Early last month Junot Díaz nearly caused a riot when hundreds of fans descended on the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City to hear the author read from his latest, This Is How You Lose Her. But, to put it mildly, not every author is Junot Díaz, and getting a crowd to hear you read is tricky. Publicists and authors say that one key is putting the emphasis of the event less on the, well, reading.
That book tours have changed—fewer authors do them because of the expense and the diminishing number of bricks-and-mortar stores—is nothing new. And depending who you ask, the advent of social media has made things better or worse. For those in publicity and marketing, one plus of technology is being able to cheaply promote events. Pamela Spengler-Jaffee at HarperCollins’s Avon imprint, who works largely with romance authors, said touring them was always a “risky endeavor” with fears of low turnouts upsetting both authors and booksellers. Her department, though, is working hard to change that. “In the olden days it was hard to incentivize romance readers to come out,” Spengler-Jaffee said. Now, using Web sites like Bookperk (which HC, along with Simon & Schuster, uses to offer more direct access to authors through merchandise and deals on events) and Togather.com (which allows publishers to draw RSVPs to in-store events ahead of time), it can be easier to get a working knowledge of the turnout. Furthermore, Spengler-Jaffee noted, publicity and marketing teams can access the authors’ fans directly, instead of relying on local word-of-mouth.
Live-streaming, live-tweeting—these are the terms Spengler-Jaffee throws around in talking about events. Although she said she relies on many of her old tricks—contacting local media for promotion, turning to local RWA chapters to spread the word—she readily admitted that, a few years ago, she would not also have been referring to virtual events where buy links are arranged for fans online to purchase books from the partnering indie store.
But despite hi-tech advancements, one thing that’s even more important is adding a nonliterary element. For years, booksellers have talked about sprucing up in-store events, and this is more important than ever. While there are marquee names that people will always come out to see—names who can, like Díaz, just “read”—Spengler-Jaffee indicated it’s important to get authors talking to the crowd, instead of simply reading to them. It’s also important to make the event feel less like a literary gathering and more like something fun to do with your girlfriends.
Maya Rodale, a romance author at Avon, said everyone is trying to make “a social event out of a solitary activity.” Figuring out how to do that, she said, is tricky. One option is to change locales. While bookstores remain the most popular place to find authors plugging their latest books, Spengler-Jaffee said gift shops, cupcake stores, and even a barn have served as recent spots for author events. Rodale said she often does events with other authors—a commonplace in the romance community—and, more often than not, a q&a format, or group discussion, will lead into direct audience participation. As for actually reading from their books? Not so much. “When I think of all the events I’ve done in the last year, and I’ve had two books come out [The Tattooed Duke and the forthcoming Seducing Mr. Knightley], except for one reading series I did, I think there was just one event where I read from my book.”
In Spengler-Jaffee’s eyes, events need to replicate book club meetings. In other words, they need to be centered on hanging out with your friends. “The book is at the heart of the gathering,” she explained, “but it’s the conversation that makes the event.”
Eloisa James (the pen name of Mary Bly) has seen firsthand how much the book reading has evolved. James, who writes romance novels and also, last year, a memoir (for Random House) called Paris in Love, said that when she toured for her memoir, people wanted to hear her read. Her romance readers, however, are coming to see Eloisa James, the author and personality. Noting that she feels it’s easier to draw a crowd to events with social media—her team has an e-mail contact list of “super-fans,” among others, who get early notification of events—she said her romance fans come “with more expectations.” She elaborated: “They already know you [from online interactions], so they feel like they have some hand in your career. Some ownership.” And this, she noted, is not like the days of yore. The author’s father, the poet Robert Bly, never interacted with his fans the way Eloisa James does. “What my dad did—he would read a couple of poems and be out of there. No part of it is like that now.”