Thursday, 13 January 2011

Getting the word out

By Peter Stuart Smith

Along with the winter 2010 edition of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, was an interesting enclosure entitled Authors' Appearances. It was basically the result of a survey the society conducted into the promotion of books by the authors who write them. In short, the dreaded book signings and other publicity-inspired events.

I suppose that my experiences in this field have been fairly typical. For me, a book signing normally involves me discovering an unexpected treasure trove of my novels on the shelf of some bookshop, and asking the manager, or whatever spotty nerd I can lay my hands on, if he or she would like me to sign them. A signed book is a defaced book, and cannot normally be returned to the publisher, so every signature is actually a sale. Yipee!

That's the covert version I suppose. The overt is rather more organized, and involves a table, usually tucked away at the back of the shop, where you sit beside a pile of your own books, looking cool and confident on the outside, while sweating buckets inside, and hoping that somebody, anybody, will come along and talk to you. Even if it's only to ask the way to the loo, or why haven't they ever heard of you.

Most authors, according to the survey, regarded book signings as largely a waste of time that could otherwise be spent in more gainful employment, or simply in getting drunk. Many said that they would only undertake them if there was a reasonable probability of shifting a LOT of books, though this was balanced by the feeling of loyalty that most authors have towards bookshops which are, after all, quite literally our shop window.

Talks and personal appearances are the other popular ways for an author to get his face in front of the public. I've done a fair number of these, because my background in the military means that I'm always happy to stand up on my hind legs and make a fool of myself in front of a jeering crowd. And if I was asked to describe these events, I suppose the best adjective would be 'mixed'. I've talked in front of crowds ranging in number from zero (the library in question not only forgot to advertise the event, but also cleverly booked it at the same time as a popular boy band was appearing in the town) to several hundred on board cruise ships. OK, they're a captive audience, but they still came.

I think the worst talk, from my point of view, wasn't the one that nobody attended, but one in a small provincial library where I took about a dozen people from a local writing circle through the process of writing a book and getting it published. It all seemed to go reasonably well, until the very end, when I'd answered all the (mostly sensible) questions, and we were all milling around enjoying the refreshments.

Then, the lady who'd organised it took me to one side and said that one of the participants had asked her why they couldn't have a well-known author come along and give a talk, and mentioned in particular that she'd like to listen to Jeffrey Archer. To do the librarian justice, she did tell the woman that she doubted very much if Mr Archer would have the slightest interest in travelling for miles on a wet autumn evening to talk to 12 people in a small library, for no fee and the bare minimum of travel expenses. She also pointed out that I had, at that time, already written and had published six books, which was six more than the combined literary output of the writing circle since its formation.

All the same, that hurt, and it must have showed in my face, because the librarian promptly rescued an unopened bottle of decent red plonk and gave it to me, presumably so that I could take it away and drown my sorrows. Unfortunately, I'm extremely limited socially, because I don't smoke and I don't drink alcohol, but I did appreciate the gesture, and so did my wife when I gave her the bottle.

And then there are literary festivals and book fairs, but they're a different animal entirely, and I'll talk a little about those the next time I appear in this blog. In the meantime, happy writing, and if you do get involved in a book signing, just remember to keep smiling. It can't go on for ever, even if that's the way it feels ...

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