Book events, talks and signings play an important role for many a modern bookshop.
In tough retail times, they are a way for bookshops:
- to engage with the local community
- tap into the evening economy and
- create the perfect night out for punters with a huge urge to listen to random excerpts from books and sit on uncomfortable chairs.
Events don’t just run themselves however.
There’s a whole heap of organisation, communication, printing and nail biting to do, plus a fair amount of hoovering.
(Note to self: no nibbles at next event.)
To help make sense of it all, here is my handy A-Z of Author Events:
A is for Author
Yes. A bit obvious really, but you’re not going to get far without Authors, the stars of the show, in the sense that a lot of them aren’t stars, and it’s not really a show.
Most authors I’ve met are very friendly. Some aren’t.
However I always reserve the right for authors to be somewhat difficult.
We shouldn’t just be publishing and showcasing work by the exceptionally matey and people we’d be happy to go down the pub with.
If Samuel Coleridge was alive today, would he be live-tweeting the Eurovision Song Contest and running Win My Swag internet giveaways?
I worry that today’s lonesome, troubled, prickly and downright antisocial authors are being overlooked in favour of potential buddies and besties.
So yes, it helps when putting on an event, if the author is friendly or civil from the word go, but I think it is important to welcome authors of all dispositions into your shop.
You might have a genius on your hands.
Plus let’s face it, authors can be as tired, crotchety and borderline ill as the rest of us.
Many of them have come straight from work after all.
(Yes, Author is very rarely a profession these days.)
B is for Books
Again, a bit obvious, but for a book event, that’s right: you’re going to need books.
(Hope you’re taking notes here.)
Choosing the right number of copies however is a subtle art and it’s very easy to go wrong.
Personally, I always err on the optimistic side and try to avoid Under-ordering:
Although in some ways it’s great to sell out of books at an event (It makes the returns process so much easier for starters), it is a shame if there are paying customers demanding books and you haven’t got any, at least not the right ones.
And there is nothing more annoying for an author, having put all that effort into promoting a book to an audience, to find that no-one can then buy the flipping thing and get it signed, while still securely entranced by the author’s hypnotic fog.
N.B. An author’s hypnotic fog wears off pretty quickly.
It will certainly have worn off by the next day, when the customer in question will be lucky to even remember the author’s name, let alone want to buy the book:
Gladys Honeypot. Something about Oliver Elephant.
If you turn sales away at an event, you are denying both yourself and the author income on those sales, so it really is an opportunity missed for both parties.
If an event gets underway and you suspect that you have under-ordered, you also run the risk of spending the entire author talk in a state of complete mortal panic:
Oh God. I don’t think we’ve ordered enough books. Look at all these people. I had no idea the author was this interesting. Hopefully not everyone will want one. Let’s bring those damaged copies back into circulation.
As a bookseller, if you find yourself willing people not to buy a book, then clearly something is not right. This goes against the whole retail code somewhat.
Plus, as an Indie Bookshop hosting an event, you’re promoting (to the publishers and author) the general image of Independent Bookshops as worthy locations for literary events.
Not having enough stock can undermine this. You’re letting the team down a little bit.
Just occasionally you may get lucky and have exactly the right number of books, selling the very last copy to the very last customer.
This is a case of getting away with it.
You have momentarily cracked event ordering, but boy was it a close thing!
This is far better and less stressful than under-ordering, but after the event, when the author asks how sales went, you might find yourself saying:
Yes, very good.
while simultaneously and fruitlessly trying to shove three full boxes of stock under a nearby table with your right leg.
It’s always a good idea to make sure you have the correct books in advance of an event.
Don’t leave the boxes of stock unopened until the day of the event:
If tonight’s event is with Adam Kay, why have we got 200 copies of Allen Carr, and do you think anyone will notice?
C is for Cancellation
Sadly, this does happen occasionally.
Authors are only human and sometimes, regrettably, they are unable to turn up to your event.
Reasons are varied:
- Train cancellation.
- Author stuck in occupied military zone.
But I thought she lived in Surbiton.
Under no circumstances should you try and go ahead with the event, incorporating a substitute local author reading from the book, and a staff member’s dubious slam poetry skills as the support act.
D is for Dealers
Book dealers are attracted to first editions like insects to a fresh corpse.
After barely tolerating your author’s actual talk, these characters tend to spring into action for the signing session.
New authors might have to contend with any number of very particular signing requests from dealers:
I need you to sign your name, the date, the location, the temperature and degrees both latitude and longitude, and then follow this with a chosen passage from your book, the name of your favourite novelist, your sexual preferences and a full cash flow projection.
Established authors meanwhile can be faced with the dreaded bag full of backlist first editions, all requiring signatures to increase value.
If you’re an author and you’re attracting dealers, then in some ways, you’re probably doing something right.
However, I know some authors get annoyed at having to sign books which the recipient has no intention of reading.
In this instance, I feel the author would be justified if they discreetly bent back the book’s spine, you know, just to get it started.
Some authors actually date their signature when faced with older backlist titles too. Hee hee!
As an industry, we number editions and produce many limited copies (I have written blogposts on how Indies missed out on Pullman limited editions and other special editions) so we shouldn’t really be surprised by subsequent interest from collectors and dealers.
It comes with the territory.
Any new author bothered by the attention can always tell the dealer:
Ha, well maybe I’ll just sink back into dark unremitting oblivion. Then the joke will be on you.
E is for Empty
Yes, it’s every shop’s nightmare: in spite of publicising the hell out of your event, hardly anybody has turned up, including those with tickets, and there’s only one minute to go.
You may find yourself at this point actually clearing a few chairs away, and hoping the author doesn’t notice.
Well, as a wise person once said: if you can’t have more bums on seats, you can always have the same number of bums on less seats.
One thing you should never do in this instance is to publicly announce:
Shall we just give it a few more minutes?
This will inevitably be followed by you, the author and what constitutes the “crowd” spending the next five minutes gazing forlornly across the room in the general direction of an empty space or a resolutely closed door.
You should do everything you can in advance to prevent a sparsely attended event: plead with your staff, your family, your friends, the homeless, anyone. Use bribery or blackmail if you have to.
Just get people in there.
Otherwise it’s you that gets to feel like the unloved crap host of your own failed birthday party.
Mind you, I asked one of my friends once to do a bit of seat-filling at an event and her response was:
If you can’t get normal people to attend, why the hell should I?
F is for Fees
I met an author recently who had the following complaint:
She was asked to appear at a bookshop event with other authors in a panel format.
The entry price was 5 pounds per head and there were about 100 people in attendance.
The author’s complaint was that she didn’t get so much as a cup of tea, let alone any money.
Obviously at the time I told her this was a disgrace (I’m a shameless Yes Woman at heart) but will now, in the spirit of fairness, attempt to see the situation, particularly the “not getting any money”, from both sides.
The shop’s point of view:
- The shop was open after hours. They have to pay staff, electricity and other running costs, plus the price of returning stock. Money raised from the event is not pure profit.
- The author has already been paid by the publisher in the form of an advance.
- This event and the terms of this event had both been fully agreed in advance with the author’s publishers.
- The author will earn money from book sales on the night. If she say earned one pound per hardback book sold and 30 were sold, well this is already more than bookshop staff will be getting for the same 2-3 hour period.
- The shop is enabling the author to meet and read to the public and fans of her work.
- The author is being asked albeit tacitly to support bookshops. Events help bookshops survive and stay open. The shop can then go on to sell more books. Authors tend to earn more from books sold through bricks and mortar bookshops than from on-line sellers, so appearing for free and helping the shop’s future existence is ultimately in the author’s interest.
- The Society of Authors advice is as follows:
Bookshop appearances are generally part of a sales tour and fees are not usually paid.
The author’s point of view:
- The time spent on this event is more than the 2-3 hours of the actual event. There is also preparation time and travel.
- Thank you, but in this day and age, the author doesn’t need any help meeting the public. The public are there if needed at the click of the button. If anything, for an author, time away from the public might be more helpful.
- The author will happily support a shop by appearing for free if the shop is independent or struggling, but how does this work if the shop is owned by investors and reporting pre-tax profits of 18 million pounds?
- This event, being a panel discussion includes original material. It is not just a case of reading excerpts from a book. The event therefore has the feel of a one-off Festival Event which would normally be paid.
- If 100 people paid 5.00 to see a band play, it seems more than likely that some of that money would find its way to the musicians.
- It is not unknown for a bookshop to pay authors for events.
- OK, the author may be earning more money than bookshop staff, but that suggests that the staff are not getting a fair share of the money raised from successful events either.
- The Society of Authors also advises:
If the event is intended to make a profit for the hosts, reasonable fees should be paid to the author as a matter of course.
The author can’t believe that most of that 500 pounds won’t be profit even after expenses incurred on the night. So cough up you bastards. (Sorry, the author is getting quite angry now!)
One thing is for sure: the bare minimum to give any author at an event should be a cup of tea, preferably food and drink.
It sounds to me that if a shop is not offering the author so much as a cup of tea, then the author is being taken for granted.
Maybe the shop is hosting too many events and forgetting that authors are special guests after all and should be treated as such.
Working for free or for publicity reasons is very much the modern author’s lot.
It is strange that a children’s illustrator can paint a shop window display, which can take a number of hours, and receive no pay, at least not from the shop.
Meanwhile, a window cleaner can clean the outside of the windows in a flash (or possibly with Flash) and receive a good pound per minute minimum for his/her troubles.
G is for Gift
Yes, the gift of reading.
No, I’m actually talking about having a little something to give to your guest speaker as a thank you, just a small token.
Well, not an actual Book Token, though they’d probably prefer that to half the rubbish they get presented with:
Wow, thanks. I don’t know what it is yet, but the oily grease has really soaked through that paper bag.
H is for Host
On the night of an event, authors will need introducing at the beginning and thanking at the end.
They might also need someone to chair question-taking, Dimbleby-style or Kyle-style, depending on the event.
This is where you come in as the host, or if not you, then someone else who knows how to talk proper.
Anything you want to do beyond this is really up to you, but be warned: the public will know if you are winging it.
Don’t attempt to host a Scottish Crime panel if you don’t read crime books, preferably Scottish ones.
You will be immediately exposed as a nodding sham, and totally out of your depth.
You know that dream where you’re on stage in front of a huge crowd, and your teeth fall out and you look down and you’re naked and wait, is that dear departed Grandmother coming towards you?
Yes. It will be a bit like that, only real.
I is for Inspiration
You should always host author events because you are hugely keen on books and no other reason.
Do it out of passion, not for the money, or because you might win a Nibbie (or whatever they are called these days) or because it’s what other shops do.
In fact, with every large bookshop and many small bookshops being pretty event-focussed these days, you’d be more original not to do events.
And don’t kid yourself: you are not a literary salon, you are not making history, and there is nothing rive gauche about the corporate treadmill that is Most Book Events in the Modern Era, basically a touring circus, with the same events popping up all over the country, and many of the authors as coerced as incarcerated circus elephants, forced into joyless unrewarded displays of synchronisation.
I’m kidding, they love it.
But your own enthusiasm should be the driving power. That will carry everyone else through.
J is for Journey
It’s good to keep an eye on an author’s movements (no, not those movements).
- When do they arrive?
- When do they leave?
- Do they need picking up?
- Should I book a taxi?
- Helipad? Crikey. Maybe we should have ordered more than 10 copies.
All that stuff.
Some authors like to arrive with great fanfare and noise, accompanied by a coterie of agents, publicity types, hangers-on and people constantly on the phone to other people.
Others will discreetly arrive at your shop, unnoticed and sometimes incognito.
One author was in our shop browsing for a good half an hour pre-event before we could confirm who he was.
We made the age-old mistake of trying to recognise him from the picture on his book jacket.
We forgot to add on 15 years, a receding hairline and a high-watt light bulb.
K is for Knobhead
After everything I said (above) about welcoming difficult authors to the shop, well there was one author who really took the biscuit, pretty much the whole packet of biscuits in fact (fig rolls too!) and pushed us just too damn far.
This particular author has quite a large backlist, so in the run up to our event, we liaised with his team to find out which books we should order in.
We were told that there was no particular book to feature so we ordered a pretty even spread of titles.
Come the night and blow me, almost the entire talk centred round one very particular (and quite old) title, of which we only had a handful.
Naturally, these sold out within minutes.
So, all a bit annoying but hey, we’ll let it go.
At this point however, the author, with a huge queue of devotees waiting in line, opens up his canvas bag and pulls out a large pile of this very title, and proceeds to sell them to customers himself.
Again, pretty annoying, but we can rise above it.
While selling his own book, I can clearly hear the author saying:
I like to bring my own copies. You can’t rely on bookshops to get the right titles in.
And lo! The camel’s back did break!
We immediately belted the author round the head with a copy of Lost Words and kicked his sorry ass out onto the street.
(My memory might have failed me there. We may have just simmered. Extensively.)
L is for Local Authors
When you first decide to host events at your shop, it’s highly unlikely that mainstream publishers are going to send you huge household names right from the start.
They will probably want to see a track record and a bit of previous.
One of the ways round this is to find out which authors live locally to your shop and to try and attract them. Publishers can often advise on this.
A local author (by which I mean a published author who lives locally) will be far more likely to want to support their own local bookshop with an event, they won’t have too far to go back on the night and hell, he/she might even bring along some seat-filling buddies.
As a shop, you can then dip your toes into the world of events and see if you like it.
When you host events on a regular basis, you will probably get a few enquiries from self-published local authors too.
Some shops are happy to host self-published book launches, others are (to put it mildly) unwilling, or offer a charge for use of premises.
One self-published children’s author pitched an event to us using the following line:
Oh. I do some wonderful things with carrots. The kids go crazy.
I have to say I passed on his offer and our local kids never got to come to a bookshop and see wonderful things being done with carrots.
Clearly I am a huge killjoy.
M is for Music
Yes. Literature events are fab, but you can always shake things up with the occasional music event:
Whether it be:
- The wondrous folk sounds of the Joanne Harris Storytime Band.
- Quality pub rock cover versions from the don’t-mess-with-us Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers (featuring Mark Billingham, Christopher Brookmyre and Val McDermaid).
- The acoustic cello-lead harmonies of the delightful Bookshop Band, now 13 albums old and writers of our fave song: A Shop With Books In. What? You don’t know it? Then you need to cop a load of this immediately.
- Children’s illustrators with ukuleles performing heavy rock songs about kids’ books under the name Mog-a-death.
- For those about to read Fox in Socks, we salute you.
- All Along The Malory Towers.
- Smells like teen fiction.
- Bring your daughter to the illustration workshop.
The interesting thing about staging a music gig is that you sometimes get asked for things other than pens:
- Music stands
- A middle C or
- Seven plug points.
Em, no sorry. We’ve got pens.
N is for Narcotics
One visiting author emerged pre-event from our toilet with strange white powder under his nose.
Clearly he must have been attempting to open a bag of flour with his teeth, or some other innocent explanation.
It must have been a particularly tough bag of flour to crack as he had to go back and give it another couple of attempts over the course of the evening.
Needless to say, we gave our facilities a thorough clean afterwards and adopted a strict No Sniffer Dogs In The Shop policy for the next two years.
O is for Open or Closed?
Do you keep your shop open or closed during an event?
This largely depends on the type of event, expected numbers, size of shop etc.
If you do attempt an event while the shop is open, you will inevitably get a bit of public chat overspill drifting across your event:
No. They don’t have what I want here.
I’m not sure it’s actually a proper bookshop.
We’ll have to try Waterworks. What’s the other one?
There seems to be some kind of event taking place.
Who is it? I don’t recognise him.
No. It’s not David Walliams.
On the other hand, you will get to go home on time.
With daytime events, you also run the risk of customers thinking your author is a staff member.
One lady queued up very patiently to meet our author, who was sat at a table.
Eventually she got to the front and asked him if she could buy a 30 pound book token.
P is for Publicists
You will have to deal with Publicists when you put events on.
The relationship between Publicists and Booksellers is a bit like the relationship between your left ankle and your liver, both an essential part of the same functioning body, but operating in completely different spheres.
There can be a slight mutual wariness between the two, but ultimately our goal is both the same: to put on the most successful event possible.
Plus it’s always worth bearing in mind that if an event goes belly up, it’s the publicist who will bear the brunt of it from the author, both during the event, after the event, at the hotel, on the train, next week, next month, next year and across the frozen wastelands of the Arctic until both their dying days.
So you should probably forgive publicists any tendency to over-stick their neck into your event a bit.
Q is for Questions
The questions section of an event is where you throw your friendly author into the lion pit.
Though the authors always seem to cope admirably, as the event organiser I can’t help but feel a touch protective:
Yes. It is because of me that our lovely accomodating author is currently being shouted at by a crazed six-foot-six ranting unshaven loon in full-camouflage army fatigues. I made this happen.
Some of the questions asked can be incredibly long and torturous:
One recent lady was so at home having the floor, that she managed to take off a layer of clothing and apply lip balm mid-question without missing a beat.
I was all ready for her to start peeling vegetables.
Many of the questions aimed at authors seem to be a cunning mix of statements and opinion with, at no point, any actual discernible question.
Plus one quite recent question was about a book written by a completely different author.
Oh, so you didn’t write that then. That is a shame. Well I’m sure your book is just as good.
At a children’s event, one of the kids asked our author:
How much money do you earn?
(See, no pussyfooting around there. Kids get straight to the heart of the matter.)
The author took the audience through a list of where all the money goes from the sale of one paperback book.
The author’s share was a matter of pennies and pretty minimal.
When he got to the part about how the bookseller takes 40%, “so about three pounds per copy”, the kids all turned round and glared at me in disgust as if I had literally just wrestled to the ground and violently robbed their favourite and thoroughly hilarious author.
I felt quite awful, and thrust suddenly into the spotlight, couldn’t think of anything to say.
I eventually sputtered out something about “overheads.”
It turns out that you can’t win over a bunch of outraged bloodthirsty nine-year-olds by invoking “overheads.”
R is for Returns
Returning unsold stock back to the publishers is one of the main bookseller tasks after an event, having of course told the author:
Don’t worry. We’ll sell them through, no problem.
Publishers are not supposed to take back signed stock so you have to be very diplomatic when an author offers to “sign the rest of the stock.”
You must be very tired. Let’s just do few. Hark. Do I hear a fire alarm?
S is for Signing
Authors are usually very happy to sign and dedicate books for attendees.
This way they get to learn all about today’s strange spellings of forenames:
Allisun, Kylee, Niklass, Jennifa, Mahtinn.
A few authors now ask that all names are written out beforehand on post-it-pads to prevent a whole evening of: “And how do you spell that?” conversations and spoilt books.
Some of the dedications asked for are quite unique:
Can you just tell Dave that it’s over between us. Coming from you, he might believe it.
T is for Ticket Price
You have to be careful when deciding on the price of event tickets.
Too low and you might undersell the night:
I’m not going to a two quid event. It might be rubbish.
Too high, and you might price people out, or be accused of making money.
If you go for a free event, you’ve no guarantee that half the people will turn up, particularly annoying if it’s a “sellout.”
One solution to all this is to include the price of a (signed) book in the entrance fee, or make it so that the attendee can subsequently use the ticket as a voucher that can be redeemed against the purchase of a signed book.
This is a good way of guaranteeing book sales pre-event (something publicists love to hear about) and it might even stop people bringing along cheap Book People editions. Well, we can dream!
The only downside to this is that the whole pricing system starts to become as complicated as one of those
Buy Three Books Get The Cheapest For Free and The Second Book For The Price Of The Third Book When You Add A Toblerone
offers so beloved of large chains a few years back.
U is for Useful Links
For actual useful information about putting on events, and altogether less stuff about sniffer dogs, go to:
(The latter is aimed at Schools, Libraries and Festivals primarily, but very much worth a read.)
V is for Venue
You can have events in your shop, or to get out of tidying up, have an event somewhere else: cafes, churches, halls, colleges or schools for instance.
If you collaborate with a well-organised school, you may get to use lines like
We’re expecting 300 people
which always sounds good, even if attendance is obligatory.
In schools, anything that happens in lesson time that is not actually part of the lesson is an immense treat for pupils (a fire drill, a wasp, going to the toilet) so with a visiting author, you are pretty much arranging something on a par with the original Moon Landing and everyone will love you for it.
W is for World Cup
You hate football, your staff members hate football and your customers hate football.
In all your years of the bookshop, no-one has ever talked about football at all.
Yet, the minute you schedule a literature event during the World Cup, everybody and their Uncle will apparently decide to stay at home and watch Luxembourg play Tanzania. Guaranteed.
X is for X-Rated
Effing, geffing, adult content, sexual swear words, graphic descriptions of surgery: yes, we’ve had it all in our shop events over the years.
And I can honestly boast: not a single walk-out. Well done people.
(Unrelated Fact: we lock everyone in.)
Y is for YA Fiction
I love YA fiction, you love YA fiction, and YAs love YA fiction.
In fact, a lot of YA fiction outsells A fiction. It’s a boom time.
However, it can be quite difficult to get people to attend YA events. We’ve had prize-winning authors struggle to pull a crowd.
Maybe teenagers are happy to read the book and that’s it, job done.
Perhaps they are just a bit busy with exams and everything.
So we are happy to stock and sell YA titles and happy to support author visits to schools, but just a little wary about putting on YA events ourselves.
We’ll stick to OA fiction (old adults) in the future.
Z is for Zzzzzzz
This is how I feel after an event, what one or two attendees have done mid-event (helps if you don’t snore) and what the occasional author has managed to nip in, pre-event.
Shall we wake her up? She’s on in five minutes?
No. Let’s take it up to the wire. Far more fun.