(Mystery Scene concludes its three-part series on virtual book tours with a look at Noir at the Bar. An overview of virtual tours was posted July 19; a list of tips for a successful tour was posted July 22.)
Noir at the Bar is just what it sounds like—a chance for writers to read their works aloud at bars before an audience of readers and other writers. Sometimes, a bit too much bar enters into the readings, by the authors or among the audience. But most of the time, the readings are a sober moment—it’s after each reading that an author may indulge.
Noir at the Bar began around 2008 and since then dozens and dozens of these have popped up around the country, sometimes associated with a mystery conference, sometimes organized because authors wanted to get together.
But most bars across the country had to close because of the pandemic, threatening to halt all Noirs. But creativity, community and the need to connect readers and authors won out.
The credit to take Noir at the Bar—often referred to as N@B—virtual goes to author Alex Segura, left. “It would have happened with or without me—I just happened to be the first! It was just a matter of finding the right platform, willing writers, and a bookstore. That's the recipe for a successful virtual N@B,” said Segura, whose latest novel is the Anthony-nominated Miami Midnight (Polis Books).
Ed Aymar, below left, gives Segura full recognition for boosting N@B to another platform. “I’d absolutely love to take credit for it, but Alex Segura came up with the idea. His first event—representing Queens [N.Y.] and in support of Kew and Willow Books with hundreds of viewers—inspired this entire endeavor. Now we have virtual events in New England and Richmond and the Midwest and internationally, and all of that came from Alex’s initiative,” said Aymar, whose latest novel The Unrepentant (Down and Out Books), written under the name E.A. Aymar, was nominated for a 2019 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.
Restarting N@B was a thoughtful decision by Segura. “When the pandemic hit, everyone was caught off guard and everything felt turned upside down. One of the areas hardest hit, beyond the infected and our healthcare infrastructure, were small businesses—especially indie bookstores—due to government-mandated closures. [No one was] able to gather at your local indie store to do readings and promote someone's work. I wanted to find a way to capture that live energy and get some sales going for Kew & Willow Books, our local Queens indie bookstore where we'd normally host the live events,” said Segura.
“The greatest benefit is the chance to help bookstores and other writers. At the early stages of the pandemic, I was inspired by people making masks, delivering food, donating large amounts of cash—really, the community efforts that captured the best of people. But I can’t sew, cook, and I’m pretty broke, so those weren’t options for me. All I know how to do is write, and these events are a good way for me to help,” added Aymar, whose novel They’re Gone comes out in November under the pseudonym E.A. Barres.
That first virtual N@B came together pretty quickly, inspired by Segura attending a virtual Murder and Mayhem in Chicago, that was hosted by Lori Rader-Day and Dana Kaye. There, Segura was introduced to the Crowdcast platform “which allowed for easy, direct linking to stores and for a reasonable fee, the ability to host upward of 300 people,” said Segura, who got in touch with a bookstore and organized some writers for first virtual Noir at the Bar.
“It went over well enough that we've done a handful since then, and a number of other ones have cropped up—most notably in D.C. and the New England area, courtesy of E.A. Aymar and Edwin Hill, respectively. While they can't replace the direct contact of a live event, the virtual events have managed to draw in bigger crowds and give people a much-needed sense of community during these really challenging times,” Segura added.
“Well enough” is an understatement. That first event had close to 400 people attending, said Segura. Since then, the numbers have hovered around 150 to 300, “depending on the readers and promotion. But the thing to consider is, if these were live, we'd only be able to fit 40 people in the bookstore—maybe a dozen more. So the reach is much greater, with the hope being that all the attendees are buying books from the store, too,” Segura added.
Aymar has been running D.C.’s N@B in-person reading series for years at the bar the [N.Y.] Wonderland Ballroom. “And we almost always had a terrific turnout, standing-room only. That works out to anywhere from 50 to 70 people, and that’s terrific for a reading.” said Aymar.
“Conversely, these virtual events have never had less than 100 attendees, and once I had over 300. I did these virtual events weekly for about a month and a half (May and June), and we had regulars who attended, commented frequently, and really provided a sense of warmth and humor. It filled something that the pandemic had taken from us, and in that sense, it’s the best writers’ event I’ve had the fortune to be a part of,” added Aymar.
GLITCHES BE GONE
N@B usually use the platform Crowdcast, as opposed to Zoom. “Crowdcast is, in many ways, better suited to events like these—the event host has more control, there’s less chance of trolls ‘bombing’ an event, and Crowdcast offers easy ways to contact participants before and after,” said Aymar.
And that translates to book sales. “Based on my conversations with the store, yes—people are buying, and Crowdcast makes it remarkably easy. There's literally a giant green button that takes you to a page the bookstore creates spotlighting each of the readers' books,” said Segura.
Still, as Aymar said, “software is software, and there’s always the chance it will malfunction. I’ve had seven of these events so far, and only one where the malfunction was disastrous—it was a weekend where a number of events on the platform failed. But even if the fault lies with the software, the responsibility goes to the host, and you absolutely have to be nimble and able to adjust on the fly.”
But, attendees can be forgiving of glitches. “Technology is never perfect, and you're bound to deal with one glitch each event. Whether it's someone's video not working or your own computer crashing. But the readers and attendees tend to be so excited to just be in the moment that they forgive stuff like that. The key is to remain flexible, easygoing and self-deprecating,” said Segura.
“This area is spoiled by the number of bookstores we have; we also have a staggering amount of fantastic crime fiction writers. I normally host my in-person Noir at the Bars twice a year, which means putting just under 20 writers on stage. With these seven events, I’ve featured more than 70 writers, and most of them write crime fiction. It’s been wonderful to show readers, locally and nationally, the strength and variety of writing that the D/M/V [D.C., Maryland and Virginia] is producing,” said Aymar.
“In addition to bookstores being hurt by the pandemic, writers have suffered similar setbacks. Every event I’ve had includes a writer with an interrupted or cancelled book tour, and they’re more worried than ever about the sales of their work. It’s nice to give those writers a platform, and I think that’s something appreciated by both writers and readers,” Aymar added.
While the clinking of glasses, the orders for another round or rowdiness from authors and readers may be absent, a virtual N@B brings a new kind of happy hour.
“Writers’ events, somewhat surprisingly, work really well online. That’s opposed to other events, like sports and music, which are so heavily dependent on audience interactions. The energy from an interview or reading stems from the writer and host, and that energy is easily felt online,” added Aymar.
Both authors also try to make each N@B feature a large swath of authors. “We've had a wide variety of readers—and that's really important to me, to not just focus on the big names or the hot rising stars. I like a diverse slate, whether it's diversity in the traditional sense or diversity in terms of what people write,” said Segura.
“No one wants to sit through 12 men who look the same reading the same kind of thing. The crime fiction genre covers so much, and can transport you to different times, places and situations - I want authors who reflect that and really showcase the variety of crime fiction. That's what I look for when setting these up,” added Segura.
And that applies to no longer being limited by geography. “I can invite pretty much anyone in the U.S. to read at a New York event, which wasn't possible before. We routinely have readers from around the country at the Queens events, and it gives them a great all-star feeling,” said Segura.
And N@B also adds an extra element that many virtual book tours don’t include—song and spirits. “One of the things I do for my events is involve a singer and a mixologist. Sara Jones is a local jazz sensation, and she happily agreed to provide a musical interlude between readings. And Chantal Tseng is one of D.C.’s best mixologists and a voracious reader, and she creates custom cocktails inspired by books. Sara and Chantal add a different, welcome element to these readings, and both have become fast fan favorites,” said Aymar.
The feedback was immediate. “I’m still moved by an e-mail I received after an event, expressing how much the viewer enjoyed it, and how much, in particular, they loved Sara’s music. The reader wrote that she hadn’t heard live music for months now, and hearing it again brought her to tears. That’s a lovely sentiment, and expressed something I hadn’t realized I was also missing,” said Aymar.
“There’s a genuine sense of pleasure in seeing people do what they do best. There’s an awe that overtakes the viewers when a writer tells a taut, engaging story, or when Sara sings, or when Chantal puts together a cocktail with mathematical precision,” Aymar added.
And N@B also has brought both authors closer to the mystery community. “I've learned the crime fiction community is durable—and eager to stay together. I feel closer to a lot of people and authors than I did before, because we've all really come together to stay in touch and engaged through these virtual events. It's a testament to the genre,” added Segura.
Photos: Alex Segura, top, Ed Aymar, middle
(Mystery Scene continues its three-part series on virtual book tours. Today, we offer a list of tips for a successful tour; next Sunday, we offer a look at Noir at the Bar. Our main story, an overview of virtual tours, ran July 19.)
Whether it’s your first time or you’re an old pro at virtual book tours, here tips from the pros to make your event better.
A strong wireless network connection was mentioned several times. Michael Connelly remembered that “During one event my screen kept freezing so I got up in the middle of it and carried my laptop through my house and set up right next to my router so I would have an improved connection. It worked.” Naomi Hirahara added that she had spotty connections so she contacted her WiFi carrier and was able to get an updated modem for free.
Get a laptop with a great camera. Author Rachel Howzell Hall offered this personal experience: “I didn’t know how bad my computer camera was on my little MacBook Air until my husband saw me on-screen. Then, he shared his fancier Mac with me, and I looked grainy and dull. Part of that, of course, is due to the pandemic and not going to get my hair done and eyebrows waved—ha—but that bad picture was primarily due to a [poor] camera. Knowing this, I now only do events using my husband’s computer. My family also stays off the internet while I’m doing an event—we don’t want to overtax the network, and for this moment, my event is more important than binging old episodes of One Tree Hill.”
Make sure your camera is set up correctly so that your entire face is pictured on screen. You don’t want the top of your head to be cut off.
Make sure the camera is at your eye level rather than you looking down on your laptop or at the ceiling. You don’t want people looking at your neck or double chin.
Remember to look into your camera, especially when speaking to others in the conference. “It’s unnatural, but it makes more sense for the participants for you to be looking at them,” said Naomi Hirahara, who latest book is Iced in Paradise (Prospect Park Books).
Take a look at your background during your practice sessions to make sure you have the look you want. “It need not be fancy or look like you’re a ten on Rate My Room, but make sure you like it and that it will make you feel confident for your events,” noted Sarah Melnyk, assistant director of Publicity at St. Martin's Press.
Pay attention to who’s in the background. You don’t want your spouse walking behind you in p.j. or underwear. Author Michael Nava says he didn’t realize his cat was prowling behind him. (Though I suspect his readers got a kick out of it and there were a lot of oohs and ahhs.)
Stay still. Once you find the best place don’t keep moving around with your phone or laptop. It makes your audience dizzy.
Keep movement to a minimum as sometimes that can create some audio issues. Try not to talk with your hands as that can look jumpy.
Don’t try to do personal “grooming” during the virtual event. We’ve all seen the video of the business person who used the toilet during a business Zoom, allowing everyone to witness their “business.” Don’t be that person.
Practice, practice, practice before your first event, to be comfortable with the medium and your presentation.
Be well groomed, the camera is ruthless and this video may be up for years. It won't hurt you to put on a nice shirt.
Wear colors that flatter you, that pop! Hall adds: “Since I’m watching myself on camera, I want to infuse as much energy into my appearance as possible. So I’ve made it a point to wear reds and yellows on-screen. I’ve also made sure to have lots of natural light in the room—again, to chase out any shadows that make me look as tired as I sometimes feel. Ha. Since I’m not at this event in person, I want to infuse as much energy and enthusiasm as I can so that viewers can also be excited.
Deploy social media to drive audience.
The host with the most. Jordan McKenna of Murder by the Book in Houston said “We've found that our ‘attendance’ is vastly improved when the author accepts our co-host offer on Facebook. Every one of our events can be found both on our website and Facebook event listings, and when I create them, I send a request to the author to be a co-host. If they simply approve that request, it will automatically show up as an event for them, and be available on their page for fans to see. It just widens the pool of people who see the event, and in turn can result in more sales. Same goes for Instagram. Basically, as an author, helping promote the virtual events will help your sales.”
Keep your reading short, make sure you are familiar with the material and do your best to keep it engaging. Author E.A. Aymar says “I say this a lot, but there’s simply nothing more boring than a live reading. Most writers aren’t good readers—we tend to be introverted nerds, and the performance aspect of a reading is lost on us. Practice your reading, and make sure you understand that this is a separate art than writing. And if that means taking it into a creative direction, all the better. One of the Noir at the Bar writers hates reading out loud, so she had her daughter (an actress) do the reading for her. It was wonderful to see their relationship, and the mother’s pride. Don’t ever lack for creativity.”
Listen to your publisher if virtual events are appropriate and if so, the number and type of events you should do, said Loren Jaggers, assistant director of publicity for Berkley Books. “The publishing teams had a steep learning curve on organizing virtual events when the pandemic hit, and have ultimately arrived at a smart, data-driven process that produces well-attended events,” Jagger added.
Partner with other writers—that means their fans are getting to meet you, too. Reach out to writer’s organizations and bookstores—content has always been king, but especially now that people are home more. “Be funny… or if you can’t be funny, offer some insight that only you can provide. Try to stand out from the pack by doing something different and unique,” suggested Danielle Bartlett, publicity director at William Morrow.
Keep it simple. Jordan McKenna of Murder by the Book offers this experience. “We've found that on Zoom (or a similar teleconferencing platform) it gets very crowded and awkward when there are more than three people ‘in conversation’, that includes the moderator.”
Be prompt, be on time. Whether you are an author or a reader, try to be on time. With live events, readers can wonder in when they can. But since many virtual events ask you to sign up in advance, the host may hold the event until everyone who has signed up is on.
For readers, try to buy something from the supporting store. It is not easy bookstore owners and managers to set these up and often takes more time. Maybe you can’t afford the hardcover, but can buy the paperback, a puzzle, a bag, even a mug. Here’s what one bookstore owner said: “Setting up these author events, most with pairings, finding moderators (or reading and coming up with personalized questions ourselves), arranging and tracking bookplates, and sending follow-ups to publicists as we all reinvent the wheel has been hugely more work that what we do for normal author tours. We are grateful to everyone for their time and energy. We estimated that our old-school in-person events took maybe three emails back and forth to confirm. Each of these is taking many, many more.”
Most importantly, have fun.