Alma Katsu: Five Things I Learned Launching A Book During A Pandemic

Someone, or something, is haunting the ship. Between mysterious disappearances and sudden deaths, the guests of the Titanic have found themselves suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone from the moment they set sail. Several of them, including maid Annie Hebley, guest Mark Fletcher, and millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, are convinced there’s something sinister–almost otherwordly–afoot. But before they can locate the source of the danger, as the world knows, disaster strikes.

Years later, Annie, having survived that fateful night, has attempted to put her life back together. Working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic‘s sister ship, the Britannic, newly refitted as a hospital ship, she happens across an unconscious Mark, now a soldier fighting in World War I. At first, Annie is thrilled and relieved to learn that he too survived the sinking, but soon, Mark’s presence awakens deep-buried feelings and secrets, forcing her to reckon with the demons of her past–as they both discover that the terror may not yet be over.

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IT COULD’VE BEEN WORSE. AT LEAST I WASN’T A DEBUT AUTHOR.

The Deep is my fifth novel, so not my first rodeo, as the kids say. Honestly, this was the first time that I wasn’t a wreck come pub date. I’d practiced my book tour talk until it was almost memorized. Picked out my tour clothes. Had worked with my publicist on advance work like writing blog posts and doing interviews via email. We had promises of more media in the pipeline. My last book, The Hunger, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party with a horror twist, had done well. My publisher and I both had high hopes for The Deep. We were eager to get started.

For your first book, launch is a time of uber high emotions, a metric ton of expectations, but no first-hand experience. You don’t know if everything that happens to you is the norm or something that should worry you. By book five, you know the traumas and joys of past launches. Kinda like, if you had four kids, for the fifth one you don’t even sweat the epidural.

For debut authors trying to launch a book in the time of COVID-19: Please please please be easy on yourselves and don’t be overwhelmed by the many conflicting emotions you’re probably feeling. It won’t be like this the next time. And there will be a next time. Put the gun/bottle/eighth box of chocolates down.

THERE IS NO SCENARIO IN WHICH IT DOESN’T ALL GO TO SHIT AT FIRST

A few days before I was to go on tour, there was a quick huddle with the publishing team and my agents. Optimism was high. Then, almost as an afterthought, I asked if anyone suggested that we cancel the tour. There was an uneasy pause, then I was told, no. I’d only asked because, at the time, things were just starting to be postponed, major events where crowds were expected. Mine were hardly in the same category, and I felt a little silly mentioning it.

The ironic thing is that for many years, I ran crisis support teams for the Department of Defense during humanitarian crises and natural disasters. I can tell you first hand that when a crisis hits, there is always confusion. Even when there is a plan in place. Even if you’ve been through it a dozen times, because no two disasters are exactly the same.

That confusion is super frustrating. You want to to be proactive, to fix this thing, not to be standing still when every fiber of your being tells you to do something. But, instead, everything is one big flail. Don’t fight the flail. It’ll exhaust you. Take a breath, let people get their equilibrium. (Though if you recognize that someone on your team has become paralyzed by fear or is overwhelmed, and then just give that person direction and they’ll come back to themselves eventually.)

BREAK OUT THE LEMONADE RECIPE

So, there I was heading to the airport to go home, with a book out for two whole days and no plans for how to promote it. Press had evaporated. No one, it seemed, was interested in anything other than the coronavirus. My publisher, along with everyone else, was scrambling to figure out how to sell books. Bookstores, a big part of how we reach readers, especially new ones, were scrambling to invent new business models.  Online sales, curbside pick-up, door-to-door deliveries. All author events were cancelled, but it seemed like in a matter of hours they started looking at the internet, asking what could be done in virtual space. Stores that had never done a video were wondering how to replicate their store programming on the internet.

When life gives you lemons, you really have no alternative but to make lemonade. Sulking over the unfairness of life is not going to work, not for your book, not for your publisher.

There has been no shortage of creative solutions from authors or bookstores. I looked at what other people were doing and picked the things that worked for me. Not every store is going to have space for you on their roster, you have to accept that. But you can do things for youself. It meant learning all about live streaming. It meant stepping up my social media game, learning the little tricks of each platform so that my content shined.

However, social media is not a static target. Audiences are fickle. What delights one day is a bore the next. You must constantly think of ways to keep things fresh. My novel is a reimagining of the sinking of the Titanic and its sister ship, the Britannic, so history is understandably a big part of its appeal. So I’m trying to partner with other Titanic authors and historical societies. I’ve tried focusing on one or another famous historical person in the book, tweeting rare photos and bits of trivia, for instance. There are theme days on Instagram. It’s a constant challenge to draw eyeballs. And you can’t stop feeding the beast, which is stressful.

FRIENDS GOT YOUR BACK

While I was cheerfully (or pseudo-cheerfully) posting on Instagram campfire and making live streams, I did let slip one day on Twitter that this was all really, really hard and wasn’t what I’d hoped for my book baby, and I needed to go off to feel sorry for myself for a spell. I felt like I had to be honest.

The response was tremendous. In addition to some top notch commiserating and other wonderful statements of support, many people came through with offers to help. Let me interview you for my blog. Come on my podcast. Join me on my live stream. Participate in our live streamed group reading.

Feeling that I wasn’t alone made it easier for me to reach out to others to see if they wanted to partner up. For instance, I’m doing a joint live stream with an author whose non-fiction work on the Titanic I’ve admired a lot. We’re going to answer questions about fact and fiction about the Titanic, something that would never have happened if we were doing things the old way because he lives in England and I’m in the U.S.

ACCEPT THAT IT WON’T BE PERFECT. SOMETIMES IT WON’T EVEN BE GOOD

If you’re a hard charger (which I’m guessing you must be, or you wouldn’t try to make a living writing books), you’re wired to think you can power through this. You are going to grit your teeth and not only get through this, but you’re going to make it your bitch. You are going to butt-kick this disaster into doing your bidding.

But that’s not healthy.

Trust me. I have seen villages wiped out by earthquakes or a warring ethnic group. There are some things that can’t be forced into submission, wrongs that can’t be undone with willpower and a can-do attitude alone.

The odds of “winning” in the time of coronavirus are zero. Accept this. This is an extraordinary global event—don’t drive yourself crazy or to the point of weepy exhaustion. Don’t break your neck running into the same unbudging wall over and over.

The only thing you can do to avoid later regret, I think, is to do the best you can while listening to your inner self. To walk away when you need a break. To remind yourself that the old normal will return, that there will be another chance. Have faith that eventually this will pass, and we’ll pick up the pieces and start over.

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Alma Katsu is the author of five novels. Her latest is The Deep, a reimagining of sinking of the Titanic and its sister ship, the Britannic. Her previous novel The Hunger, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party with a horror twist, made NPR’s list of the 100 Best Horror Stories, was named one of the best novels of 2018 by several media outlets and book stores, and was nominated for a Stoker and Locus Award for best horror novel. During her long career in intelligence for the U.S. government, she worked through many man-made and natural disasters including the avian and swine flu pandemics, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and genocides in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Bosnia. COVID-19 is the first one where she gets to stay home.

Alma Katsu: Website | Twitter

The Deep: Indiebound | Amazon