This is the seventh in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published on 12th February. In each post I try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways it can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. To get a flavour of the sort of events you might do, have a look at the Events page on my website (and if you're inspired to book one, do come and say hello!)
THE PRACTICALITIES OF EVENTS
By event, I mean anything where you, the writer, are there, talking about your book or a related subject, usually (we hope) in conjuction with your books being sold and probably you signing them. They might include:
- launches: your editor may well support a launch by paying for the wine and making a lovely speech about your book's wonderfulness and their enthusiasm for it, as if your family and friends actually needed prompting to buy lots of your books. Bookshops are the natural venue, upstairs in a pub is nice; only big names who can garner serious publicity for the paying publisher, or energetic authors with cash to spare, are likely to have a launch in a cool or headline-grabbing venue.
- signings: most writers have no-one-turned-up horror stories, so these days an event usually offers people something more. Only the very big commercial names can attract a queue just for a signature.
- big literary festivals from posh, rural Hay-on-Wye, to cool and buzzy Aye Write, spread across several venues and weekends in Glasgow. This is a good listing site. Festivals tend to focus on literary and high-end commercial fiction and non-fiction; the big names in very commercial fiction also figure, but run-of-the-mill commercial writers don't easily find a place. Many festivals have a creative-writing strand: could you do a workshop, as I am at Stratford?
- small literary & arts festivals: a single day or a weekend, powered by passionate volunteers, or as part of the general programme of a venue such as Chiddingstone Castle, or as one element of a local arts festival. Hopefully they also court local media, so make sure you tell them if you have any local connections.
- genre & specialist festivals: the grandmother is the Harrogate Crime Festival, but then there's Bloody Scotland, Jewish Book Week, the Festival of Romance...
- non-book venues: Of all the events I'm doing I am of course super-thrilled to be at Down House with English Heritage. What history, themes or people in your book might suit a non-book venue?
- writer development agencies: each region has one, which organises events to support literature, creative writing and writers' professional development in the region.
- libraries: often have a programme of booky events and evenings
- bookshops: do more and more as they compete with the online sellers. My local Village Books is an admirable specimen of the breed. Sometimes a higher ticket price includes a copy of the book, and/or wine and nibbles, both of which are a good way of making sure the book sells.
- salons & readings: where the poets' slams and open-mics meet the conventional literary event: perhaps in a pub, definitely with alcohol. You'll be alongside the poets in selling your own books. The Words Away Salon I co-chair is built round a single guest author, but it's much more of a dialogue with the audience than a normal platform thing, and there is cake. And wine. And a deliciously quirky venue.
- book groups: energetic book groups run by libraries, bookshops or individuals may sometimes invite an author, and usually they'll actually have read the book.
- writers' circles: if you are known for talking about writing, you may be asked to talk, or give a workshop
- writers conferences: similarly, if you can talk interestingly and usefully about writing in general, not just your own, you may get invited to speak, join a panel or give one-to-one feedback. The People's Museum in Manchester has an historical fiction conference centred on the Peterloo Massacre in May, then there's Winchester, York, Verulam and so on.
- universities & colleges: if your writing is at the literary end of things, you may be invited to read and/or talk to the creative writing or English department. This past event, at Goldsmiths, was typical. Your own alma maters (almae matres) may also be pleased to tout a graduate who has published books to their students in a Careers day.
- schools: for children's writers schools gigs are bread-and-butter, but schools may be interested in other writers, either talking to the Sixth Form, or as part of their careers programme.
You might be taking part in
- you on your own, talking about your work and reading extracts, ending with Q&A. Some authors love these, some find being solo on a platform daunting, and it would always be fair to ask if it could be:
- you and an interviewer/chairperson, talking about your book and your writing, as I am with Jane Wenham-Jones at Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival. The chair also wrangles the Q&A.
- an illustrated talk given by you, about the topic of your book, perhaps with some readings. That'll be me at Haslemere Festival, then. Makes obvious sense for non-fiction, but if you can pull a non-fiction topic out of your fiction it can go down very well. Plus Q&A.
- a panel of you and two or three other authors, hopefully with a chairperson to keep things coherent. This would usually be themed - gothic storytelling, or women in war, say, or Families and How to Survive them. (I'm looking forward to that one!)
- as "featured author" as part of a book-slam type evening, along with an open mike and other writers
- a "meet the author or "big book group" type event, These are great fun: the audience have (mostly) read (most of) the book, and you'll probably be reading a couple of extracts; that's the context of my Peterloo event. It's a privilege to have a proper dialogue with real readers.
- a panel game at conferences, particularly: a lighthearted quiz, or a "My era is better than yours", or "James Bond vs George Smiley" debate, with authors speaking, and the audience voting before and after.
- a children's event: talk and questions, maybe some writing, drawing or activities. These are very hard work but great fun, say my kid fic friends, and can sell lots of books. Schools are the big market, but libraries, bookshops and literary festivals also hold them
How you get the gigs. More in Being Published 5: Publicity but there's a lot you can do yourself, specially locally. Festivals and venues are usually programming perhaps six months or more ahead, and any hook helps - alumna/alumnus, local author, interesting or relevant topic. Joining the appropriate authors' professional association - Historical Writers Association, Crime Writers Association, Romantic Novelists Association - is a good idea, both for events that they hitch up with, and for networking: could you and a couple of others present yourselves as a ready-made themed panel? You could offer to chair/interview other authors: it gets you on the platform and your books on the stall, even if you're not the headline act.
Practicalities Some events will send you a proper contract; many won't, but make sure you have solid, confirmed information in emails about times, venues, fees, expenses, travel arrangments, accommodation, any interviews or recordings they want to make, who's supplying the books and who is selling them. You selling and signing and chatting to readers all at once is suprisingly stressful: if the organiser really can't get someone to do it, could you bring a friend?
If you have a publicist they should send all this on, and get your questions answered, but they are juggling a lot of authors, so keep your own eye out. And don't rely on the event to tell you when it's live on their website, though hopefully they'll tag you on Twitter: check occasionally, get it up on your website, and do your own tweeting, tagging them.
The Society of Authors has a specimen booking form for you to use, and send to an organiser to confirm. Not all of us, shall we say, are that organised, but we probably should be. It is not unknown for a big festival to ask a small author if they'll do a gig, and then "forget" to put them on the programme - and occasionally a publicist may fail to pass on your acceptance. Another reason to make sure you get proper details, briskly.
If you're anxious to bag cheap travel tickets don't jump the gun too early: things do change, and if ticket sales are really poor it's better for everyone to agree to cancel than you show up to an empty room. Conversely, a couple of times I've been asked at the fairly last minute to chair something, as well as do my own event.
So many of us, both writers and event organisers, are embarrassed about talking money. But you are self-employed and need to eat, and even if you're a squillionaire, events cost you time and hard-earned professional skills - so why wouldn't you deserve paying? By law the Society of Authors can't set out recommended fees, but they can talk about what rates they observe, so that's a good guide, and quoting them can help the faint-of-heart author to overcome her/his own embarrassment. The Society also have lots of guides to different kinds of events, for both writers and organisers, which are super-helpful.
Many arts festivals started in a volunteer, shoestring spirit and even now at many there genuinely isn't all that much money in it for anyone. But some very big festivals historically have had a very bad habit of not paying their authors except for the really big names which attract the headlines - and the problem is that we need and want the exposure, so they have been able to get away with it.
But are the rest of us really worth less than their marquee-hire and their bar staff? I have sat in a tent with c.100 people in the audience who paid £8 a ticket, not a penny of which came to me. I signed maybe 30 paperbacks, which made me around £15 in royalties. They probably sold a few more from the bookstall (though really big festivals may only have room there for the books of that day's events) and it was worth it because it meant I can say, "Oh, yes, I've done Super Famous Festival," which labels me as a writer above a certain level of visibility. Also, my publisher would have been royally pissed off if I'd declined - though they would also have acknowledged my right to decline. But what it didn't do was repay me in cash what it cost me in time.
But festivals are now big business, and since a high-profile kerfuffle far more festivals build a modest but functional fee for all authors into their budgeting - not least because the Arts Council will no longer fund festivals which don't. But you may have to ask, and you may wish to resist the "Tick this box to donate your fee to the festival" suggestion - or you may be very happy to support them. You may also be told - or, I'd hope, asked - about your event being live-streamed or podcasted. This is not a trivial request, since while Open Access may be a praiseworthy aspiration, it arguably reduces the demand for you to do events, if your material is sloshing freely about on YouTube in perpetuity. The Society of Authors also has advice about this: at the very least you should be offered a considerably increased fee.
And although the fees are welcome, they don't represent an hourly rate you could live on. This is why the defenders of book piracy of who claim that it doesn't matter if our books are pirated, because writers can earn a living doing events instead, are talking nonsense.
Universities are usually fine for expenses but do sometimes forget that we don't have a salary as they do - or are just embarrassed to discuss it: a particular academic crime is for the accounts department to try to pay you via payroll and PAYE, instead of via your invoice. That's incredibly tiresome for us, and even HMRC says is simply incorrect. Again, there's help in the relevant Society of Authors Guide.
Conferences may recognise the work you're putting in, and pay your expenses and a fee for each event you do. But they may instead assume that you are there as a delegate as well, and conference delegates are not paid, they pay - for accommodation, for food, and just for being there. You may feel that you're part of this community and you'd want to be there anyway for the fun as well as the networking and selling books - or you may feel that you are a professional, and expect professional remuneration, and decline the invitation.
A writers' circle may well divide your fee for a workshop among them and be perfectly happy. Bookshops simply don't pay fees, and libraries often don't, book groups and local stand-up type evenings usually don't either - though a named author shouldn't have to pay for a ticket. And all of these, you may feel, are a Good Thing suffering hard times and reaching a demographic you won't reach other ways; you may choose to do it for free, or for expenses (or ask your publisher to pay), or you may decide that you still need paying, and decline the invitation.
I wouldn't, myself, ever turn down a nearish bookshop: a very important rule of authoring is to always be nice to booksellers. Apart from the fact that they are far better read and more passionate booklovers even than most of us writers, and usually very supportive of local authors, and almost invariably lovely people - society needs bookshops.
For festivals, the traditional division is for your publisher to pay travel costs, and the event to pay accommodation if you need it: subsistence should come into it too. You, of course, are paying in time, expertise, hard work and lost writing time: this is not a day out. If your publisher is tiny and simply can't, or is being more than usually ruthless in their cost/benefit analysis, first ask the festival, then... you'll have to decide what it's worth to you.
So how do you decide whether to do an event?
I'm not going to tell you what you "ought" to decide. What I do suggest is that you work out your own algorithm, which connects all the different elements in proportions only you can decide:
- your ethical position on the spectrum from, "Any author who works for free is undermining those of us authors who can't afford to", all the way to "I'm promoting my book and if I choose to spend my time doing that, that's my decision," or "Arts events are a good thing so I'll write the cost off on my mental volunteering/charity/literature-development account".
- what the event will cost you: administrative faffing, preparation, wardrobe, travel-time and travel-stress, event-time and event-nerves, expenses including subsistence (if no one will cover them), and post-event come-down.
- what it will earn you: fees; book sales; exposure (don't delude yourself what it's worth); contacts (ditto, but excellent writerly friendships can begin in a greenroom); confidence-boost that you really have an audience and readership; an expenses-paid trip somewhere nice, a good hotel with spa, or a wander round the cathedral and old town.
What are those worth to you? What are you worth? And I do know writers who are very happy to do events which involve 5 hours each way of blissfully, legitimately child-free, paid-for train travel in the quiet coach...
DOING EVENTS: how to cope, how to (I hope) enjoy, at least a bit.
Nerves notwithstanding, don't forget to be pleased that someone organising an event thinks that you and your book will draw an audience.
I am in awe of how events organisers get everything together, from sponsors to volunteers to catering, wrangle books and authors and booksellers and hotels, cope when the venue throws a wobbly or someone in the front row faints, and still remember to pick me up from the station. We couldn't do it without them, and I wish someone would found a prize for people who make arts events happen. If you're organising the event yourself, pat yourself on the back for initiative and energy.
But if you're feeling daunted, do remember that, as performances go, booky events are remarkably low stakes: there are no lines to remember, you can wear pretty much whatever you like, you'll almost always be miked, and the audience want to like you and are willing meet you half-way.
It's really worth going to a few as a punter, to get the idea. My first-ever event (Christchurch New Zealand's Writers' Festival, since you ask) was very exciting, but it would have been more relaxed if I'd known something of how literary festivals work, and had only had to cope with the jetlag-induced hallucinations.
In terms of when you arrive at the bookshop, the greenroom, the festival tent or the upstairs-in-a-pub, of course you're sober, prepared, friendly, grateful, and helpful but, don't forget that your role in the event is the same as the singer's in an opera: whether the event goes well largely rests on you, and only you know what you need to play your part successfully. So don't be afraid to ask for what you need.
Knowing what you need comes with experience, and there is no shame in admitting that you don't know how these things work. If you'll feel more secure if you arrive already having had an email chat with your interviewer or chair person about timing and content, or knowing what kind of audience to expect (size? readers? writers? seniors? teens?), or knowing what the hotel is, or how you're getting back to the station, then email and ask.
Same on the day: whether you need a cup of tea, a sweater, somewhere safe to put your overnight bag, or twenty minutes' guaranteed solitude, ask. I like to see the actual room, if it's possible, so I know what I'll be walking into, and I definitely want to know if I'll be introduced by someone, who's doing the "housekeeping" (fire exits etc.) and what happens at the end of the hour.
And don't be afraid to refuse, politely, what will hamper your performance: no, you don't have to lug a laptop, or shift chairs, or give way to another author's desire for changes that disadvantage you. Of course you may choose to: small-venue events, especially, often feel very collaborative and you may be happy to muck in. But always prioritise the core reason for the audience to be there: you and your book's performance.
That is not "being a diva", that is simply being a professional. Having said that, demanding that the box-office intern spends an hour picking the orange M&Ms out of the bowl in the greenroom is not the way to get yourself asked back when your next book is out.
Reading your work. Your work was written to be "read" in the reader's head, not performed in character by an actor, so as long as you transmit it clearly and intelligently, that's good enough. But not every writer naturally reads aloud well, and there's no denying that the better the reader, the better the book "sells" - and the better it may sell off the bookstall afterwards.
The Society of Authors sometimes holds "Giving a Reading" workshops for members, and there will be an acting teacher near you happy to help with diction, breathing, posture and how to relax enough to let your understanding of the story - you did write it, after all - flex and power your voice. If you fear being paralysed with nerves, or your diction is genuinely a problem, getting some help will boost your confidence - which will help in itself.
If your book has raw things in it or you feel painfully exposed by having a live, whites-of-their-eyes audience, carefully choose safe sections and practise them until they loose their sting. I'd always suggest editing and practising, anyway, but perhaps it's even more important when you're worried that the emotional content might ambush you. Even so, if you really do lose it, I can guarantee the audience will be kind.
What chiefly embarasses an audience is that you are embarrassed, so acknowledge your upset, take a moment to get your breath, blow your nose, drink water, or even apologise and stop. To be cynical - but also I hope helpful - the audience will love you more, because they come to events to feel the actual life in an author and their book - and you've just given them that in spades.
Acknowledging the problem cheerfully - even with laughter - also goes a long way with coping with the hammering next door, the wind rattling the tent, the coughing-fit or the water-spill (Top Tip: pour your water before while you're being introduced, and never fill the glass more than half-full). There should always be some kind of organiser hovering, but all of these are more easily dealt by a chair-person or interviewer.
It's likely that the session will be followed by a book-signing, and that can be a thrill: not only signing your very own book as an author, but a chance to actually talk to real readers. (Top Tip: check the spelling of every single name, before you write.) But don't be got down if you don't get many, or any. When people buy a ticket for a booky event - especially now events are promoted for their "non-fiction" hook - then the book may appear more like an extra, a souvenir. No sales is annoying, but it says nothing about the quality of your work, or your performance on the platform. You've turned up, on time and sober, and done what you were booked for. You've done your job.
Don't be surprised if you're exhausted afterwards. Performing triggers a fight-or-flight adrenalin rush which releases sugar into the blood-stream, and then gives you a sugar low shortly afterwards. And everyone, after coming out into the limelight, has to go home in the rain: it's always a bit of an emotional low, even if it's a relief too.
Top Tip: performance adrenalin doubles the effect of alcohol. Be very cautious with that pre-performance stirrup cup, and that welcome post-event glass of wine can also be unusually lethal, specially as it's probably on an emptyish stomach.
And the day after, all the energy which you were sending outwards, connecting with other people, now has to go into reverse, as I was dicussing in "Doughnuts, Dickens and Utter Silence." If you're prone to imposter syndrome, or other kinds of toxic feeling-judged, the after-event low is crack for those chattering white mice, telling you how awful you were. You weren't, I promise - and that link should help you unpick what's going on.
But even if you like doing events, and that one went fine, afterwards you can still feel like Piglet escaping from being washed by Kanga. It takes me a long time, and a lot of metaphorical rolling in the dust, before I'm my "own nice, comfortable colour again" and I can climb back inside my own head where the writing lives. These days I schedule Piglet Time instead: after a big event, tomorrow I'm kind to myself, and plan for small treats and undemanding jobs.
The adrenalin rush is also, it should be said, what's addictive about events. Yes, publishers want you to do them, yes, they probably sell (some) books, yes, they may help raise your profile and your readership for the longer term. And it's very human to enjoy being wanted at the start, and applauded at the finish. But for every author who hates events and does as few as possible, there is one who does too many. It may be expressed as a need to promote the book, the self-employed insecurity, the "publishers don't do anything these days", but at heart it's often because the performing rush is more appealing than going home and struggling, alone, to climb the dreary mountain of adding another few thousand words to the work-in-progress.
In the end, events don't write books: you do. And to do that, however star-stuffed the greenroom, however spectacular you were on that stage, you have to leave, go home, and get on with it.