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LBF 2010 Organising events


London Book Fair 2010: Organising author events

Amanda Pollard 

The ‘Author Event Masterclass’ organised by the Booksellers Association Independent Booksellers Forum opened to great applause with the introduction of its three speakers: Matthew Clarke, of the Torbay Bookshop; Colin Telford, Events Co-ordinator for the Hayling Island Bookshop; and Elaine Silverwood, enterprising founder of the ‘Silverdell’ in Kirkham, Lancashire - purveyors of books, gifts, cards, homemade ice-cream, and coffee!

As an active participant in a chain-bookshop based book launch (or ‘author event’) – arranged in collaboration with the author and historian, Charles Jonesauthor; formerly nerd responsible for keeping the site running; spent over 25 years in computer business; started out dusting bugs off valves, but in time graduated to writing software and managing projects; as published author with stack of waiting-to-be-published manuscripts tucked away, WritersServices is answer to his silent prayer; his book 'Ordinary Heroes' An extraordinary true story of wartime adventure; recently published book about Battle of Fulford-'Fulford the forgotten battle of 1066', published by Tempus ISBN 0752438107, to promote our newly-published An Illustrated History of 1066I was intrigued to learn what pearls of marketing wisdom these seasoned booksellers would be able to impart that might enhance my understanding of the economics and potential impact of such an exercise.

Suffice to say, our event - hosted by the erstwhile beloved Borders during the Oxford Literary Fringe Festival of April 2009 - had failed to generate the dramatic surge in sales we had so hoped for. We had taken pains to circulate publicity flyers, place an advert in the Fringe guide, advertise the event in-store and immediately outside Borders’ doors, prepare display materials and a colouring competition, and deliberately chosen a weekend during the Easter holidays when we anticipated hordes of children (with pocket-money-keeper parents in tow) would be milling around the shops scouting for diversions.

What had we been doing wrong? Or had we, in fact, been following precisely the model these independent sellers were about to advocate but had, alas, fallen victim to the vagaries of the British book-buying public (who had, inexplicably, resisted the welcome of our medieval personas to enjoy what we felt had been an attractive, stimulating and extraordinarily good value [free!] campaign)?

Matthew Clarke

On the basis of Matthew Clarke’s contribution, the willingness of an independent bookshop to host author events – either on its own premises, by commandeering some local venue, e.g. a theatre, or by organising events in the community – was critical to that store’s survival in an economic climate where mere passive selling (i.e. hiding behind a counter and deliberately avoiding customer contact) was to risk rapidly dwindling sales and eventual demise. He described event-hosting as having evolved from representing a relatively infrequent, special activity that might provide a tidy little bonus for a foreign holiday, to its current, almost weekly regularity - he cited 42 author events organised by his shop in the preceding year - as a revenue stream utterly fundamental to the shop’s continuing survival.

The slide show playing in the background attested to the range and diversity of the events hosted - and authors promoted – by the Torbay Bookshop, demonstrating the potential scope an independent bookshop can enjoy, in terms of satisfying known niche interests of its existing customer base and also of expanding it horizons to encompass lesser-known but deserving authors.

Although not beholden to a proscribed sense of balance that might constrain larger, chain operations – and so render them impenetrable to the lowly, first-time author like myself - he admitted to exercising a degree of personal preference over what enterprises, and to whom, the shop extended the opportunity for live event publicity. Not an unreasonable policy, given the considerable organisation such an event often entails, but this personal preference is potentially obstructive to a new talent attempting to emerge into the public arena.

A passing reference to the advertising prospects of local tourist offices and public libraries for a local author or work identifiable with the immediate locale was perhaps an attempt to compensate for this discriminatory approach (but more successful as a means of raising an author/book’s profile, as opposed to selling books).

To illustrate the unpredictable nature of customer turn-out to author events and to emphasise the critical importance of advance publicity, Clarke contrasted the appearances of Brian May – which should have been an absolute coup for the shop in terms of profile and sales – and another personality, to whose existence it seemed at least half the audience, including myself, were oblivious. Turnout for the Brian May signing was disappointingly average, while the ‘unknown’ publicised the event through his own friends and contacts (making use of local press and radio features, and advertising) - resulting in a record attendance and ‘conversion rate’ (i.e. translation of audience figures to book sales) for this particular author event.

This segued beautifully into underlining the importance of exploiting all other publicity/marketing channels at your disposal – inter alia local press, radio, local TV, poster campaigns – in order to infiltrate the consciousness of as many people, and thus potential customers, as possible. Clarke also mentioned the importance of reciprocity in ensuring continued support from local advertising channels – a practise often forgotten by booksellers blinkered by a desperation to shift as many books as possible, whatever the cost. (However, the back-scratching scenario he painted, i.e. his admission to being the go-to gossip-monger for the local newspaper in return for his events and featured authors making it to copy, others might regard as rather too dubious an arrangement to consider emulating… )

In essence, then, his message seemed to be that independent booksellers couldn’t afford to ignore the multi-faceted rewards of author-event co-ordinating and hosting, indeed, that such activity was arguably pivotal to their continued existence in the face of online and discount (I believe Tesco was mentioned at least once…) retailers.

Approaching this from my angle as an illustrator, it seemed that the potential benefits to be enjoyed by the independent bookseller could only recommend in-shop book-signings, talks and the sort of activities we had devised for our book launch. In return for a venue, perhaps a few glasses of wine and nibbles, a sales opportunity, and an existing pool of customers, the author/illustrator team had the potential to introduce new customers to the bookshop, generate interest in the shop both within and outside the local community, encourage (full-price) sales (Clarke confirmed that, on signed editions of a book, they never offer a discount) and sales of other books as these new customers browse the stock on display during the course of an event.

It seemed like a perfect relationship, but wrinkles in the strategy began to emerge on closer questioning by an aspiring author in the audience: a reluctance to accommodate an unknown author for such events became apparent, essentially because the normal publicity channels did not seem accessible and – unless the debut author in question was also some sort of local celebrity (thereby providing the local media with a ‘hook’) – it was unlikely that sufficient new interest could be generated. Matthew Clarke indicated that such events were rare, and that he would request a confirmed guestlist of the author’s own contacts to ensure that there was a guaranteed attendance. He suggested that, without the support of a publisher and/or one’s own publicist, it would be very difficult to generate sufficient sales to make the venture worthwhile, and that – even if successful (i.e. there was a high conversion rate) – the exercise would represent a one-off spike in sales that was unlikely to suddenly initiate a consistent, sustained trend (although this is, of course, made more difficult by the bookshop declining to stock an unknown author’s books).

Feeling a little disillusioned at this juncture, I was interested to hear whether Colin Telford’s approach, to what was by this stage recognised as a crucial component of bookselling, would afford a more versatile set of marketing ‘tools’ that might be exploited by an individual wishing to promote their own material, not just by a bookshop.

Colin Telford

Having a clearly defined role in his association with the Hayling Island Bookshop (i.e. Events Co-ordinator), Telford’s presentation was power-point precise. He kicked off with a bullet-point list of issues he and his team had identified as posing the greatest challenge to the success of running an author event: booking the right author for the targeted customer demographic; attracting a large enough audience both to make the event cost effective and to satisfy the (egos of the…) author and/or publisher; the logistical considerations involved in planning and running an event; and achieving a ‘high conversion factor’ (see translation, above).

By way of negotiating these challenges, if not entirely conquering them, the Bookshop had found that ‘partnering’ presented a very satisfying arrangement, building a symbiotic relationship between themselves and a variety of, often larger, institutions with access to financial resources that they could not have mustered as a single, independent entity. By joining forces with local school library services, public libraries, schools, literary festivals, and authors, among others, they were able to secure significant audience figures, pay author fees, provide a venue (the Hayling Bookshop is rather diminutive and, as such, too small for actually hosting events), share the marketing effort and compensate for any fall-off in sales experienced by the shop.

In return, they could offer their partners a high profit share – keeping the costing and sales completely transparent; an assurance that the shop would take any risk on stock levels; take on a share of the marketing efforts; and – in the case of authors – they could use their industry contacts to secure, for example, newspaper journalists to further an author’s media exposure. Of particular interest was his mention of a mentoring programme for new /first-time authors, whereby the bookshop offers a professional launch/event for the new book - and the guidance of experienced booksellers in the promotion and delivery of the same to its intended readership – in return for a fee-less attraction (the new author!).

This seemed somewhat at odds with the Torbay Bookshop’s approach, but perhaps this more accommodating stance was demonstrative of the success of their myriad partnering schemes and, thus, their greater capacity to entertain a degree of low-level risk. It wasn’t clear, in the event of a new author becoming a bestseller (for example) whether this mentoring programme would then evolve into an author-partnering relationship. The latter seemed to assume that a series of events showcasing the particular author would follow, thereby allowing stock to be purchased in greater quantities – and so achieving a greater profit margin for author and bookseller - and for any residual stock to be rolled over to the next event, thus eliminating the potential losses incurred on wasted stock.

Telford described a number of quite different examples of the Hayling Island Bookshop’s partnering strategy at work, including a more detailed illustration of their relationship with a school library service based in Portsmouth (some distance from Hayling Island, and an indicator of the reach afforded by opening their marketing programme beyond the local to take in larger, national organisations. Literary quizzes had been organised for member schools, with prizes awarded (cannily) in book token form, meet-the-author programmes; book award programmes; and mobile bookshops taken into schools where pupils could browse the stock in an environment conducive to promoting their reading interest and enjoyment.

The crux of his approach in taking the tiny Hayling Island Bookshop to the world seemed to be to open up and maintain as many partnerships with as broad a range of organisations in as many locations - both locally and nationwide – as possible, in order to give the greatest flexibility to each partnering ‘stream’. This would ensure an overall consistency, as far as possible, in terms of revenue from the author event strand of the bookshop’s business. And Telford readily admitted that, without the events component of the business, their shop would almost certainly have numbered among the very many independent bookshop casualties of recent years.

Elaine Silverwood

Last to speak was Elaine Silverwood, a woman of formidable entrepreneurial drive, ambition and multi-tasking skills, who demonstrated the considerable benefits to be reaped from diversification! The various different strands which her business now comprised had grown from a realization that these elements could complement and support each other, resulting in a more robust overall business – an entity greater then the sum of its constituent parts. For example, the homemade ice-cream component had been harnessed to the author-event segment when she began concocting new flavours in honour of a celebrity author book signing. This gimmick was picked up by a local press report, and engendered a curiosity for the flavours she might conjure for subsequent bookings.

Again, Silverwood suggested a whole flotilla of marketing devices by which new customers might be attracted, and excitement about - and enthusiasm for - books be generated, beginning with the local community and gradually rippling outwards to regional and national events as awareness of Silverdell’s capabilities and influence grew. Echoing the previous two speakers, she emphasized the need for reciprocity in any relationship with advertising/marketing channels, but her focus seemed very much on how best to promote individual authors – identifying the optimum audience base, event format, venue and timing to maximise both their ‘exposure’ (in a way that they would be most comfortable with) and, of course, book sales.

Silverwood had also explored some slightly more oblique angles, e.g. inviting business/economics students from the local university to conduct their market research in the bookshop and about her business model in order to raise Silverdell’s profile within the profitable student sector and still conducted a considerable number of more traditional in-store book signings. However, she seemed to indicate that one of her most profitable and successful innovations had been to make some of the larger events ticketed affairs. This system allowed her and her team to predict pretty accurately the size of audience they could expect for the occasion (thereby establishing its viability), they could afford to ‘add value’ to the experience by including a catered lunch or a more salubrious venue than they otherwise might, and they could also allow for each ticket to equate to a book for every attendee. When set at or above the price of the featured book, the ticket functioned as both a deterrent to unreliable guests and provided each member of the audience with something tangible to take away from the event, in addition to the experience of the event itself. It also guaranteed a significant number of book sales at full price – which had, unsurprisingly, proved popular with authors and publishers, too!

Another tip Elaine suggested by way of fostering an effective and lasting relationship with the media - and one which I felt could be adopted by anyone attempting to secure a review (or, at the very least, a mention) in the local newspaper - was to create a complete media package. This would include a copy of the book, blurb, any reviews, relevant jpgs and contact details for the author, the author’s publicist and the bookshop and would enable a journalist to quickly digest it and insert it straight into the next edition of their respective publication. The attractiveness of such a measure to a member of the press working to prohibitively tight deadlines is perhaps obvious, but it – theoretically - also enables the publicist to exert a greater degree of influence over the book or author’s representation in print.

As fantastically enthusiastic and innovative as Silverwood sounded about the authors for whom she has hosted events (and for her own business), and as romantic as her homemade ice-cream-alongside-brilliant-books model seemed, my optimism for our own promotion and sales efforts dissipated with her fairly brutal declaration that, without the support of a publisher-sponsored marketing budget and associated expertise, a self-published title was ‘very unlikely to ever sell more than a few hundred copies’ – best-case scenario. (It was at this point that she wheeled out a statistic from the US bookselling market, cautioning that of 87,000 titles published independently in 2009, only 83, yes, 83, not 83,000, sold more than 500 copies each – sobering, but I had the picture by then.)

In terms of getting one’s new title out onto the shelves and enjoying the sort of carnival of publicity these veteran booksellers have developed for promoting an author in the most exciting, rewarding, fun and profitable manner, the consensus seemed to be that one should find oneself a rich publisher and an industrious publicist. Or expect to spend the rest of your days painstakingly negotiating and publicising your own events, under your own steam - and in the face of considerable pessimism - in every village, town and city in the land…