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.
Once you've got a venue figured out, and know what sort of event you're going to host, it's time to start promoting it to your fans and readers! You want to use all of your channels of communication to talk about the event: your email list, your professional social media accounts, your personal pages, your website, etc. Set up an event page on Facebook, and announce the event on your Meetup account if you have one. Some people won't see your email, if they gave you an alternate account when they signed up for information about your books, but they might check Facebook or your site. Others may skip through Facebook messages but always read personal email.
I find that promoting an event works best about six weeks before it takes place, with a weekly reminder sent out. Give all the relevant information in all your communications with people: time, date, address and directions, whether it's a reading event or a drop-in mixer, whether they can bring work of their own to read, whether it's all ages or 21+, etc. Also provide a phone number and email address for questions or in case someone gets lost.
Arrive at least an hour early on the day of the event, to set aside space for your small crowd and welcome others who may arrive early as well. Put up a small sign, even one handwritten on paper, to let people know where to find you as they enter the cafe. It helps to order one tray of food for people as they walk in, and to get one more as the event progresses, to keep people around.
There's a lot to do the night of the event: greeting everyone, introducing them to each other, fielding calls and texts from people who are lost or saying they will be late, making sure there's enough food, keeping your eye on the baristas and owner to make sure you are not annoying them, etc. So you may want to delegate as much as you can. Perhaps a friend or fellow author could take pictures to post later on social media, or pass around the email signup sheet for your mailing list.
During the night, make sure to have fun and stay flexible. If people are distracted, consider shortening the pieces you're going to read, or inviting them to participate. If lots of people show up and it's not practical to have everyone read aloud, ask them to take only 3-4 minutes each, or pass around a signup sheet and say you'll unfortunately have to limit it to the first ten people. Or apologize and offer to host another event later in a larger venue that will accommodate public readings. If hardly anyone shows up, thank your dedicated fans and offer everyone the chance to read their work if they wish. If a guest speaker or fellow reader takes too long, smile, wink at them, and make the 'time' sign with your hands. If that doesn't work, you may have to wait till they finish a sentence, stand up with a huge smile on your face, and thank them while interrupting them and asking them to let someone else read.
People are generally pretty cool and helpful, and once the event starts, things usually go a lot more smoothly than people expect. The crowd will want to have a good time and to see you and your fellow readers do well. Downtime is actually good, since people will want to connect with each other and go grab food and drinks between the readings. Breaks throughout the event can work better than pushing through to finish early, since people will sometimes leave at the end of the scheduled readings if it seems late and miss the chance to mingle with each other, connect with you and buy your book. This downtime is valuable to the audience for the networking opportunities it provides, and also offers you a chance to talk with and hear and learn directly from your readers in a way that doesn't always happen when you're simply giving a performance.
Afterwards, be sure to thank the baristas and leave a generous tip on your way out! Accommodating events of this nature usually takes more work than serving an equivalent number of single customers. Cafe staff may have helped people find you, brought food to you when patrons usually pick it up at the counter, lost other customers who went elsewhere so they could study quietly, etc. And pick up all your trash and bring your plates and dishes up to the counter, even if the venue doesn't require you to bus your own dishes. You want to make friends with the baristas so you will get invited back!
And thank everyone for coming, both at the event as they leave, and later via email and social media. Follow up with them, inviting them to attend future events and purchase your book and those of anyone else who read during the night, and provide Amazon and website links. If any authors who participated in the event have special promotions or discounts, remind the guests about them. Our client Joe Klingler, suspense novelist whose fast-paced books RATS and Mash Up deal with music piracy, unexploded war weapons, copyright law and snipers, made such an offer to guests at our latest event and we will follow up and make sure they have the information.
As you host more events, you can keep track of which crowds, times, dates and venues tend to result in the most new signups to your email list, and the most new book sales. At the beginning it's best not to worry so much about sales right away, just focus on getting your name out there. And the sales generated by these readings don't all come from people buying books at the events. If people on your Facebook page see photos of lots of happy people enjoying your book, they might finally purchase a copy. That wonderful indie store may finally decide to carry your title if you can document that you brought out a crowd of 25+ people to hear you read. Fellow authors might invite you to read at their events once they've seen you perform live, and you may make sales there.
However, there is a cost of time, money and energy to hosting these sorts of events, and if sales don't eventually go up, it can be worth it to consider ways to trim costs. You can join events that are already organized, such as open mics and magazine release parties. You can invite people to contribute to the cost of the food, and look away while they pass around an envelope. You can invite people who have ordered books directly from you to a private party, and invite them to buy your sequels. You can contact book clubs at your library and offer to work together with them for shared publicity.
It can take awhile to build momentum and to bring out a good crowd, but we have found the experience of hosting events worthwhile for many of our clients. People with all sorts of fiction, nonfiction and poetry titles have enjoyed the experience of reading to and interacting with their audiences.
In a future column, I will discuss how to reach even more people in a broader capacity through working with the media and landing interview and guest post opportunities.