Friday, November 12, 2010

How (not?) to have a London launch (if you don't even live there)

First, you will have had one already, the previous year, for a different book, which was successful. For the current book you will have already had one in Manchester which was packed out, and where you sold all of the books the bookshop ordered, and more besides. This will give you confidence - although you are very aware of the unpredictability of these things, so maybe you are not so confident after all. Gird up your loins, though. First of all, be prepared to SPEND MONEY. This may seem to you crazy, ie to wipe out any profit on the books, and far more besides, before you begin, but remember: the point of the exercise is not so much to make money - something which is nowadays pretty much beside the point unless your initials are DB, eg - but to SPREAD WORD ABOUT THE BOOK. Book your return train journey. Book a hotel. Ask the bookshop to order in wine and nibbles, which you will pay for.

Begin inviting people. Start a month beforehand, in order to give plenty of notice. Send personal invitations to the following people: your personal friends and relatives who live within travelling distance of central London (this is not many), your writer and publisher friends: the two or three you have known for years, the ones you have met more recently via blogging and Facebook or on a writing course you went on once, and the several writers you know through currently having the same publisher, as well as the one or two you once published in a short-story magazine and with whom you are still in touch - altogether a good number. Be brave enough also to ask two very well-known writers you have also had dealings with in the last year or so, and don't forget your ex- but very nice agent who sold the book (which is a reissue) the first time round, and is thus part of its publishing history. Since the subject of the book is of particular interest to women (though not exclusively), contact a long list of London women's groups, and, since it has been studied on university courses contact a slightly shorter list of relevant London-based academics. And while you're at it, although it seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (but then the object of the exercise is spreading word about the book), contact a ginormous list of London-based reading groups. Get the event on Time Out listings.

All of this will take you several mornings and afternoons glued to the computer (you will need to reply to responses, remember). You will long ago have suspended work on your novel-in-progress or given up, for the present, any idea of writing .

A fortnight before the event, set up a Facebook event. Luckily, your publisher sets one up for you as well, because he has so many more Facebook friends.

What happens? Half of your very small number of relatives say they can't make it (you don't even invite your miles-from-London relatives as they would never travel). In spite of your having invited them so early, many of your writer friends write back to say that they too are already committed that evening - mostly to teaching: it seems that most creative writing tuition takes place on Wednesday evenings! Still, some say they'll come, but, frankly, you are counting on the fingers of two people's hands, and not using all of those fingers, either.

Your old agent sends you a very nice email to say that he, too, is already committed that evening, as do your old writing friends, one of whom will be embarked that night on an American tour. Neither of the famous writers with whom you are newly acquainted replies. Squash the horrible feeling that they are laughing up their sleeves at the thought of going to your launch, and remind yourself that they are probably extremely busy. About twenty people say on your publisher's Facebook event that they'll come (hardly any say so on yours), but you know that it's just so easy to click a button to look willing, and it doesn't really guarantee that any of them will come, and one of them lives in Colombia, you notice...

By now you are panicking. Your close friends and relatives tell you that it'll be all right, people always turn up, but you are not so sure. You stop sleeping properly at night. But then, you tell yourself, there are those 15 or so people who have said they're coming. And then there are those who haven't replied: maybe they'll come in the end... Though your gut feeling is that, actually, it means the opposite.

In the days coming up to the event, you spend time Facebooking and Tweeting the event, even though you are worried about breaking the code and being just too damn self-promotional and possibly therefore counterproductive. Also you write again to those who haven't replied, just in case they have forgotten all about it because you invited them so early - squashing the worry that they will just feel hassled, which will put them right off you and your book. Some of them do write back this time, to confirm your worst fears. Then several of the people who have said they're coming write to say that now they can't. The number of definites is dwindling.

But then you get a positive response from the University of East London who will circulate details, and from representatives of three of the women's groups who say they are sure their members will be interested. And to your delight, Beverley Beech, Chair of AIMS (the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services) writes to say she'd love to come.

You pack up your bags. Should you take some books? In Manchester the bookshop sold out, as did the bookshop at your last London launch, and on both occasions you ended up selling extra books out of your bag. It seems ridiculous this time. But then you never know: what if crowds of people off those mailing lists - and the bookshop's mailing list, and the Time Out listing - turned up? Every writer has to be prepared... So you do, you take a bag full of books as well as your other bags, and lug it on the train and the tube and up the steps of your hotel. As you are hauling it through your hotel room doorway the handle comes off, and on the way to the launch you have to buy another, and since this time you think you'd better get a stronger one, that's £50 added to the cost of the launch...

You're a little early, so you retire to Starbucks opposite the bookshop and transfer the books from your knackered bag into your new one. While you're sitting down, you look at your email. One of the writers you are expecting is not going to make it after all, as her babysitter has not turned up.

In the bookshop (Blackwell) the very nice Marcus has gone to a lot of trouble getting in the wine and nibbles and thoughtfully setting up for you in the medical section, most apt for the subject of the novel. Your heart is sinking at the thought that you will not make his efforts worthwhile.

This is what happens in the end: a few of the people who said they would come fail to do so, but a few others who said they couldn't, or didn't even reply, turn up out of the blue. Your lovely publisher comes (all the way from Cambridge in the freezing cold, her hands like ice), which makes all the difference, of course. And some of your oldest friends are there, including those who supported you all those years ago during the fraught history of the book. Although not a single other person from those mailing lists (or the events listing) is there, Beverley Beech comes, and is at the centre of intense discussions about the issues both before and after the reading. She tells you, both privately and openly during the reading, that the book is extremely current because the situation it deals with - that of the over-control of the obstetric profession - has got worse in the years since the first edition was published.

It's a small gathering, but it's a keen and involved one, and you are most surprised when at the end of the evening Marcus tells you that he is pleased with the number of books sold.

You even sell one copy out of your bag, because a dear writing friend arrives too late (and out of breath) to buy one from the shop!

And you are just arriving back at your hotel when your phone goes, and your son whose birth inspired the novel wants to know if you're all right, and you are all right, but so relieved of all the tension that you burst into tears...

(Pics here.)

*Crossposted to Fictionbitch


Rachel Fenton said...

Awe, Elizabeth. Well done for getting thorugh all that. So much hard work and anticipation and all the nerves, no wonder you needed a good cry!

And I cursed the bag handle for you!

Elizabeth Baines said...

In fact the bag handle was completely bust, Rachel - the metal cracked right through!

Rachel Fenton said...

I once went for an interview to get on an art degree and I was carrying two A2 portfolios, an A3 one, a bag of sketchbooks, a change bag and my daughter in a sling. I had to travel fifteen miles by foot, train and bus. I cried that day, I think something about letting go of all that weight just pulls your emotions out with it. You wrote about it really lovely, funny and touching. Felt relieved for you.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Rcehl, I feel like crying at the thought of you doing that!

Group 8 said...

Empathy. I've had a similar experience. The Dublin launch of Nude. What a stressfest. AND I had the flu. But I was so grateful to those who turned up. I did decide though not to launch in Dublin again unless the publisher organises it - far too much work for far too little return.
And, like you, not one extra person from various relevant, public listings of the launch showed. Waste of time advertising it, I felt.
Beautifully written post, btw.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh my god, Nuala, flu as well!

I guess we've all had this experience. But then we've also all had experiences where you've put in less work but more people turn up, and it's not always to do with being nearer home. My London launch for Magpies was more successful in terms of numbers turning up, but I did only a fraction of the work. These things just seem so unpredictable...

But then I don't think you can simply count success in terms in numbers turning up, because the advertising beforehand still spreads word about the book...

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

A superbly honest and also depressingly recognisable post, Elizabeth. Take heart, it's no reflection on you or the book. This is really a case study of how to do it right, and how doing it right can also lead to a poor turn out. One wonders if Blackwell's mailed their own customer base about the event?

Over a decade, I've been to scores and scores of launches, signings and events, it's become almost impossible for us to attend them all these days (we're approaching two launches per week now), but many launches share characteristics with yours. Remember the massive success of the earlier events, though.

Grabbing attention is murder, grabbing attendance is even harder. There's more that I could write about this and confide but let's do that at the next event we organise with you. The book is a marvel, you are quite brilliant.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Chris, Blackwell DID contact their mailing list about the event - they were very conscientious about doing so! Maybe it's all written in the stars as to whether or not one will grab attention at any particular time!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi E - I left a post earlier - its got swallowed!

I send a hug, and a sigh, and acknowledgement of the hard work that having to do all this takes you away from what you do best.

If this really is the pattern that is repeating over and over - why on earth dont we change it??!

maybe its time for a few of us to put heads together to see if there's a way to do things differently? Example, at my next thing on 23rd, its in a theatre, and I have professional actors dramatising some work. Yes, it costs. But in the end, we've no choice if we want the work to get out there.

shall we set up a small get-together for the prose writers who are interested?


Elizabeth Baines said...

V, your other comment was on my other blog, where I've crossposted this - sorry to be confusing.

Well, I'm all for taking part in any joint readings that are happening, though I'm not so sure how one could organize anything without taking time from writing: it seems a necessary evil. It could be done over the internet, which would be less time-consuming than meeting...

As for actors, I prefer to present my work myself (I ought to be good at it, at any rate, with my background), so I'm not sure I'd be happy to pay actors...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi E

yup I take your point... but Im looking at this from the consumer's point of view. What are they not getting that means this isnt working - if these things are failing as a model?

What's going through their heads? "Oh god another bleedin' book launch - a writer reading their own bleedin' work, a glass of indifferent plonk and pressure to shell out for a bleedin' book...'

(maybe overstating it, but jeepers, I look at recordings of many writers reading their work and Im not surprised loads of mates/contacts dont turn up. Some of it is dreadful. Even if the work is very good a on the page.) No not you!!!! - Im thinking generally.

Im thinking of giving the audience something more than that. Something that lets them see a work interpreted.

Lifts it out of an amateur production into something closer to pro... and with a group approach, paying actors wouldn't be prohibitive.

Im trying it anyway!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Food for thought, V. Hope it goes well, too.