For many authors, live readings and events are the best part about writing books. It’s a chance to celebrate the completion of a years-long effort, to interact with enthusiastic fans, or to introduce an audience to one’s writing. But, though they can be fun, author events require plenty of work not only to draw a crowd, but to ensure that they provide long-term value.
Any author would be delighted to show up at a bookstore to find a room packed with eager audience members who heard about the event and rushed over to attend. But the reality is that indie authors who hope to fill a room are going to have to do most of the filling themselves.
Beyond designing events in ways that increase the chances that they will draw in friends and fans, authors must work to get people to attend. That means shooting an invite and reminder to their mailing lists, posting about it on social media (including creating event pages on Facebook and Goodreads), and spreading the word through author or writing groups that they are members of. Authors should consider directly reaching out to friends and connections and then following up two days before the event to increase the likelihood they will attend. The direct approach is often more effective than blasting out an invite repeatedly.
Authors should select venues and design events with an eye toward what they think will attract people whom they personally know, whether through social media or in-person contact. “I would focus on the types of events that you can draw your own crowd to, which depends on where the event would take place, the author’s contacts, and the type of book itself,” says Pamela Fagan Hutchins, author of What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too? and a number of romantic mysteries. “If it’s a book on gardening, I would have it at a plant nursery in my hometown, and I would do a q&a with demonstrations, for instance.”
Hutchins should know, having done roughly 200 events in the last few years (most prominently, a 60-cities-in-60-days book tour in 2013), including readings, q&as, signings, workshops, and “just about everything,” as she puts it. For all of these, she was the one who did the majority of the work, alerting her social media followers and connections and following up to be sure that they came out.
“Think of how you can create events around the themes of the book that are fun, unique, and provide a story local bloggers would want to write about,” says Brent Underwood, a partner at marketing and PR firm Brass Check. He gives the example of his client Steve Kamb’s launch of the book Level Up Your Life, about “how to live an epic life.” Kamb eschewed a typical book signing for a light saber battle on the lawn of Austin’s capitol building, even getting a state congressman to sponsor it and receiving coverage from the Austin American-Statesman, among other local outlets.
Jane Friedman, digital-publishing consultant and author of Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide, also urges authors to avoid generic readings where attendees sit and listen while an author reads, and instead make it “truly an event—that sounds entertaining and like a reason to get out of the house.”
Nandita Godbole, a personal chef whose books Crack the Code: Cook Any Indian Meal with Confidence and A Dozen Ways to Celebrate were both funded through Kickstarter, has hosted dinner events at which her books are offered for sale, and attends local book fairs where her titles can be promoted. She says indie authors face a steeper climb in setting up book events than authors who publish traditionally. “I have sent out many proposals for lectures and talks,” she says, “and most replies come back with a ‘Who is your publisher? Sorry we don’t deal with indies.’”
Think Beyond the Book
These sorts of challenges can be mitigated by making events about more than promoting a specific indie book. While turning existing fans out is key when planning events, it can be even more beneficial (and more likely to get buy-in from a venue) to find ways for multiple authors or speakers to attract their respective crowds at once. That can mean a themed event, such as an evening of science fiction or romance authors, or several readings on a related topic. These sorts of gatherings “are fabulous because you have other authors to interact with,” Hutchins says.
“Collaborate with at least one other author, if not several,” Friedman says. “This increases turnout for everyone, and also is a good networking move.”
If authors can connect events to larger conferences taking place, all the better. Even if going solo with a reading, authors should select venues that have their own built-in audiences. For example, a new bar in town that allows an author to host an event prior to its official opening might help entice visitors who want to be the first to check it out.
“The key to a successful event is lining up partner organizations that have as much to gain from a good turnout as you do,” says Alina Adams, author of the book Getting into NYC Kindergarten, published last April. She hosts workshops on navigating New York’s school application system at local businesses that are interested in getting her target market—parents of children ages newborn to four years old—through their doors. “Hosting my workshop allows them to advertise themselves in a new way, while I get access to a customer base I might not have otherwise,” she says.
Unconventional venues and events are worth considering. For example, indie author Pamela Triolo connected with the Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market for an event at which she signed her book, Death Without Cause, donating 10% back to the ballet.
“The event was in the evening, many people attended, they had the means to purchase books, and it was a cause I believed in,” Triolo says. “The volunteers did all of the promotion and promoted the event in Houston through the news.”
Book clubs are also worth pursuing, as they provide engaged and vocal potential fans. Triolo, who is a registered nurse, will be taking part in book clubs at two Canadian universities during National Nursing Week in May.
“The group is buying the books, and I will create customized bookplates that I autograph to each individual who buys a book,” Triolo says. “I’ll send them the bookplates.”
As with book promotion in general, authors can boost interest in their events by offering some kind of giveaway or freebie. While a signed book might be enough to entice readers, more than likely a little something more may be needed. That can mean giving away a free book or e-book (if promoting books in a series, consider offering the previous entry in the series for free to whoever buys the new title), freebies like bookmarks or stickers, or just wine and snacks (depending on the venue’s policy). Authors can also consider raffling off larger gift baskets or prizes.
Generate Wider Interest
In addition to drawing their own crowds through social media and other outlets, authors can help attract greater interest in their events through local press outlets. These include free papers that cover readings or leisure activities, as well as blogs about books or local events. Many offer print or online event calendars.
“Press coverage can be challenging unless you truly have something newsworthy about you, the event, and the book,” Hutchins says. She was able to generate media interest through a large-scale bookstore tour that took her through 38 states in 60 days in an RV—but had less luck generating interest in larger cities, such as Houston, than in smaller locales. “The smaller the community, the more likely you are to get the coverage,” she says.
To get the word out, authors can directly email press contacts they find through online searches or use services such as Cision, which can provide media contacts for a fee. Authors may also consider drafting press releases about their books or events and sending them to editors or posting them on services such as PRWeb. Whatever approach they use, authors should try to identify what editors might find newsworthy and lead with that. For example, a press release for an event about a romance book in January or February could focus on Valentine’s Day.
“Timing is key,” says Samuella Becker, CEO and founder of TigressPR, who has represented a number of indie authors and previously worked as director of corporate relations at Simon & Schuster. “With the presidential election later this fall, those who can give an insider’s perspective of what goes on behind the scenes and have just written about it would be a draw.”
Authors who have trouble receiving media attention can always consider buying it. A small ad in the local paper’s book review section or online may be worth the investment. This is particularly true if authors can use these ads to promote their events and books at the same time, so that those who can’t make an event might consider picking up the book.
This points to the longer-term value of author events: they are an investment of time, energy, and often money, so authors should be sure to get as much out of them as possible. In addition to promoting their books and events in advertisements and press outlets, authors should try to get venues to put up posters or fliers ahead of time to help increase the visibility of their books. At events, authors should try to collect the email addresses of attendees to add to them to their mailing lists and/or encourage visitors to follow them on social media accounts if they don’t already.
“I look at an event as a chance to create the impression even with people who do not come,” Hutchins says. “I want to get as many impressions of my book title, the cover, and my name as I can out of an event.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the title of one of Nandita Godbole's books as Curry Cravings. The book is actually titled Crack the Code: Cook Any Indian Meal with Confidence.