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Is there any good time to publish a book during a pandemic?

A book signing.

A book signing. Image by iStock

“Timing is everything.” Larry Cohler-Esses wrote that line in 1995 in a Forward news story about my book contract with Simon and Schuster. I was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism at the time. I had written a report on the militia movement ten days before the Oklahoma City bombing predicting attacks on government officials. The covering memo warned that such an attack might happen on April 19, 1995, the anniversary of the fiery end of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, a date of great importance to those who saw the world through conspiratorial militia-type eyes.

The author poses with an overflowing bookshelf in the background.

The author. Image by Emily Stern

There was great interest in my turning out a quick book following the arrest of Timothy McVeigh. I produced a proposal over a weekend, my agent auctioned it off in a week, and I had about three months to produce a draft. A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate hit the market in January 1996, and then I had scores of television and radio interviews, and a national book tour.

Timing is everything. My new book – The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate – arrived at the publisher’s warehouse on March 13, 2020. But bookstores were closing because of the pandemic, and many were not receiving new stock. The April publication date was pushed back, the publisher (New Jewish Press) thinking the book’s release would get lost in the COVID-19 news cycle. When it was clear that the pandemic had no end in sight, the book was released in mid-May.

Twenty-four years ago this spring I participated in a program put on by the Jewish Book Council, not unlike speed-dating, in which authors give a two-minute summary of their book and then schmooze with representatives of Jewish groups from around the country, many of whom invite authors to their community to give a talk in the coming year, and sign books.

This year JBC delayed the meeting and is now having a “virtual” speed-date in July. It’s unclear whether the Jewish book fairs around the country later this year will be in person or virtual, but my guess is, short of a vaccine, they will likely be online, and in any event, I’m not getting in a taxi, on a plane, or staying in a hotel until I know it is safe.

I have mixed feelings about virtual book talks. I enjoy speaking in front of live audiences about topics that invoke curiosity and passion. My favorite part is the Q & A, especially when someone strongly disagrees with me. It’s an opportunity to examine their premises and my own, and bring the audience along to see an issue more deeply and from multiple perspectives. Virtual Q & A, which is usually with a moderator reading questions submitted online, will lose some nuance in the translation. On the other hand there may be more time for questions as we’ll likely avoid the otherwise inevitable long-winded pontificators. I don’t know yet, but there may be an opportunity here too. Will there be more events this year, since there are no travel costs for hosts nor lost time travelling for authors?

And how will book signings go? I enjoy chatting after talks with people who have a question but didn’t want to ask it publicly, as I inscribe the book they just purchased. Now a local bookseller and I are figuring out how to make personalized copies available. She will get orders, I’ll inscribe books, she’ll pick them up from my porch and mail them out. Or maybe we’ll use a bookplate which I’ll inscribe and mail to her to affix.

Are there other opportunities here? One reason I wrote The Conflict over the Conflict was to give people on and off campus, inside and outside the Jewish community, insights about how to have rational discussions about Israel, and be more aware of why it is so difficult to do so. I prepared a discussion guide for book groups, but there are other more involved ways too. When I speak before a real audience I always give my email address and invite people to contact me with questions, criticisms, comments, ideas. That usually requires people to write my contact information down. Few do. With everything online, and the sponsors of book programs gathering attendees’ email addresses, will it be easier to start these discussions that give the book and its messages a deeper impact — the reason one writes a book in the first place?

I’m sure there will be some bumpy patches, and other yet-unforeseen opportunities, launching a book during a pandemic. At least I won’t have the humbling experience I had with my militia book, since I’m no longer riding the subway to work. I have no idea whether the New York Times will review this book, but on the day it ran one of my 1996 book, I watched intently as the person across from me on the F train opened the right section, the right page. Would his facial expression or body language provide a clue to what he was thinking as he read the review? He folded the paper over, took out a pen, and started the crossword puzzle.

Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and the author of The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.

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