Author events are ripe for reinvention

Author events are ripe for reinvention

The UK is not short of author events (just take a look at HarperCollins' recently revamped BookGig).

There are straightforward readings (Vangaurd Readings). There are readings pimped with music (Faber Social). There are spoken-word open mics (Hammer and Tongue). There are year-round talks (Southbank Centre), and workshops (School of Life), and oh! festivals galore: local (Margate), digital (Scot Lit Fest), genre-focused (BFIVoyager), LBGTQ-focused (Penguin Pride) and sourdough-focused (Port Eliot), alongside the familiar literary giants, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Oxford and co.

But. A big but.

Nearly all of these events are firmly preaching to the converted - people who already own an author's books, or think books are engaging/ relevant/ worth their money and time. And even most avid readers still don't consider 'book gigs'  as something they seek out as a regular part of their live entertainment diet, alongside films, concerts, plays, dance or sports events.

Don't get me wrong, most of these existing events are time-tested and engaging and work brilliantly for their target audiences. But when it comes to attracting new readers - not to mention providing an extra revenue stream for an industry with a super-cheap and easily pirated physical product - there's still a huge opportunity to exploit.

Here are a handful of ideas as to how.

Claire Farrington and Leonora Fyfe in Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad - photo Ben Bowles @ Margate Bookie

Separate events from marketing. Sure, events are super-useful for marketing. But people don't want to be marketed to. They want to have a good time. So authors and their publishers would do well to start thinking about events as creative products in their own right: mini-adaptations of books, or mini-immersions in the author's brand.  They should be actively co-created, not just delegated to marketing teams, bookshops or publicists, and edited beyond a lazy first draft. They don't have to be expensive, but they do have to be genuinely immersive and exciting. Otherwise they simple reinforce the idea that books are for tired middle-aged white West Londoners who like standing around in wooden-clad nooks muttering over passages of Literature with glasses of warm wine.

Create better partnerships. Books are no longer part of a rarified 'publishing' landscape. They're part of a ruthless, eyeball-grabbing, data-wielding entertainment industry. They cannot remain separate and superior; they have to learn to play with the other kids. In this context, smart and unexpected partnerships are key. Where are people who aren't hooked on books spending their time - and how can we partner with those places to create fresh, surprising events? From KFC to cinemas, Snapchat to supermarkets, gaming dens to shopping malls, author events need to infiltrate the wider world.

Experiment with format. For all their bold claims, most book events tend to involve a few minor tweaks to a very familiar formula - plonking an author on a stage (digital or physical) and getting them to either read from their book, talk about their book, or participate in a panel with other people who have also written books. There is so much more that can be done. Last year, the author Matthew Blakstad collaborated with the actress Tracey Brown to pilot OFF Book, a night where emerging actors played out scenes from debuts. It was a rough and ready experiment, but a nice example of a theatre-literature hybrid. What other strange lovechildren might we create with audio, games, film, music, even sports? From super-long, overnight unadbridged readings to single-chapter pop-ups used to reinvigorate office coffee breaks, there are so many more ways to be playful and provocative.

Reinvent the author tour. Yes, reading is an inherently anti-social pastime. Many writers are inherently anti-social too. But as Andrew Keen wrote for us last week, "in our electronic media age, there is increasingly appetite for physical experience. Given the virtualization of commerce and communication, we - particularly young people, the so-called “ digital natives” - desperately seek physical interaction with other humans." What better time for new Dickens to emerge? The relentless Victorian self-promoter toured the world bringing his blend of reading, drama, comedy and social comment to delighted nineteenth-century audiences. Sure, not many authors would be comfortable shouldering a full one-(wo)man show. But devising a short, sweet, surprising and authentic experience to tour would be so much more inspiring - for everyone concerned - than the usual round of limp signings and press junkets.

Collect more data. At last December's FutureBook conference, Sara Lloyd talked about how Pan Macmillan used the high-tech mechanic of takeaway coffee cups to collect information from people waiting in line at a book launch. Whether it's through coffee cups or social media signups, on-the-ground vox pops or clever competitions, more and better data will help book people to refine, target and experiment with their events in fresh ways.