I 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.