people. There’s a wonderful call and response element to a book talk—the author is telling stories and answering questions, and that’s great—but the special part is the audience reacting. With laughter, or agreeing nods, or even applause. That’s incredible fuel for the speaker and builds such a bond between author and audience. I felt as if I made new friends at every appearance. 

: So true! My first experience with the limitations of online events came when I taught a writing class to a private Facebook group using Facebook Live. It was so bizarre to speak to students I couldn’t see. I had no idea how many were in attendance, if my students were connecting with what I was saying or if it was going over their heads or if they were bored out of their minds. It took a lot of energy to keep smiling and talking for an hour without audience feedback. 

And while a typical online book event is much better because you’re in conversation with an interviewer, there’s still that issue of not being able to draw energy from the audience. Friends have told me after the fact that they came to one of my online book events, and I didn’t even know they were there! 

HANK: Oh, so agree! My Zoom launch for THE FIRST TO LIE—in the midst of the pandemic, a tropical storm, and multiple power outages—still had a gloriously crazy number of people. But I never saw one of them! It was incredibly exciting, but nevertheless strange and disconcerting. It’s always a memorable moment, that first time you try out your new book speech. You’re gauging whether people are interested, and you can tell whether they think the book sounds good. But instead of talking to friends and family and readers, I was just… talking to a screen. 

And so many authors shared the same pandemic dilemma—trying to get the word out in a completely unfamiliar situation where every single system they’d relied on in the past simply did not exist. No matter if they were veteran authors who knew the ropes or debut authors who had looked forward to their pub day for years, it was a daunting challenge. 

So, you and I both realized, as we chatted in that initial phone conversation, that we needed a new idea. 

KAREN: That was such a great moment! And I love how as soon as we realized that Zoom breakout rooms could be a game-changer, we couldn’t wait to give it a try. 

The Back Room format is very simple: after a short, introductory session with a panel of four authors, attendees are divided into four Zoom breakout rooms, with one author assigned to each room. Attendees stay in their breakout room for the rest of the program, while the authors rotate through each room in turn. Everyone’s video is turned on and their mics are open. It’s all very relaxed and casual and fun—like a virtual cocktail party! 

Wendy Walker and Tori Eldridge joined us for our first author panel with Robin Agnew as our guest host, and the breakout rooms worked even better than we’d hoped! Everyone was so excited to be able to enjoy actual conversations. Since then, hundreds of people have attended Back Room events—many of them more than once—and more than 50 fabulous authors have signed on. 

And we were so honored when BOLO BOOKS’ Kristopher Zgorski wrote on Facebook, “I just have to give a shout out to Hank Phillippi Ryan and Karen Dionne. They have really hit on something very special with this Back Room idea. This concept is brilliant and so much fun. I can’t think of an event that was this much fun since the pandemic began. It’s so well-run and just a total blast.” 

HANK: A blast is right! It’s so much fun to see who attends—not just avid readers, looking for some real book talk and conversation, but reviewers, authors looking to network, industry professionals, and writers working on their manuscripts. It’s a terrific way to make connections. And each breakout room develops a personality, where people can really get to know each other. As for the panels, we focused from the beginning on making sure they were inclusive in every way. And it’s so exciting, isn’t it? To see that evolve with the top-notch veteran and debut authors who create such wonderful energy, and the excitement around that. 

And even when the pandemic is over (soon soon soon) we’ll keep this going. Don’t you think? 

KAREN: Oh, absolutely! The Back Room may have come about because of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, but it’s quickly become an important element of our community. Even after we’re able to meet again in person, The Back Room will continue. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy face-to-face conversations with award-winning, bestselling authors from all over the world in the comfort of their living room? 

Meanwhile, our winter schedule has just been posted and it’s incredibly exciting, with mystery and thriller authors, historical fiction authors, cozy mystery authors, and more. But space is limited, because keeping the breakout rooms to a manageable size is what makes Back Room events so much fun. Check out the schedule at www.the-back-room.org, and we’ll see you in The Back Room.


Karen Dionne is the USA Today and #1 internationally bestselling author of the award-winning psychological suspense novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in the US and in 26 other countries. Her follow up novel, The Wicked Sister (August 2020, G.P. Putnam’s Sons), is also an international bestseller and was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of their Best Books of 2020.

Hank Phillippi Ryan is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning the most prestigious awards in the genre: five Agathas, four Anthonys, the Daphne, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also on-air investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, with 37 EMMYs. THE MURDER LIST ( Forge 2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Hank’s newest novel is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar… Ryan could win a sixth Agatha for this one.”

1 comment:

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, this is wonderful to see! Karen and I are so enthusiastic about this, and it's a joy to see all the support. Thank you! We have some terrific events already scheduled, but we'd love to hear from reader about what authors they'd like to see on a program! Let us know..and again, we are so grateful.