Author events can be nerve-racking affairs. Will anyone show? What if it’s just one person, and it turns out they’ve mistaken the date for a talk about dahlias? What if they stay but you run out of things to say and end up sitting in awkward silence for the whole time? The truth is that we’re all likely to have both barren disasters which make you question your place in the universe and lively sessions leaving you buoyed up with love for your fellow human beings. And even the dodgy ones have their place. A well-angled photo can make it look as if you’re giving the event of the century, and nobody on social media is going to demand a register. Sarah Jasmon thought it would be interesting to ask her fellow Prime Writers about their experiences.
I’m thinking here about the sort of session where you turn up and sit at a table during normal shop hours, hoping that someone will notice you. The dream is a queue of admirers snaking out of the door. The reality, for most of us, is an hour or so sitting there trying to decide which smile will say ‘friendly and approachable’ rather than ‘desperate and needy’. My publicist told me that he rarely recommends debut events in bookshops, because an unknown author just doesn’t have the pull. The events coordinator in the Manchester Arndale Waterstones confirmed this, particularly for large branches, but suggested chatting to smaller shops so that they know you’re up for joining in future events. Many Waterstones play a role in local literature festivals, and will have opportunities for events that way. And, of course, it’s a whole different ball game if it’s your home town and you can call on friends and family to swell the queue. I organised a Saturday morning stint in Ormskirk, partly because quite a lot of local friends couldn’t make the launch parties, which happened in London and Manchester.
Claire Fuller: I did an author signing event at Waterstones in Petersfield. They had advertised it but of course no one turned up to buy a hardback from an unknown author. I was scheduled to be there for 2 hours. In the end I made up a spiel to engage passing shoppers in conversation. It was awkward, and some people ignored me, but others stopped and talked and I ended up selling quite a few books.
Vanessa Lafaye: I’ve experienced the embarrassment of the one-lady-plus-dog turnout. The most important and hardest thing is not to take it personally. If you decide to go, just plaster a big smile on your face and resolve to be a good sport, but it can be grim. I was stationed by the door of our local Smiths for 2 hours with my table of books. Got lots of enquiries about stationery. And I had to give my seat to an old fella who looked about to collapse.
Jon Teckman: I had a nightmare signing in Waterstones in Milton Keynes. Still not quite seeing the funny side but I’m sure there must be one in there somewhere. Perhaps we could do this post for Hallowe’en: The Horrors of Being a Published Author! (PS. With a bit of poetic licence I could also include the tale of “A Thrush Up My Arse” although that actually happened during a rather good signing in Aylesbury!)
Fleur Smithwick: For my first book signing, I was there for five hours and, for a Saturday, it was very quiet. However, I sold a dozen books, so it was worth while and the owner and I were both happy. I had to engage a lot of people in conversation and smile smile smile. One lady talked to me for ages but wouldn’t buy because she only reads books with a Christian theme! Can’t please everyone. The owner, Peter Snell, is a local character and was totally unashamed about strong-arming people over to my table – at which point I had to take over – but by that time they were trapped. Two poor chaps came in with clipboards to ask something about some sound system for shopping for the deaf and ended up leaving with two copies – one for their Rotary dinner raffle.
A heading that covers many variations. You could be talking at a library, or taking part in a festival, running a workshop or chatting to a book group. These events are particularly good when the session is run by an established group. My first ever outing was to an independent bookshop, Ebb and Flo in Chorley, and involved the book group which met regularly, plus a couple of other groups from the area, so the audience was always going to be engaged and (most importantly) present! As far as publicity goes, you’re at the mercy of organisers to a large extent, and have to hope they are doing their utmost to get people onboard.
A small turnout, however, doesn’t need to be a negative: sit everyone at the front and have an intimate chat. And don’t take it personally. It could be timing (a Saturday event, when people who would like to come are busy taking their kids to weekend activities), a clash (Jo Nesbo in the next room. If Jo Nesbo was in the next room, for instance, I’d probably be in the next room as well, never mind my audience!), or circumstances beyond your control (torrential rain is never going to help with turnout). Remember that every person who decides they can’t make it after all is assuming that everyone else will go, and it’s never a reflection on you as a person or a writer.
Sarah Todd Taylor: I pitched to do an event aimed at 7-9s at a festival but all the children who arrived were under 5. Out went the plans for an hour’s writing workshop. In came 20 minutes of on-the-spot storytelling and getting the children to act out the story as I told it. It was a lesson learned – always have a story prepared just in case.
Vanessa Lafaye: If the turnout is small, make light of it. Sit with them instead of standing at the front. Making it intimate and friendly helps. And you can ask for the kind of feedback that you can’t get from a bigger group.
Alison Layland: I had a phone call from the organiser of one library event to say she’d hardly sold any tickets (despite plenty of publicity) and was I OK with that? I went ahead in any case, and ended up with 15ish people at both talks that week, all really enthusiastic: my “Yorkshire tour” was a lovely experience!
Joanna Czechowska: The same happened to me when I spoke at the Derby Book Festival. In the end it was sold out and people just bought tickets at the last minute.
SD Sykes: I did an event with another (quite famous) writer over the summer, at a festival in a castle. Four people turned up. One of them was the other writer’s friend. It was in a dungeon that wasn’t usually open, and we kept on being interrupted by people who just wanted to look at the dungeon!
Graeme Shimmin: I did a support slot for a launch of a writer (who probably should remain nameless) as a favour for a bookshop guy I know. It was the same day as a big football match and another much bigger literary event. Predictably enough no-one came except the main author, his publisher, and a few other people directly connected to the support readers. Which wasn’t so bad. What wasn’t great was the way the author (who was not a household name by any stretch) blanked me, then sat through my reading with a ‘Who is this moron and why is he reading his book at my launch?’ expression on his face all the way through. And his publisher was clearly asleep too. On the other hand… free beer.
Antonia Honeywell: Bradford Literary Festival – four authors plus chair, and five people in the audience! But actually it was brilliant, and we had some excellent conversations.
So, in short, go along feeling confident and be prepared to adjust your presentation to suit the situation. Talk friends and family into coming along for moral support, and don’t forget to take a pen for signing. Make sure you let your audience know that it’s ok to ask questions. And, last but not least, enjoy!