Every element of the publishing process is wired to sell more books, but sometimes book events don’t deliver sales in the way we’d expect them to. With this in mind, I propose a renewed approach to how we put on book events that will work to remedy this.
I’ll start by telling you a personal story. I grew up surrounded by literary obsession and I’ve seen where its single mindedness can lead. My father has made it his life's work to read and write about the literature and life of Thomas Hardy. By day a rural GP, my father spends his spare time organising conferences, attending memorial services, giving lectures, guiding walks, campaigning and writing books: all about Thomas Hardy. From reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles behind us in the queue at theme parks, to giving my son a Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy well before his first birthday, to the 6ft oil painting of Thomas Hardy that bore down on me as I watched "Top of the Pops" in our lounge, Hardy has been ever-present in our family life.
To me my father represents the literary community we operate in, that engaged comfortable publishing bubble. A world in which we are so focused on our authors, so passionate about the books we work on, on the industry that we rightly treasure, yet often I wonder if this is at the cost of a broader perspective.
On the other hand there’s my mother, who left school when she was 16 to become a nurse, and who is the most voracious reader. She is the one person I know who will find a new author she loves, read everything by them and then ask for recommendations based on that author. She’s the one person I know to consistently pick a book up in the supermarket and try something new.
And yet, despite the nature of my business, despite having worked in publishing for nearly 14 years, I’ve not once succeeded in getting my mother to come to a book event. Not even the lure of her beloved Peter James at Harrogate on her birthday weekend could do it. She says she doesn’t understand what book events are about, they’re held in the type of places she’d never go and she’s worried about what is expected of her. This from the lady who took me, aged 12, to my first gig at Wembley.
Which left me wondering...how do I get people like my mother to come to book events? How do I get people who are already comfortable with the live experience - going to gigs, to the theatre, to festivals - to come to book events? And how do I get people who are already coming to book events to stop being bored?
My answer is a new approach to literary events; one that puts the audience first.
Herewith, is a short guide to maximising the impact of your book events to make sure they sell more books by way of four Ps: performance, place and positioning, and the role of the publisher.
The scope of live events is far greater than is being currently exploited by publishing. The default format for more traditional book events tends to be 45 minutes of chaired conversation followed by a Q&A, with five-10 minutes of reading. Now, I might pay good money to see Thom Yorke being interviewed about how he made the latest Radiohead album but I’d be doing it knowing that I’d much rather hear Radiohead play the album live. And it’s this I keep in mind when planning my events. That the first way to make events more entertaining is to put the books themselves back at the heart of the event, in place of discourse around the books and have the focus of the evening be the author reading their own work in some capacity.
Too often the books themselves are conspicuously absent from the events trying to sell the books. So where appropriate, let’s give the platform back to the perfectly crafted stories & characters themselves.
So with the author on stage reading their own work, I then look which theatrics I can harness to bring the reading to life. The three keys of event production are that audio delivers emotion, lighting effects mood and visual provides stimulation. Is there a soundscape that can be woven around the author’s reading, a short film or some images that can run behind the author, can the author bring in some elements of audience participation? Just a glimpse at performance within the spoken word world can teach mainstream publishing a lot about how to integrate these elements into the creative process.
When I put on events, I want the collective experience of the audience in the room to mirror the same connection they have as individual readers when they read a book. Once you’ve achieved that connection, you’ve as good as put the book in their hand and sold it to them.
As Maya Angelou says: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Place and positioning
So how do we draw in a bigger, broader pool of readers to our book events? In his post-Brexit editorial, The Bookseller’s Phillip Jones said: "Our publishing must be broader, our audiences wider, our bases more evenly spread…" And I steadfastly agree. The answer is in part place and positioning. Where we put the events on - the venues - and the other forms of entertainment we place the authors and their books alongside; and reaching outside of our comfort zone to do so.
We know that books can be bought in any manner of retail outlets and that by selling books next to the fruit and vegetable aisle in Sainsburys or on the till in Topshop you expand your audience. By contrast the majority of book events remain firmly in context, with authors alongside other authors in bookshops or at literary festivals.
So I always try to think as broadly as possible when considering appropriate venues and contexts for book events.
As well as attracting a broader audience, unique and unusual venues and billings can be perfect for simulatenously placing the book in context and making it stand out. The venues too, in terms of interest or location, bring with them their regulars, their mailing lists, their broader non-publishing demographic.
Over the years for clients and collaborating with partners and colleagues, I’ve put on book events in pubs, in parks, in bookshops, in literary festivals, at music festivals, in the dark, in a boxing ring, in a cathedral, in theatres, in a former Victorian workhouse as part of a community festival, poetry at a film festival, placing poets alongside pop stars, politicians alongside novelists, spoken word alongside The Gruffalo.
There’s no doubt in my mind that growth in book events is enriched by leveraging the power of other mediums and other spaces. In no other part of the business do we wait for the audience to come to us; we need to go out and find them. One of my favourite examples of cross-arts pollination was Owen Jones supporting Paloma Faith on tour in the lead up to the 2015 general election, shortly after the release of The Establishment.
Look at your role as a publisher in relation to events and consider beginning to host some events yourself. That’s if you’re not doing it already and many are (see Faber Social, Pan Macmillan Live, Penguin Live, HarperCollins).
Direct-to-consumer sales is nothing new in publishing, but when it comes to events, it’s still early days.
By hosting your own events as publishers, you get to put your brand centre stage and make sure that the audience know exactly who you and your authors are. From the venue to the content to the billing, you set the agenda.
As publishers you can offer your audience things no one else can - from pre-publication readings to multi-author and -book ticket bundles, to live streaming of your events through your social media channels.
By hosting your own events you can develop and maintain a relationship with your audience and become a constant on the journey from pre-event warm up right through to post-event communications and content offerings. And that’s whether they are in the room or not.
A caveat. I have learned much of what I know about events from working with bookshops and literary festivals, and if there was ever a time to appreciate the value of partnerships and working together, it is now. No man is an island. So I’m not suggesting these ideas replace the usual avenues for book events. Rather I encourage you, where opportunities present themselves, to boldly test these new waters yourself. The recent Shore to Shore tour hosted by Picador is the perfect example of a publisher leading an events programme, whilst working in close partnership with 15 independent bookshops.
And if I haven’t convinced you yet, here are some stats to get your minds whirring. The most recent statistics show that the UK events economy is worth £42.3 billion of which £1.1 billion is arts and culture. That £42.3 billion is enough money to put on London’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony 1,567 times. And that attracted an audience of 900 million worldwide.
It seems clear that we are living in an age of experience, where value is placed on doing rather than having. A survey by Eventbrite titled "Millenials: Fuelling the Exerperience Economy" shows that in the US "more than three in four millennials (78%) would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable, and 55% of millennials say they’re spending more on events and live experiences than ever before".
That literary events need a closer look and a little more care and attention is what keeps me going and learning every day. Ultimately to gain broader audiences to book events, our programming must be more inclusive, more diverse and less singular. The days of all-white publishing lists, all-white publishing teams and all-white all-male literary panels must be a thing of the past and as illustrated by this year’s Bare Lit festival or groups like Killer Women, events offer a powerful platform that redress imbalance and bring those voices to the fore.
There has never been a better time for live events and as publishers, now is the time to view them as a more central part of your business.
Becky Fincham is director of Bigmouth Book Events, Festivals & Tours. This piece is adapted from her talk at The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference, which took place on 28th June 2016. Fincham is on Twitter @beckyfincham.