Monday, August 11, 2008

Why don't readers attend author events?

There are millions of readers in this country who bought over $3.1 billion worth of books last year. So why don't more of them come out to their local bookstores and libraries to meet and listen to the people who wrote those books?

I was surprised there were any empty chairs at my local independent bookstore last week for readings by novelists Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader) and Jennifer McMahon (Island of Lost Girls) because both have sold enough copies to make the New York Times Best Seller Lists. Although I once attended a Janet Evanovich event that drew 2,000 people to a casino, it seems small audiences are all too common for most writers.

I don’t understand this. Author events are such great entertainment. There’s nothing like hearing an author read his or her own work aloud, and no better opportunity to ask questions about it. Most events last only an hour and they’re always intellectually stimulating, even if you don’t agree with the author’s premise. You get to hang out in the audience with other people who like to read. You can bring a camera for a photograph with the author. The bookstore may offer you cookies, or wine and cheese. And the entire experience is free. That makes it a perfect outing—if you’ll forgive the pun—in my book.

Maybe people don’t go to author events because they don’t know what to expect or they’re afraid they’ll have to buy a book they don’t want. But I think writers would rather talk to non-buyers than empty chairs, especially since most authors tour at their own expense. Writing, by its nature, is such a solitary experience that most authors are delighted to talk about their work to anyone who will listen.

Sure, the author and the bookstore would prefer that members of the audience leave with a book. But if they don’t, they still might tell others about it who will purchase a copy. Also, publicity before and after an author event sells books. So people shouldn’t feel too guilty if they don’t buy books at every reading.

Of course, the hope is theyll be so intrigued by the author’s presentation that not only will they purchase a book, they’ll want the writer to autograph it afterward. They can even justify the purchase as an investment. Some bookstores offer “signings” where the writer sits at a table and signs books, but doesn’t read from the work. When an author becomes a literary superstar (or president), collectors and eBay will clamor for signed editions. Although an autographed book is said to be more valuable without a personal message, I think an individual inscription turns a book into a wonderful gift to give yourself or someone else. (But I’m not complaining that Barack Obama only signed his name to The Audacity of Hope during his first visit to NH – some booksellers are asking almost $2,000 for autographed early first editions.)

For those who don't know, there are many ways to find out about author events. Check the local newspaper. Bookstores and libraries list events on their web sites and in e-mail and print newsletters. Authors post touring schedules on their own web sites and an outfit called BookTour will even send you an e-mail about events in your area. Literary genre conventions, like the fabulous New England Crime Bake for mystery writers and fans in November, also offer great opportunities to hear from authors and get signed books (Harlan Coben is this year's guest of honor).

For those still reading today's lengthy post....
I believe an autographed book can be a wonderful souvenir from an interesting encounter with an author. I’m still amazed by Brunonia Barry’s publishing story. She said she and her husband self-published 2,000 copies of the novel it took her seven years to complete. Two months later, thanks to an incredible stroke of good fortune, The Lace Reader sold to William Morrow. Although she can't divulge the amount, the book sold for a reported $2 million. As of last Tuesday, 24 other countries had bought the rights to publish this fictional account of women in Salem, Mass., who can see the future through lace.

Island of Lost Girls is Jennifer McMahon’s second suspense novel after Promise Not to Tell and is the chilling tale of a present day abduction of a young girl from a small Vermont town and another little girl’s disappearance years earlier from the same community. I can’t wait to read it after I finish The Lace Reader.

As you might imagine, a downside to author events is your stack of books that are waiting to be read might grow too high. My independent bookstore, RiverRun, hosts so many wonderful author events that I could be down there almost every night of the week, which is not a good thing for someone trying to finish her own novel!


Lisa Haselton said...

Hi Pat,
Great post. I'll go to some signings and there will only be a couple of people, others have standing room only behind bookshelves. ;)

I used to be too shy to go to a signing. I'd get there, but not be brave enough to sit down. Something to do with the fear of being called on from my school years. ;)

Other times, if I was there to see and hear the author and learn about the book(s) that I haven't read yet, and no one showed, I had no idea what to say so I stayed away too.

Now that I'm focused on my writing and hope to be sitting at signings in the future, I'm more apt to just be able to talk and ask question whether I'm familiar with the author's work or not.

Going to author events now is mostly a scheduling/timing issue.

I suppose most folks feel they are obligated to purchase if they sit in front of the author for an hour.

Sir John said...

I think the problem is simple. Most readers love to read and have the work entertain them. They often think the writer is not entertaining in any form other than writing. I think writers need to do more to let the world know there is more to us than some one hiding behind a keyboard. The large national organization are the ones that need to lead this. Another failure is in the public relations departments that do not do their job in promotion the events.
It would be great to have the media chase after writers like they do actors, but until the writers give the media something worth while in making a story, it will not happen.
I have a lot of friends that are writers and they have great personalities, but not the special sparkle that is needed to yield to massive turn outs at book signings.

I think this is changing more and more today as writers are learning to brand their names. Especially the top writers.
I hope this does result in book tours becoming much more attended and creating more of a following of some great writers.

This is an interesting topic and I will write more on it later at my blog site located at the bottom of my site located at

Johnny Ray

Helen said...

I remember the first author event I attended. It was intimidating to me. They're not now. And I think that's one of the great things about going to see an author in person -- you learn that they are people too. (Shock!)

A lot of factors come into play. Readers need to get over the intimidation and need to learn that you don't have to buy the book (it would be nice, but it's not a necessity). And the store hosting the author needs to do a better job of promotion.

I went to a booksigning yesterday. The only way I knew about it was the author emailed me -- and it was at my local B&N. The author didn't even know if she was expected to speak or just sign. And she's a big time author with multiple series and genres.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, Pat. You invited me over from one of the list-serves we're on together...

For me, going (or not going) to author events is two-fold: you're right -- it IS a social experience. That means I want to share it with someone, including the drive over, as the best author appearances are about a 40-minute trip from home (in an indie, so it's worth it).

The other thing is that yes, I do feel obligated to buy the book. Besides, I want to. Yet as much as I pretend otherwise, I do have a budget and with gas prices being what they are, along with a 40-minute drive on a toll road... you get the picture.

If I lived closer to this one particular indie, I'd be at a lot more booksignings. I love meeting authors, especially when they have time to chat with me. I love hearing what authors have to say. I love being exposed to new-to-me writers and making new contacts.

And like you, I love the personalized autographs. I don't ask for an autograph so I can resell it on eBay. I ask for it because it has meaning.

Maybe what we need are more author events, with multiple authors, to make it easier if you don't buy a particular book, or to make the travel costs/time stretch further. I'm lucky my indie does a great one each year, but it's not enough.

Then again, is it ever enough?

Rosemary Harris said...

I did a lot of events this year for my first book, Pushing Up Daisies, and the turnout ranged from 4 to over 40 last Monday in Forestville CT. It's all about the promotion. The librarian in F'ville did an amazing job. I knew one person in the audience - she did the rest. I think when a newbie is building her readership she should stick to libraries, mystery bookstores, and existing events. Is anyone here old enough to remember the name Willie Sutton? Apparently he was a bank robber - I only know this because I used to manage a bookstore and he wrote a book called Where the Money Was. Someone had asked him why he robbed banks and that was his answer. My twist on that would be...Where the People Are. Realistically I'm too new to draw a big crowd, so I have to go where the people are. To that end, I'll be signing at the Big E next month (Sept. 19, 10am-2pm :-) It's a five state fair in Springfield MA that's gets well over a million visitors.

Pat Remick said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. As a writer I know how important it is to see faces in those chairs. I try to show up to support other authors when I can. Sometimes I just listen, but other times I ask the standard questions -- where did you get your idea? how did you get published? After reading this blog, a few non-writers have told me they might consider going to readings now that they understand what's involved. This indicates to me that writers and bookstores could do more to educate readers about these opportunities.

Sara Thacker said...

I think my issue is time. I have way too many things to do and add anything else to the mix. I'm a reader and an author. I love to discuss books, all types of books, but finding the time to go is often the problem.

Malena said...

Thanks, Pat, for this blog and the interesting comments. I try to go to author readings as often as I can. I think it's sad that the authors who get big turnouts are all on the bestseller list, when it's so exciting to discover a new author and watch his or her journey to success. I was lucky enough to see Rhys Bowen when she first started the Evan Evans series all those years ago. I bought the book, loved it and knew she would succeed. How satisfying it is to have been right!

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Great topic. I just attended my first book signing at our local Chapters store. I'd avoided doing signings with my first novel because I'd heard so many horror stories. Sure, a lot of people ignored me, but others came up to my table and asked what my novel was about. One little girl approached and said she wanted to be a writer. I smiled and asked if she wrote stories or kept a diary. When she said she did, I told her she was doing all the right things, and her eyes lit up. I even sold some books, but that encounter made the whole experience worthwhile and boosted my confidence to do more.

Debra Purdy Kong

Suzanne Adair said...

Re: events at bookstores and libraries, here's my $0.02 from both sides of the signing table.

Timing, transportation issues and prices, promotion, and pressure to purchase do play into it. But after I've jiggled my schedule and budget around to attend another author's event, it's exasperating to arrive and find nothing happening except a queue to reach the author's signing table. (So I don't attend that kind of author event anymore.) Even talking heads on a panel or behind a podium is better than a static signing table. Chains seem more inclined to schedule this sort of event and indies and libraries more likely to set up unique "mixers" such as costume parties, although that isn't an absolute.

When I attend the event of another author, I look forward to interacting with the author. I also enjoy schmoozing with readers at my author events, and the feedback I've received from people who attend my events is that the author-reader connection made the event special for them -- "worth the trip." Over and over, they tell me how much they dislike events with an author who doesn't interact with them. Some authors are quite shy. Attendees don't demand dazzling wit and sparkling conversation. All they want is for the author to give the event a little personal touch. And they remember that, even if they don't buy the book right there at the event.

Several years ago, I heard of a static signing event with a famous author. After navigating the queue to reach the signing table, those who purchased his book were not permitted to speak to the author except to provide instructions about how he was to sign the book. Ick. Bring on the android technology and author dopplegangers, but I won't be on site or buying the book. :-)

Suzanne Adair (