It's not easy being a first-time author. If you're lucky, the company that published your baby will pay for you to travel to a few far-flung bookstores, where you'll give readings from your work. But what you'll often find at those readings, after you've shlepped all the way to Boise or Missoula, is an audience of three, one of whom quickly realizes he's in the wrong place and leaves.
Cindy Dach, marketing and events coordinator at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., has found a formula that might save those babies. Assuming that there's strength in numbers, Dach selected five debut fiction authors whose books looked promising and called the authors' publicists with a proposition. "I said that like many other stores, we have a very difficult time getting audiences for first fiction events, and we would like to try getting five first-time authors together and having them read in a bar with free food."
Once Dach explained the advantages of pooling resources and readers, the publicists warmed to her plan. As the event developed, one of the publicists even began referring to it as "Bookapalooza," after the ground-breaking multiband summer tour Lollapalooza.
Dach is certainly aware of the parallels between "Bookapalooza" and Lollapalooza, and in some cases she's emphasized them. In designing the poster for the event, she requested that it resemble the poster for a rock concert rather than a reading. The designer obliged, and it didn't hurt that the five authors, whose head shots run along the bottom of the poster, are particularly photogenic (and younger than a lot of the musicians on the road these days).
There's Nell Freudenberger, whose picture has already appeared (full page, no less) in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue, and whose dreamy loveliness belies the precision and authority that mark her magnificent debut collection, Lucky Girls (Ecco). And Julie Orringer, an elegant, otherworldly blonde whose first collection of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf), was called "wonderful" by Charles Baxter. Next comes Ryan Harty, the rangy author of a spare, evocative book of stories called Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona (University of Iowa Press)—and also Orringer's husband. Then there's Nic Kelman, who wrote Girls (Little, Brown), a steamy meditation on older men who bed younger women, and who looks the part of the hip intellectual, with his long dark hair, goatee and glasses. And finally Audrey Niffenegger, a wry book artist whose compelling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife (MacAdam/Cage), rocketed up the bestseller list and was just optioned by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who plan to star in the movie.
As added incentive, Dach arranged to hold the event not at the bookstore, where readings usually take place, but at Monti's, a locally owned bar/restaurant near Arizona State University. The owner of Monti's agreed to offer five-cent first drinks and free food. The restaurant also made its terrific sound system available to Dach and company.
On the night of the reading, scheduled to take place outside on Monti's patio, the weather cooperated: a 100-degree heat wave had recently broken, and people began to trickle past the large display of pumpkins for sale at the restaurant's entrance and into the long, narrow brick patio area. The food—pasta, bread, finger foods—was set up on a table inside. People nibbled, but mostly they seemed interested in those nickel drinks. The authors stood together, chatting—some of them knew each other and had appeared at events together, others were meeting for the first time. By the time the reading got underway, some 70 people occupied the dozen or so cafe tables on the patio and a few more leaned against the restaurant wall.
The reading itself lasted about 90 minutes: each author read for 10 minutes or so, just long enough to give the audience a taste for more. Except for the occasional low-flying jet overhead, there were no interruptions. Passersby stopped to see what was going on, and a few stuck around to listen. When the reading had ended, a brief question-and-answer period followed, and then Dach announced that the authors would mingle and sign books, which they did with a spirit of conviviality until the audience dispersed.
At a breakfast the next morning, Dach got a chance to ask the five authors what they thought of the experience. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Freudenberger noted that the people who came to the reading stayed till the end, had or bought books and had questions. Orringer enjoyed hearing everybody else's work. Kelman reported that the most-asked question after the reading was, "Where are you guys going next?" as if the group of writers was a band on tour. And everyone agreed that taking the show on the road together would be a treat.
Dach said the store plans to tour next year's First Fiction lineup to four independent bookstores.