I went to an author reading and only six people showed up, five others and me. Two were the organizers and one of them had to leave early. Yikes.
I wasn’t the author reading (wipes sweat from brow), but the smallness of the audience made me cringe.
I bought two of the author’s books at that author reading.
How could I not? I felt sorry for the author.
So why such a bad showing last night?
Here are the facts:
- In our community in southern Oregon, it’s hard to get people to come out for any author readings. (It’s even hard to get them to come to parties. I don’t know why. Maybe because they are so happy and well adjusted and like staying home?)
- Especially if it is 101 degrees outside and the week of July 4th.
- Especially if the author is not well known.
- Especially if the author does not work his or her tail off to get an audience.
We want to be writers. We want to spend our time finding le mot juste and crafting the perfect plot. But once you’ve written a book don’t you also want people to read it?
The uncomfortable truth is that publishing a book, even with the biggest most respected publishing house in America, is not enough in today’s world (unless you’re Stephen King).
In today’s world, you also have to promote it, work as hard as you can to get above the noise, and make sure people come when you do an author reading.
So how can you make sure people show up, you get a robust turn-out, and have a successful author reading in which you actually sell some books?
1. Go to other author events: If you want people to support you, you need to support them. You can’t expect people to come out for your event if you’re always in your pajamas by 7:00 p.m. Showing up in real life is a powerful tool for success, one that is becoming a lost art in our digital-social-media age.
2. Join forces with other authors: There’s also power in numbers. More people are likely to show up to hear a panel of authors than just one. Each author at the reading theoretically brings part of the audience. It’s also more fun for the audience. “The most successful book events I’ve been to feature multiple authors,” says Rochelle Melander, Write Now! Coach and author of Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (And Live to Tell About It). “When more than one author shares a genre—romance, mystery, YA—and they each bring their people, there’s always a bigger audience.”
3. Call everyone you know in the area and invite them personally: The author last night has some friends and contacts in southern Oregon but she didn’t reach out to them. It’s not enough to invite people via email. It just isn’t.
You have to get on that old-fashioned device called the phone.
Because we all get flooded with dozens of invitations via email, Facebook, and Evite. But how many times has a friend or someone you know who is an author called you on the real live actual factual telephone to tell you about an event and to say, “I think your presence will really enhance our evening. I hope you can come.” Never, right? But with such a kind invitation, wouldn’t you do everything you can to get there (especially if this author has shown up for you in the past, see #1)?
4. Be part of an event that already has an established audience: Why There Are Words is monthly literary event in Sausalito, California founded by Peg Alford Pursell to build community and showcase Bay Area fiction authors, and it is always packed. “It’s become a Thing. That people want to go to,” says my writer friend Susan Ito, editor of The Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories of Adoption. If you can appear at a regularly scheduled event that is already popular, you have a built-in audience and guaranteed buzz.
5. Make it worthwhile for the audience: I can’t stress this enough. Your event has to be worth going to and your audience needs to leave feeling satisfied. People are keenly interested in writing, the writing process, and the changing world of publishing. Instead of billing your event as a book promotion, try offering something concrete to the audience. If this writer had titled her talk: “How a 62-year-old middle school teacher wrote and published a YA fantasy novel, and how you can too,” or “How to write and publish a novel (you know you want to),” she would have gotten a much bigger turn-out. I know the events that I’ve done that are how-to get much larger audiences than the I-wrote-this-book-and-I’m-going-to-read-it-to-you events.
6. Serve refreshments (see #5). People always appreciate being fed! “There are always more people when edibles and drinkables are involved!” said artist and writer Anna Elkins, author of The Honeylicker Angel, who used to organize a local monthly author reading. “It immediately feels less library-ish.”
7. Entertain your audience: Don’t be longwinded! Make lots of eye contact! Don’t read boring passages (you don’t really have to read at all. They can buy the book and read it themselves). Have something to say beyond, “I’m so great, buy my book.” Be funny! When my colleague Edwin Battistella, author of Sorry About That, gave a reading recently at Bloomsbury Books (which was standing room only), he charmed the audience with a great joke at the beginning at the expense of the person who introduced him. It was brilliant.
8. Have the book signing in someone’s home: Bookstores are doing less and less to get an audience but literary salons held in private homes are often packed with eager listeners. Instead of having a venue (like a bookstore or a synagogue) host your event, find a well-connected person to invite people to his or her home.
“People like coming to homes more than going to a noisy bookstore,” says Susan Ito, who used to host a regular literary salon in her home. “We had wine and cheese and snacks, and a local bookstore actually came and sold books in my living room. Anything to make it more personal.”
9. If all else fails, remember it is quality over quantity: If your public reading has a tiny turn-out, put your whole heart into it anyway. The six people who do come may be the best connected in the area and may be able to work wonders for your book. Network like crazy with them, ask them questions about themselves and their work, and make sure they leave feeling good.
What have I forgotten? What advice do you have about how to get a good turn-out at author events?
Jennifer Margulis is a full-time freelance writer, Fulbright awardee, and the author/editor of seven non-fiction books. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. Her most recent book is the Amazon bestseller, The Vaccine-Friendly Plan (Ballantine, 2016), co-authored with Dr. Paul Thomas, an integrative Dartmouth-trained pediatrician based in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Watch her interviews in all seven episodes of the documentary The Truth About Vaccines.