The art of the book launch

Haging books – by Thomas GuignardI was recently at the woefully attended launch of a highly successful Australian author. He has published an impressive number of books, won a stack of highly prestigious national awards, and has a dedicated readership. Yet this (reasonably well publicised) launch attracted only a handful of people, and of those only one or two were not colleagues and friends. I don’t know how the author felt about this turnout, but I found it heartily depressing.

I once read that the average number of people at a book launch is three. A dismal figure indeed. Though I must say that during my years of attending book launches I have never been part of such a miniscule gathering (and consequently doubt the veracity of this statistic – perhaps it was floated to make authors feel better).

Naturally really famous types don’t have this problem. They have a ready-made audience and a big publicity budget at their disposal. Take bestselling author Tom Clancy whose 2010 release was launched by Red Devils paratroopers skydiving it in to the Tower of London. Or British model Katie Price who launched her no doubt scintillating autobiography at a big bash at Selfridges alongside four transvestites dressed in some of her own outfits. Or broadcaster Gordon Sinclair whose book launch (back in the 1960s) was held in the lion’s den of a zoo.

The book launch is theoretically the author’s moment in the sun. A reward for all the hard work. The high point, perhaps, before the harsher realities of sales and reviews kick in. But for most authors the book launch often amounts to little more than cheap wine and nibbles in the local bookstore.

I have organised a few book launches in my time (sadly lacking in paratroopers, transvestites or lions). The largest – with hundreds of people and many more glasses of bubbly – was a fabulous affair at the National Gallery, but there have been smaller launches too. All of them have, thankfully, been well attended by a pleasant crush of expectant bodies – but there are always those nerve-wracking moments before it begins. The first one or two people drift in and you pray, Please don’t let this be all there is.

However, while sheer numbers can lend buzz to a launch, it’s not necessarily a sign of success. I’ve attended dreary big-number events and mesmerising small ones. The author, of course, can make or break it. Reading an overly long excerpt in a monotonous drone is a death knell. At the opposite end of the scale there’s the publicist’s dream. One author friend of mine, for instance, is gregarious and witty in all the right ways. He never fails to make an audience laugh, to entertain. And a good time spells sales, or so the publisher hopes.

These days publishers are doing less and the onus is on authors to get out there and flog their book. But many authors are still not comfortable in this role. They are writers, not performers. And amid all the social media tools that are being employed or exploited (depending on your take), everyone’s trying to stand out. Hence the proliferation of gimmicks, giveaways and extras we’re now seeing.

Last year author Jennifer Belle took a unique approach to launching her book, The Seven Year Bitch. She hired actors to read it (and laugh demonstrably) on New York’s subway and at various city landmarks, the idea being that it would pique the interest of passersby and convert to sales. It certainly garnered Belle a great deal of press. (You can watch a video about it on the New York Times website. However, I warn you, all those ‘readers’ spurting fake laughter made my skin crawl.)

A few months ago I attended the launch of Tania McCartney’s new children’s book, Riley and the Curious Koala. She handed out gift packs loaded with stickers, tattoos, fridge magnets, bookmarks; had a lucky door prize (one of her books, of course); and a table laid out with koala masks for the kids to decorate. She then took photos of the kids in their masks to post on her blog. A smart move, I thought. What are parents most interested in? How adorable their own kids are, of course. So the parent visits the blog to find the photograph of their darling child and potentially signs up for the blog, or at the very least is further exposed to the author and her work. Maybe they even direct others to the site to appreciate their child’s 15 minutes of fame.

But what did all this extra stuff ultimately mean? My two kids had a fabulous time but weren’t that keen on the book itself, so we didn’t buy it. I felt guilty about that, having walked away with two smiling children clutching their bagful of goodies. And this, no doubt, was the point. All this free (sponsored) stuff makes the parents feel obliged to buy a book in return. And during the reading the author said to the kids several times, ‘And when you buy your book …’ Of course this adds in the factor of pressure from the children to buy (no quiet slinking from the store if you don’t want to purchase the book).

So what makes for a good launch? And what makes for a bad one? Let’s hear your launch stories.

Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in Australian journals and her debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2011 (Affirm Press). She is also the author of two children’s books and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Facebook.

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  1. Yes – authors need to get up to all sorts of things. To avoid a gimmicky event, but present enough novelty to at least attract curiosity from those unfamiliar with my work, I am having an exhibition launch. According to Luke, my new thriller, is full of works of sacred art. I am working with artist Robyn Varpins, who interpreted the art in icons on aged timber, Madonnas and sculptures. They will adorn the venue and be for sale to match the book. A first for our city, this is bound to bring in a few souls. We are running it over a whole weekend (I feel your eyebrows rise) and no speeches. She gains from my list of fans, family and friends, and I gain from hers… and the gallery has a permanent list of patrons that numbers in hundreds. Whether we all stand to gain will be seen after the weekend 26-29 May 2011. The RSVPs are already rolling in. We need to prepare at least a hundred champagne glasses! And a hundred bits of cheese on sticks. There will be live music (my daughter on her clarinet) and a riveting slide show going on, on a screen in a corner. And naturally I shall have all my other titles there to provide variety. Shall I let you know how it goes?

  2. Wow Irma, this is a great topic for the blog.

    I recently attended a book launch that attracted everyone from government ministers to well-know television personalities. I was there only because a friend of the author wanted some company. It was quite an affair compared to other launches I’ve been to – see-and-be-seen sort of event.

    The trouble is with book launches – successful or otherwise – that sometimes that’s all there is. The author has their day in the sun and a few days later book sales begin their steady decline.

    While some publishers do a terrific job of publicity most are constrained by how much time they can devote to publicising a new author and the costs that go with it. Although some authors are naturals and know how to promote themselves and their novel many are not, and along with the book they slaved over for however many years, disappear from view.

    Ideally, authors should be building their profile and promoting their book well before it’s launched (this also creating anticipation and guaranteeing a well-attended launch) as well as teeing up publicity and other ways of keeping their name and their writing in the public domain long after their 15 minutes of fame is over.

  3. The way I see it, we writers aren’t really people that the public want to stick on their wall, are we? It’s not that we’re without attraction, it’s just that we’re not terribly sexy. Obviously what’s needed is more breast implants and sock stuffings. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Salman Rushdie with boobs or Germaine Greer with a bulge in her pants?

    • I don’t know about that Susan. There’s a lot to be said for a person who observes without interfering, thinks deeply about their observed knowledge and then creates something fresh from the fusion.

  4. Wow – I wish I had known about the book launch and then maybe I could have attended. I love book laucnhes as there is a very special feel to being with creative people. I am almost finsihed my studies for this degree (mature age student) and I have also almost finished a collection of poetry. I would like to have it published but the reality is that I will probably publish it myself online – on my blog – but hey that’s okay as for me as the writer,and the narrating ‘I’ writing about the ‘narrated ‘I’ the real thrill is having finished the poem project. Lots more writing to do:):):)
    Olga from http://revedoa@blogspot.com

  5. The book launch is as much about the writer as it is about the words. And, perhaps sadly, many writers are dreary and introverted even when their work isn’t. Then too, some words are best left on the page, or if read aloud, then done so by someone other than the author. I only attend a booklaunch if I actually want to hear the author read their own work and meet with them. Otherwise I just buy the book.

  6. We are trying to organise a book launch at the moment on s shoe string budget. I didn’t really want to do it in a book store but trying to find somewhere that is open to holding a book launch is difficult – particularly when you’re a very little press. Anyone know a place in Melbourne that might be able to help?

  7. Brooke – think away from books. I did. I looped in another artistic endeavour, and will benefit from the loop. What’s the book you are launching about? Is there a reference in it to food? Music? Clothes? Mental health? Entertainment? Medicine? Domestic violence? Coffee? Live trade? Politics? Religion? Sex? There’s got to be something in it you can tag on to. A book is necessarily about something other than books. Hold your launch in a pet shop, barber shop, boutique … join forces with the managers/owners and share your resources and clients. Consumers need to be surprised to take notice of anything in a world where they are constantly bombarded with stuff they have come to expect, and therefore ignore. “A book launch? In our deli?” Yeah, sure – you will sell more cheese, I might sell four books!
    A very little press can be a very lucky press if it is run by people with a vision. I envy you your opportunities. Email me or visit my site if you want to ask questions.

  8. Pingback: What’s a book launch? | The poet's wife

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