Let Me Entertain You

Authors are crossing over into the realm of entertainment to promote books and show fans a good time.
By Dale McGarrigle | Published: February 28, 2013


Powerhouse1xMost writers don’t scratch with a quill on parchment or scrawl in longhand across a legal pad or bang away on a trusty Smith-Corona anymore.

Yet many authors still introduce their works to potential readers by sitting behind a folding table adorned with a stack of books, bookmarks and pens.

It’s a big, ever-changing media marketplace out there, so how can a writer who sticks with the static book reading or signing hope to make a mark or draw new audiences to his or her work?

Some authors are borrowing from the world of entertainment to turn book launches into events that stand out from the – let’s face it – waning traditional methods of promotion.

Since the debut of her 2008 novel Deep Dish, Atlanta author Mary Kay Andrews has held Girls’ Night Out launch parties, continuing with The Fixer Upper in 2009, Summer Rental in 2011 and Spring Fever in 2012. Her 10th novel, Ladies Night, comes out in June.

The idea behind these events, to paraphrase the esteemed philosopher Cyndi Lauper, is, girls just wanna have fun.

“The events are meant to be a fun and festive way to interact with my readers,” Andrews explains. “Since my books always celebrate women’s friendships, it seems quite natural to invite my fans to bring their friends for a girls’ night out. And we really want to emphasize the party atmosphere. Sometimes we do the events at the bookstore, sometimes we do them off-site, at a restaurant, bar, library or other venue.”

These are often ticketed events, with a portion of the proceeds from ticket and book sales sometimes benefiting a local charity, such as the Girl Scout Council in Atlanta.

The Girls’ Night Out parties are usually tied to a book’s theme. For instance, Deep Dish was about rival TV chefs, so the launch event featured a professional chef doing a cooking demonstration.

The ticket offers access to the party with light appetizers and desserts, drinks, an autographed hardcover of the book and a customized swag bag, which may hold stadium “go-cups” with the book title on them, bookmarks and recipe cards. There’s also a raffle for prizes, gift certificates and themed chance baskets.

Andrews does the expected book talk and signing, but it’s a night out for the writer as well. “I’m an extrovert, so after months spent locked away on deadline, it’s pure pleasure to meet people who love to read and who love my books,” she says. “Fans give me great insights into what they like about a book, or hate, in some instances. And more than once, as they tell me stories about their own love lives, I’ve gotten good ideas for future plots. Aside from all that, it’s a party and what’s not to like about a festive and fun night out!”

The veteran author says she makes a deeper –and lasting – connection with her readers this way.

“I think readers enjoy meeting the authors of their favorite books in an informal setting,” Andrews says. “If we’re standing in a bookstore chatting over a glass of chardonnay, as opposed to me sitting at a table, droning on about my very important book, they feel as though they are a part of my tribe. Ownership, if you will. They bring their friends, their co-workers, their cousins to the party. They take pictures with their iPhones and post them on Facebook or Twitter and suddenly their community is my community.”

South Florida author Karen Marie Moning, best known for her urban fantasy Fever series, threw a party to celebrate the launch of Iced, the first book in her new Fever World trilogy series. The event was held close to Halloween in New Orleans.

Starting things off was a Fever scavenger hunt in the French Quarter, with 150 people divided into teams competing for books and queue-jumping privileges for Moning’s upcoming signing. Next came the ticketed Iced Bash book-launch party at Generations Hall, which was promoted only on Moning’s Facebook page and attracted nearly 400 fans. One night, Moning hosted a seven-hour signing, which was followed by an overnight book-reading slumber party, complete with PB&J sandwiches and hot chocolate. The event concluded with two question-and-answer sessions, which attracted 200 people.

Authors are also using multimedia methods to attract new readers. San Francisco writer Adam Mansbach has done so with his new novel Rage Is Back, which is about a legendary graffiti crew in New York City and its rivalry with the MTA police chief.

The first event in the book’s launch was a panel discussion, Writers and Writers: Narrative on the Page and in the Street, on parallel notions of literature and graffiti as narrative construction, at the Museum of Modern Art. Panel members included Mansbach, the legendary lyricist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan GZA, New York graffiti artist and historian Alan Ket and artist José Parlá, with radio host and cultural critic Jay Smooth as moderator.

“Those events are the most vibrant, the most fun, something that’s larger than just the book itself,” Mansbach says. “What I like to do is engage in a larger conversation about the issues that I’m writing about.”

Next came the book-launch party at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn. The event featured an art installation by graffiti artist Keo, who designed the book’s cover and inside artwork, and was deejayed by J Period, the well-known mix artist who is collaborating with Mansbach on a mix tape as a companion piece for the book. The first single from that mix tape, Rage Is Back Freestyle by Black Thought of The Roots, was unveiled at the party.

A multimedia launch party can be successful in attracting new readers, Mansbach says.

“People are more likely to pick up a book if it hits their radar from an unexpected direction,” he says.

However, Mansbach cautioned, such events are not appropriate for every new book.

“Mine lends itself to these things,” he says. “But it has to be organic to the book.”

Another route authors can take is combining another activity that they enjoy with a promotional event.

Pam Belluck has been a staff writer for The New York Times since 1995 and is also the author of the nonfiction book Island Practice, about Timothy Lepore, an idiosyncratic and contrarian doctor who treats all manner of human and animal patients on Nantucket.

Belluck is also a classically trained flutist and lapsed saxophone player who these days plays jazz flute and composes jazz tunes on the piano. She combined those two loves in Island Jazz, a crossover event at Caffe Vivaldi in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

The first hour of the Sunday brunch featured the jazz sextet Equilibrium, which includes Belluck on flute, Rich Russo on bass, Elliot Honig on piano, Dan Silverstone on drums, Terry Schwadron on trombone and Brad Baker on tenor sax. The group performed a set of standards as well as Belluck’s original composition All About You.

For the middle portion of the event, Belluck and Alicia Anstead, editor-in-chief of The Writer, talked with the audience about writing and in particular about Island Practice, which is being developed for TV. Finally, the Pete Muller Trio took over the musical duties while Belluck signed books and chatted with her fans.

The author found the event pleasing on a number of levels.

“I obviously love writing and have been thrilled at the wonderful reception that has greeted my first book,” she says. “And I love playing music. So getting the opportunity to do both at the same event is incredibly rewarding. And since both writing and music are creative endeavors that involve communication with audiences, I see these events as a chance to encourage cross-pollination of ideas and interests. For example, people who attend the event because they want to learn about Island Practice get a chance to hear a little jazz and engage in a discussion of the parallels between music and writing. It’s about broadening horizons and making connections across creative disciplines.”

Belluck sees correlations between writing and music, too: “To me, music and writing have many things in common. Both involve communicating ideas to people. Both involve some sort of raw material – in music, it is notes, chords and phrases; in writing, nonfiction writing, in my case, it is interviews, documents, observations. In both disciplines, you have to take those elements and turn them into something that makes sense, has a point, and is hopefully aesthetically pleasing. Both have that dynamic quality to them. And in both music and writing, when something feels like it’s working, you get a similar feeling of fulfillment – joy, even.”

And jazz hasn’t been the only route Belluck has taken for getting her book in the public eye. She wrote Island Practice while keeping up her responsibilities at The Times and raising two children with her husband. She worked on parts of the book while sitting in the stands of ice rinks where her daughters Arielle, 13, and Jillian, 9, practice as part of the nationally competitive Skyliners Synchronized Skating Team. As a fund-raiser, Belluck arranged for the team to purchase discounted copies of her book, which Skyliners then sold for a profit of around $12 each.

“It was a way for us to give back to an organization we value,” she says.

Other writers have grasped new technologies to spread the word about their works.

Laurie Davis, author of the recently released book Love @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating, is a child of the Internet. Founder of the online dating site Eflirtexpert.com, she used social networks not only to promote her book, but also to help write it. She posted a topic on Facebook, then asked for questions from potential readers.

“I already had some questions that I definitely wanted to cover in the book,” Davis says. “I answered the more burning questions of those submitted online, then put others in the book. I wanted to make the book as comprehensive as possible. But it also perked people’s ears up that the book was coming.”

She would also post scenarios modeled after her clients’ experiences, and her followers would supply fictional names for those characters in her book.

“It got people engaged and excited about the book long before it was on the shelf,” she says.

Davis supported her book’s launch with the social-sharing tool Thunderclap. When Facebook posts or tweets hit a total of 100, the messages supporting the book were released by Thunderclap to reach all the friends of the original 100.

Her book-launch party at Ink Lounge in New York City took the form of a singles mixer. She created versions of the heart logo she had designed for the book in green (“single”), red (“in a relationship”) or yellow (“it’s complicated”).

“That way, you knew who to flirt with,” she says. “It was a fun way for people to connect. There were at least four love connections made that night.”

Davis even “fan-sourced” out dates on her book tour. Her followers could visit togather.com and check out the criteria set by Davis for organizing a private or public event featuring the dating expert. She could then decide whether to attend the event.

She’s also hosting a Twitter-chat series, with a chapter in her book as the topic each week.

Davis is a strong believer in collaboration as a way to draw new fans. For example, she’s planning a cocktail party for bloggers featuring tea-infused cocktails at David’s Tea in the West Village. She’s organizing a fashion-oriented event with Allie Kingsley, author of The Liar, the Bitch and the Wardrobe, perhaps at a boutique. She and her fiancé, fellow dating coach Thomas Edwards, combined on a Spreecast chat.

Social media has allowed Davis to make a love connection with her fans. “I want them to use me as a resource, and I want to help them,” she says.

Manhattan author Tao Lin, whose third novel Taipei will be published in June, knows how to attract attention.

While he was finishing his 2008 novel Richard Yates, Lin wanted to take a leave from his part-time restaurant job to focus his efforts on the book. So he posted on his blog an offer to sell six shares of 10 percent of the U.S. royalties for the book for $2,000 a share. A New York Times blog linked it and all six shares sold. The Telegraph and The Guardian in the United Kingdom, BBC Radio and gawker.com all covered the story.

Lin is celebrating the release of Taipei with a launch party at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, with two friends, Jenn Pelly and Carrie Battan, as DJs.

The author wonders how that will work out: “I’m kind of scared to have a launch party with DJs, but I feel like I’d be more inclined to attend a launch party for a book if it was just a party, with DJs, and no reading, because I’d rather read the book in private at home and attend a party, instead of attend an awkward gathering and hear authors read their books, which they probably wrote to be read privately, in silence, not to read aloud partially.”

While Lin is less inclined to think an author must be connected to social media, platforms do offer new twists on traditional promotional methods. For example, to see what’s going on in the world of book signing, visit #booksigning on Twitter. And if you want to commune with readers? New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian has a reading group center on his website and offers 20-minute conferences by speakerphone or Skype for book groups reading his novels. And when readers and authors can’t be in the same room? Virtual book signings take place through video conferencing.

For Snaggy and Nitrozac, who write the Joy of Tech column at Geekculture.com, virtual book signings became a necessity with the publication of their compilation Best of the Joy of Tech book.

“Essentially, it was the only way we could do signings and meet our fans after our publisher told us they wouldn’t be sending us on a book tour,” explains Snaggy from their Vancouver Island home. “But beyond the financial benefits of doing signings virtually, we wanted to make ordering a book from us more personal. Our fans are located all over the world, and we could never visit them all, but this way they could order a book from our website, get a personal inscription, plus meet and interact with us.”

So how does it work?

“We’ve done about a dozen or so, from webcam events on our website, to events hosted in stores in other cities, with us appearing on monitors from home,” Snaggy says. “For those events, we have a simple two-way camera set-up [Skype or FaceTime] so we can say hello, chat with them, and get their name and any dedication they’d like. We then digitally sign a file and transmit it to the store. The store then prints up the signatures and dedication on a sticker, and it can go in the customer’s book immediately.”

Writers shouldn’t be intimidated by the technology, Snaggy adds.

“When we started doing virtual book signings 10 years ago, the technology was still a little bumpy, but today, it’s much more reliable and widespread,” he says. “Almost every laptop, tablet or phone has a camera now, and can run Skype or FaceTime. Also, Internet connections are generally much faster today, which makes conversing with your fans easier, clearer and more natural. When we first started, we had terrible dial-up and could only send still pictures every 10 seconds or so, and just type text replies to people, but nowadays it’s a full video stream and real-time sound.”

Whatever the medium, new or old, virtual or musical, celebratory or dating, authors still have to put themselves at the forefront when it comes to attracting new audiences.

“The energy you bring to a project is important,” Mansbach says. “The people you pair with will feel the enthusiasm and respond to it.”

The key, the authors agree, is to find both affinity and unexpected collaborations that make sense for the writer, the book and the community of readers whose activities and interests are based on and yet go beyond the traditions of the book signing.

Dale McGarrigle is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Maine. He has reviewed books, music, theater and pop culture.