Cristina Deptula serves as executive director of the green social enterprise Authors, Large and SmallShe enjoys a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, from Bill Bryson to Toni Morrison to Abraham Verghese, and believes there is a place and an audience for every book.
Part 1: Planning an Author Event
Signings and author appearances, while a great way to connect with and build your audience, can be hard to set up. Many authors in town will want to read at the Barnes and Noble, or the quirky indie store, and their calendars will fill up months in advance. So, hosting your own events, at a coffee shop or someone's apartment, can be worthwhile, especially at the beginning of your writing career.
We at Authors, Large and Small have organized many events on behalf of individual authors, nonprofits and publications and also several public gatherings to foster literary community in new areas. Through this two-part piece, I will provide some step-by-step advice on how to make that happen. This first portion will focus on how to plan events, and the next section will deal with how to promote and host and follow up afterwards.
Even if you get in for a signing at a store, the management will likely expect you to bring in your own crowd of potential customers in exchange for being able to read there. You'll need to do much of the promotion on your own, rather than expecting the store to bring you an audience. So these tips will be helpful even for 'official' events.
First of all, you'll need to select a venue. What sort of venue is appropriate depends on what type of event you are organizing. Is this a meet-and-greet for writers, where people will stop by throughout the night and just stay for a few minutes? Is this a party or get-together, or a group reading event? A meet-and-greet won't require such a big or such a quiet space, but you can lose out on the impromptu conversations and community building that can happen when your audience talks and gets to know each other.
Using someone's home can be wonderful, but make sure to respect the wishes of everyone who lives at the space. If someone has to get up early for work, make sure to end on time so they can go to bed. And don't put their address out online, even on a public Facebook invite page, unless they have given the okay for that. (You can invite people to message or email you privately for the address). We often find that cafes and other public spaces work better than private homes.
A larger party, or especially a group reading, even at a cafe, will require more planning. These events, though, are often worth it because others in the cafe will notice you and come by, or ask what you are doing, and you can hand them flyers and business cards for your book. Also, it can sound better to invite people you know to a literary gathering, rather than to a special event centered on the chance to meet you.
If you're not so well known yet, or even if you are, it really helps not to make the event seem all about you. Consider inviting other authors to join you, and inviting people who come to read short pieces of their own writing. You can have a guest speaker from a cultural or nonprofit organization to kick off the night. We hosted an event where a lady from the Afghan Women's Writing Project, a mentoring organization for Afghan women, came to discuss her work and invite people to volunteer. This can help bring out more people and make the event seem more 'newsworthy' for local papers, but make sure to keep it very relevant to the topics and purpose of your book.
You can host a meet-and-greet in a tiny coffee shop, but if you're going to have people stay for more than an hour, you should consider selecting a place where they can buy food as well as coffee. Consider the prices of the food and drinks, and whether people can just get a snack or if they're expected to purchase a whole dinner. We find that it works to order a tray of snacks for the crowd, which they can sample, and let them order their own dinners if they want a full meal. Many baristas will cut up bagels, paninis and sandwiches to make party trays if we get there early before they are too busy.
Also, if you're expecting more than five people for more than an hour, you should call and check with the management to make sure they will work with you. Nothing is worse than promoting an event and having people show up to find the place is closed or reserved for a private party!
We've found that no matter where we host events for our authors, some people will drive, and some people will take mass transit. So it helps to select a space where both options are available. The neighborhood should be reasonably safe, or at least well-lighted where people are walking at night, and it helps to have a variety of food options available, including vegetarian meals.
And, as I've said throughout this series of columns, go to where your readers are, rather than expecting them to find you. Figure out where most of the people who will likely attend your event live and work, starting with the people who will come because they know you, and anyone else who will read from their work that night, and locate it near them. Yes, it is important to reach out to your readers everywhere, but first you need to build momentum and get a core group of people interested, so that there will be a community for those who live elsewhere to be able to join. It's more likely that one or two people will come out to a major city, for example, than for a dozen people to travel out of their way to be near one person who wanted the event near them. There's no way to accommodate everyone, and you can host more than one event and simply tell someone who can't make it that you hope they can join you next time!
If someone's too far away to attend, you can have someone read aloud from their work. At the latest reception for Synchronized Chaos Magazine, we read emailed excerpts from Rita D'Orazio's Italian family saga novel Katerina and from Maggi Craft's celebrity-inspired romance novel The Price of Love. Audiences loved the dramatic tension in both pieces, as D'Orazio's happily married heroine wondered why she'd called her ex-boyfriend, and Craft's medical student dodged paparazzi. And we interspersed them with other readers who were present, so I wasn't hogging the stage the whole time.
Visit the place a few times beforehand during the days and times when you plan to host your event. You'll pick up a lot about the vibe of the space that a barista, or even the owner, might not know to tell you. Check to see, for example, if others are conversing or if the place is full of silent people on laptops, or if they turn up the music after a certain hour. I often underestimate how much background music will bother authors who want to read from their work, or even people who want to talk to each other. Some people's voices are very quiet, and some people are very sensitive to distractions. Helps to talk with the owners beforehand and set up a relationship with them where it's okay to ask them to turn music down or provide microphones if necessary.
In the next part to this column, I will discuss how to promote and actually host the event you've planned.