23.08.12 | Lindsey Davis
’Tis the books-in-tents season and I have been pronouncing at Edinburgh on authors as performing seals, and indeed going “barf, barf!” Meanwhile, the Society of Authors are in discussion with the BA on the Keep Bookshops on the High Street campaign, and we have produced guidelines (of course we have) for bookshop events.
I failed to persuade Kate Pool [SoA deputy general secretary] to include “bar that man who sits on the front row and takes his socks off”, but there is wise advice for both hosts and authors. Things that seem obvious after you’ve once got them wrong still need care—making sure the speaker can be seen (especially in shops which generally don’t have a plinth) and heard, which may mean waiting until general customers depart and the coffee shop closes.
Do give the author the venue address (no taxi driver has heard of the Bilbo Baggins Bookshop) and a phone number that won’t go to voicemail when a train is delayed.
Consider giving the author a sandwich (doesn’t have to be smoked salmon).
Good events are vital now. They need to be advertised, mailing lists built up, fliers issued, websites and social media deployed, if possible a plug on local radio. To counteract the recent complaints levelled at Waterstones that its perceived “long queue” policy mitigates against the lesser known, joint appearances can work. Crimewriters have been doing this for decades, with one-off panels as well as regular groups like the Murder Squad who perform together to draw larger audiences.
I am not a fan of straight signings and even book launches can be hard work. Give me “talk, reading and Q&A” events and “story times” for children. They generate a good atmosphere, please readers and encourage sales. This is the one area where we can beat the internet. Only at live appearances can readers really meet authors, learn to love them, ask direct questions and have a copy personalised or inscribed with “Happy Birthday, Auntie Flo”. NB treasure Flo; she may be too old or too shy for the event, or perhaps she’s white-water rafting that week, but she may have introduced the relative to the books they have just bought.
The big problem is that authors are not trained to perform. By definition we work alone, honing words slowly. It’s taken me 25 years to develop my patter, my personal mix of Hattie Jacques as Matron and Jasper Carrott. Most newbies are sent out completely untrained, except the worthy few who take themselves to a “presentation” workshop. They are expected to talk off the cuff, and—eek!—to be engaging. Some find that tough. No one tells them “lift up your head and look at the audience”, let alone “stay sober until afterwards”. It took me years to achieve the rich moment when a woman gurgled to her friend “Isn’t she wonderful? She’s so ordinary!” (Works for me; don’t knock it.)
Hard times mean publishers increasingly question whether events are worthwhile, and in truth they cannot be evaluated. Sales on the night are a dubious gauge—my readers have often bought the book already, but they may well bring a friend who becomes a new fan. Signed copies will sell after the author is long gone. And there is future investment. A reader just wrote to me: “I saw you in Dorchester many years ago. I was the white-haired lady in glasses.” I don’t remember, of course. But that woman has bought every book of mine since.