At a recent gathering of Bob McBarton's Luncheon Society, Dr. Helen Fisher sat in a private room at the Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles surrounded by 25 fellow diners who had come to hear her discuss her new book, Why Him? Why Her? (Holt) at the ambitious literary salon McBarton founded in 1997. After hosting more than 200 authors at luncheons in three cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles and most recently New York City), McBarton could be on his way to becoming the most famous marketer in the book business who's never worked in the industry or written a book. A San Francisco bank executive who loves the written word, McBarton has used his networking skills to create a following of 1,200 people who attend the Luncheon Society events across the country every year.
“It's a laid-back place to kick around some big ideas in the private room of a great restaurant. In a world where talking points are spun to irrelevance, we are a place that promotes spirited conversation with great authors who value the platform of a two- or three-way discussion about why their ideas are important,” said McBarton. “The Luncheon Society helps authors find the right audience in a nontraditional setting. It's really the people around the table that make each event a success and help sell books.”
McBarton works with author escorts and publishers to find speakers as well as tapping into some writer friends. People also have been contacting McBarton (firstname.lastname@example.org) to inquire if he can accommodate various authors who are on book tours at a luncheon in one of the three cities. Word of mouth has brought enough attention to the Luncheon Society that McBarton would like to bring the series to London by 2010.
The gatherings are often memorable. “What's fun is that you never know who'll show up at these things,” McBarton said. “We had a luncheon for Ted Sorensen last year, and Dan Rather joined us around the table at the restaurant.” There was a raucous event with Christopher Hitchens in San Francisco in 2004 where all the guests retired to an outdoor bar after lunch for several hours of drinking and conversation. Two days after the 2006 Academy Awards show, Roger Ebert joined the Luncheon Society in Los Angeles and led the participants in a lively off-the-record debate about the merits of the films Crash and Brokeback Mountain. They closed the restaurant down.
The Luncheon Society members, who pay only for their meals (there are no dues) plus a few dollars toward the author's, are an amalgamation of McBarton's personal interests. They include journalists, political scientists, attorneys, entrepreneurs, scholars, artists and writers. “I'm dialed into a number of interesting networks,” McBarton said. “When the author's message is ping-ponged around a table filled with eclectic people, the word of mouth can really drive sales on a book.”
McBarton supports independent booksellers and utilizes them to make sure books are available for sale at each luncheon. He also provides a booklet that includes bios on the attendees, further ensuring the possibility of extended relationships and the flow of information among booklovers. McBarton, who contacts members via e-mail, averages about two luncheons per month. Upcoming gatherings will hear from Rev. Scotty McLennan discussing his book Jesus Was a Liberal, and later in June Mike Medavoy and Nathan Gardels on their book, American Idol after Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.
Thus far the events have lent themselves more to nonfiction works and the ideas they promote. “That's going to change, though,” said McBarton. “We're open to all styles of writing, and there certainly is fiction out there with themes that our members are passionate about.”
As the publishing industry remains challenged by a shrinking base of marketing opportunities, the Luncheon Society offers a new approach to book and author promotions. “There are no rules and very little structure,” said McBarton, although he does thoughtfully moderate each event. “They happen when they happen. Come to the ones that work with your schedule and pique your interest.”