I've attended 4 book events in 4 countries in the last ten days and although each one has been completely different from the next, they've all been excellent experiences. From the launch of Landeg White's Ultimatum in iconic Lisbon bookshop, Ler Devagar, to an upstairs room in a pub in the Welsh border town of Presteigne, where myself and Susan Richardson read from several of our poetry collections; from an art-space café/bar in Edinburgh for the launch of Jay Whittaker's debut collection, Wristwatch, to the cosy and well-stocked Drake's bookshop for the launch of the second in Tracey Iceton's Celtic Colours Trilogy, Herself Alone in Orange Rain, there were key ingredients that meant the audiences were delighted, moved and engaged. And books were sold. So what is the magic list that makes a book event work?
1. Work with the space
There are lots of places that make great venues for book launches. Independent bookshops might be small, but it's amazing what a positive atmosphere that is generated when a distinctive little space is crammed full of eager book listeners and readers. Bigger bookshops can also work, but think about your audience — it's better to be forty or fifty people who only just fit into a lovely little shop (as we were at Tracey's launch) than thirty people who look lost in a cavernous space.
Cafés can also work well. We often use Kyffin in Bangor, which is beautiful, a bit quirky, and very welcoming, with good coffee and tea as well as wine. Jay's launch was in the café of Summerhall, an arts centre in Edinburgh. It was a big space, but with over seventy guests it was perfect and had a small stage and microphone (something that's worth considering if the space is larger).
Some pubs have rooms they will let for free on the understanding your guests will buy drinks and libraries can be lovely venues, surrounded by books. In London, West Greenwich Library is a beautiful space under a domed roof and, although large, the seating is flexible so it can be made cosy. Some art galleries or community centres will also welcome launches or you might be lucky enough to have a dedicated centre for literature — we're launching Lizzie Fincham's Green Figs & Blue Jazz at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea later this month, for instance.
There are also dedicated events venues. Some of these are reasonable to hire and some quote silly money, but there's no harm in asking.
The most important thing is to go and check out your space, make sure it's the right size and feel for the particular reading, that it suits your book. Quite often Cinnamon book events or launches are collaborative. It can be tempting to want your individual 'thing' and this might work well, but launching two books together can sometimes make even better use of the space and audiences having a great evening will tend to buy both books, so you benefit from each others' guests.
2. Invite people
People don't just turn up to book launches. Some venues will have regulars who look out for readings there and it's always good to get your work in front of new people. Mailing lists and Facebook and Twitter posts can also play their part and posting in the run up to the launch will attract a few extras, but most people who come will do so because the author invites them.
A book is a really big cause for celebration. It's good news and people will want to share in it. Publishers can advertise on social media, put out newsletters, print posters for the venue and send out emails to people in the area who've attended previous readings, but it's author invites that really determine whether it's a crowd or 5 people eyeing each other warily.
Get those invites out and do it at least a month in advance — longer if you live in a place where people have way too many social invites — and follow up with a reminder.
3. Recruit help
If the venue has a bar, that's taken care of, but otherwise, ask someone to be on hand to greet people with drinks and someone else to make sure anyone who needs to sit gets a chair. You might also want music — a friend who plays or something on CD — if so, ask someone else to look after it. If it's a shop or a publisher selling, you won't need to worry about sales, but if you are the one selling the books, recruit someone for that too.
You want to be able to stay calm, relaxed and focus on your reading and your guests.
4. Make it a party
There's lots of ways to do this. Having drinks to greet people sets a party tone, but there are lots of other touches that add an air of celebration. Having some live music, even if it's ten minutes, can really add sparkle. At Tracey's launch we had a cake iced with the book cover and Irena Hill, of In-words, always makes cakes for the launches she organises for us at West Greenwich library. At Jay's she was presented with flowers at the end of the reading. Recently we did a reading for John Barnie and Adam Craig and moved the party from the bookshop to our kitchen for homemade tapas and drinks.
Books are amazing things — they take a huge amount of work and even with the enormous growth in publishing it's still a massive achievement to see a manuscript make its way into the world, so make it joyful.
5. Start when you mean to start
It's always difficult when someone you were expecting hasn't shown up yet, but don't go more than five minutes over the time you'd intended to start. People have given up an evening to hear this and support you and waiting around can get old quickly. This is a celebration, but it's also professional, so start on time.
6. Make the reading confident and engaging
We're very fortunate to have authors who read so well. Susan Richardson knows all her material by heart and paces it beautifully. Tracey Iceton had her audience breathless as she read a tense scene in which a woman IRA volunteer shoots a sniper. Jay Whittaker's reading was full of humour, warmth and humanity. And a few weeks ago. in Waterstones in Leamington Spa. it was a real treat to hear Connie Ramsay Bott's characters come to life in the accent of the Michigan lake where the novel is set. But if reading out loud is not for you, ask a friend who is good at it to help. Or you may want to recruit another reader simply to give impact — at the launch of The Kim's Game, Stephanie Percival introduced and gave context to sections whilst her husband read the male protagonist's part, and we've had readings where two voices have enhanced the material enormously.
It's a good idea to rehearse the reading, to make sure you are confident with the material. Even if you are not going to memorise it (and most readers don't) you don't want to be completely buried in the book while you're performing.
But ensuring the reading itself is clear and confident is only a part of this. If you tell your life story and then read long passages, you'll lose the audience. But giving some really interesting context — the bit of your story that makes this book come to life — hooks people. Jay did succinct but apposite introductions to each of her poems, including those on bereavement and those on breast cancer. There was no self-pity, no sense of too much being said, instead it gave shape to the overall reading, it gave a real story without getting in the way of the poems also speaking for themselves. Similarly, Tracey gave some historical and personal background to writing the trilogy and left time afterwards for question and answers, with two short readings separated with a break for cake. It was a winning combination.
So think about how you are going to structure the reading. How you are going to balance talking about the writing with reading from it and leave them wanting more, not less.
7. Capture the moment
The launch is the beginning of the book's journey into the world — it's a big moment, so get someone to video it and put it on YouTube (if you know someone who can do a good job), or get someone to take some pictures that you can use afterwards on social media, your blog … Keep the momentum going.
8. Say thank you
In the blur and nerves it's amazing how easy it is to forget to say thank you. Thank the venue, thank key people. Don't make it an Oscar speech or whip out a list of everyone from the infant teacher who liked your two-line poem at the age of six, but do say 'thanks'.
9. Have fun
Between worrying about inviting everyone you know, arranging friends to help, rehearsing your reading, performing on the night, being calm, professional, engaging … have fun. This is a great moment — enjoy it.