Photo by Daniel Richard
Today’s post is by author Liz Alterman.
While querying agents and surviving submission, one thing that may keep you going is visualizing your story out in the world, hopefully, loved by the masses.
Along with that, you may imagine hosting a reading before a packed house or even a small crowd of well-wishers huddled inside your favorite bookstore. But in recent months, multiple viral posts have shown authors, their expressions somewhere between disappointed and devastated, staring at a sea of empty chairs. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon.
Even with the best pre-event push, there’s no guarantee you’ll fill the seats. Last March, I had a reading scheduled at a charming new bookstore. The shop’s owners and I posted about it on social media. I invited friends and included it in my newsletter. But as that dark and chilly evening arrived, I had a feeling it would be a low turnout.
Minutes before the event was slated to begin, the store was nearly empty. Making things more awkward, my novel’s editor and my agent, who both lived in the area, were there, witnesses to just how wildly unpopular my book seemed to be.
I paced the shop, wondering if I could to hide in the bathroom and attempt to teleport back to the safety of my home. When a couple walked in, I experienced an embarrassing rush of narcissistic feelings, a desperate, “Please be here for me and not to buy a last-minute gift for the birthday party your child’s attending tomorrow!” neediness.
Mercifully, they took their seats and what began as one of the most cringeworthy nights of my writing career transformed into possibly the loveliest.
and-Liz.jpg” alt=”Melissa Elder and Liz Alterman at Liz’s book event.” class=”wp-image-66545″ style=”width:200px” srcset=”https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Melissa-and-Liz.jpg 480w, https://janefriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Melissa-and-Liz-225×300.jpg 225w” sizes=”(max-width: 480px) 100vw, 480px”/>Melissa Elder and Liz Alterman
The couple—poet Melissa Elder, author of Nostalgia, and her husband Brad, asked thoughtful questions: How did the idea for my novel come about, what did my writing process look like, and could I share my path to publication? (I joke that bookstores should hire them for future events because their questions fostered such an engaging discussion.)
Because it was an intimate gathering (putting a positive spin on it), we got to chat about writing on a deeply personal level and the reading blossomed into a conversation.
Since that evening, Melissa and I have become good friends. Together, we’ve checked out new bookstores and enjoyed long lunches where we discuss our latest reads and the ups and downs of the writing life. We discovered that our shared interests extend to art, photography, and arboretums as well.
We’ve supported one another at subsequent events and I was thrilled to return to that same bookstore when Melissa celebrated the launch of her latest poetry collection.
It might be cliché to invoke the “quality versus quantity” adage here, but I’d happily trade a line out the door for one person who becomes a treasured friend.
That said, if you’re hoping to attract a crowd, I reached out to authors who shared several ways to set yourself up for a successful event:
1. Spread the word
Jessica Payne, author of Make Me Disappear, The Good Doctor, and the forthcoming Never Trust the Husband, recommends advertising early and often. “Tell all your friends and family,” she says. “Post about it—more than once!—on your social media, preferably using a bright graphic. I make my own graphics in Canva, and try to go with something that both looks bookish but is easy to read.”
Payne suggests the following posting schedule:
- two months out
- one month out
- a week out
- a day or two prior
“I also always send this out to my newsletter list,” she says. “I get the impression that some authors think people will simply show up because it’s at a local bookstore that posts about it—but that may have limited reach. You know where your readers are, so meet them there.”
Beyond social media, Payne posts on her local Facebook community pages.
“They’re almost always open to community events,” she said. “I explain I’m a local author, give a tidbit about what I write, then share the details, along with the event graphic. I’ve met many new readers this way and it’s led to invitations to do events at other local locations.”
2. Team up with other authors
Partnering with fellow authors can increase the crowd exponentially and also make things more interesting for attendees. While authors often appear “in conversation” with others who write in the same genres, it’s fun to team up with those whose books fall into different categories. This not only broadens the appeal of the event but also may attract new readers.
Lee Kelly, author of the thriller With Regrets, joined forces with Victoria Schade, author of the romance Dog Friendly and Jenni L. Walsh, author of the historical novel Unsinkable, for an event.
“We had wanted to do something for Jenni’s release and given that Victoria and I write in such different genres, a ‘genre sampling’ seemed to make a lot of sense, as there was little else to thread the books together into one event,” said Kelly.
3. Offer something extra
To bring some cohesion to that event, Kelly, Schade, and Walsh presented “A Shelf Tasting: Three Authors, Three Desserts, A Delectably Good Time,” featuring treats from each of their novels.
Kelly added that having something that combines love of reading with another element makes it more memorable for attendees.
Payne agrees. “I never call it a mere book signing, which gives me visions of a long line to a folding table and little else,” she says. “With my latest event, I’ve called it a bookish party. What I actually put in my newsletter: ‘We will talk all things books and writing. I’ll do a brief reading, answer questions, and yes, as always, there will be wine!’ I don’t think people exactly come up for the wine, but I do think it makes it feel fun, fancy. I try to also have nonalcoholic options.”
Last August, Payne celebrated her birthday at her local library with a “bookish birthday party.”
“I got mini cupcakes and it was fantastic,” Payne says. “I think part of it is remembering this is supposed to be fun for you and your readers, and that you don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done.”
If your event doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped
Even when people promise to attend, bad weather, transit problems, sick kids, and work issues often get in the way.
Should this happen to you, it helps to keep in mind that you’re in good company.
In her funny and honest essay, My Life in Sales, Ann Patchett recalls her experience while touring with her first novel The Patron Saint of Liars. Patchett wrote that approaching the stranger at a bookstore’s cash register to introduce herself was often the most awkward part.
“We would look at each other without a shred of hope and both understand that no one was coming,” she explained. “Sometimes two or three or five people were there, sometimes they all worked in the bookstore, but very often, in the cities where I had no relatives to drum up a little crowd, I was on my own.”
If it can happen to Ann Patchett, it can happen to any of us.
Tom McAllister, author of How to Be Safe, shares a similar tale in his essay Who Will Buy Your Book in The Millions, which opens:
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!” She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.”
When things don’t unfold as planned, Payne’s advice is to go with the flow. “My bookish birthday party was going great—until I realized we forgot both the books and the cupcakes at my house, a twenty-minute drive away,” she recalls. “My husband raced off to retrieve them, but in the meantime, I had a crowd of twenty-five-ish staring back at me. So we chatted some, and I explained the situation and laughed with them about it.”
Payne notes the worst part was that initially she didn’t think she had a copy of her book to read from. “But then I remembered I had a digital copy in my Kindle library,” she says. “So I read from that. and then turned that into a fun tidbit to share on my newsletter. In the end, it was fine, funny even. But first there was definitely a moment of panic.”
If you’re hosting an event, publicize it and hope for the best. But attendance is largely out of your hands. If you end up with only a few guests, I hope you get as lucky as I did.
Liz Alterman is the author of the young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting, the memoir, Sad Sacked, and the domestic suspense novels, The Perfect Neighborhood and The House on Cold Creek Lane (out August 2024). Liz lives in New Jersey with her husband and three sons. She spends most days microwaving the same cup of coffee and looking up synonyms. She’d love to see you at a future event. For more, visit lizalterman.com.
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