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Author Jennifer Robson, pictured here in Toronto on June 10, 2019, is scheduled to moderate an online version of HarperCollins's HarperPresents historical fiction event.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

As book publicity goes, it’s a treasured event: high tea at two swanky west coast hotels, one day after the other, hosted by four authors of historical fiction. But the late May back-to-back events in Vancouver and Victoria – part of HarperCollins’s HarperPresents series – were cancelled, along with everything else this spring.

The publisher has come up with an alternative. Authors Janie Chang (The Library of Legends), Danielle Graham (All We Left Behind) and Tara Moss (The War Widow) will appear with moderator Jennifer Robson (The Gown) for an online version of the event. Anyone who registers will receive a downloadable package of recipes from authors, including recommended teas. And the publisher will offer what should be a simple online book-buying experience supporting a bookseller near the reader.

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“The idea will be high tea at home,” says Cory Beatty, senior director, marketing and publicity, for HarperCollins Canada. “Not quite the Fairmont, but should be fun for everybody.”

Author Tara Moss, photographed here in Sydney, Australia on June 24, 2010, is scheduled to co-host the virtual HarperPresents event.Graham Denholm/Getty Images

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical bookstores have closed – which has led to a decline in book sales. Literary events are being cancelled or moving online. But at the same time, there is clearly an appetite for reading, as many Canadians stuck at home find themselves with more time on their hands and a need for entertainment.

HarperCollins Canada saw a problem – and an opportunity. Its marketing and publicity team worked to come up with ideas to help their authors and bookstores make up for the loss of launch parties and events held at bookstores.

“At the beginning of this, it really did feel like the Wild West,” says Lauren Morocco, publicity director. “Publicists, I like to think that number one in our jobs, we’re problem-solvers. But it really has been everybody brainstorming, heads together, on what we can do and how we can do it.”

Over about eight Zoom-filled days in late April, they came up with a three-fold strategy.

Undated handout photo of author Hannah Mary McKinnon, scheduled to launch her new novel, Sister Dear.Courtesy of author

The publisher will offer webinar hosting capabilities, which will allow independent bookstores or authors to hold virtual events. Many indie bookstores might not currently be able to organize and execute virtual events, especially now, HarperCollins says. “This is our way of giving the author and the store the platform to reach back out into their communities,” Morocco says.

HarperPresents... From Home is a virtual version of the publisher’s program of in-person events, such as the tea and book launches. Planned for May 26 is the launch of Oakville-based author Hannah Mary McKinnon’s new novel, Sister Dear (“She’d kill to be her,” the book’s cover entices).

And the publisher has created an interactive independent bookstore map to encourage readers, including those participating in the virtual events, to buy from local booksellers. The map has COVID-19-specific details, such as how each store is handling orders, with deliveries or curbside pick-ups. “We couldn’t pull that data from Google, so we’re manually entering it,” says Kaitlyn Vincent, senior marketing manager. With more than 250 bookstores, the map is to go live on the publisher’s website Monday, along with the launch of the other initiatives. Bookstores left off the map can get themselves added.

“It’s really fun to be able to put something creative together, despite the situation we’re all in,” Morocco says.

“It’s been refreshing to see how many people have come back to books in difficult times,” Beatty says. “Sales are obviously down because of store closures, but it’s rewarding to see them not decline maybe as much as you might think.”

Editor’s note: An earlier photo caption for Hannah Mary McKinnon mistakenly said she is co-hosting a historical fiction event. She’s actually launching her latest book at a virtual event.

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