Photos of Hannah Vincent’s book launch, Waterstones Brighton, courtesy of the author
Let’s explore the moment your book arrives in the world – not quite on the cold concrete of the distributor’s warehouse, but as it takes its first steps in public during the time around your launch.
This may be one of the most important moments in your life, a period to celebrate and share with family and friends and supporters, as well as to take a little private time to exult. And there’s no shame in exultation – everyone deserves some glory; especially you.
However, it can also seem peculiarly anticlimactic; the years of struggle can be wearying; for some writers there can be a sense of joining a world that is elsewhere distracted, overfilled with books, or to which they hold no real allegiance. Indeed, some may take an adversarial view of contemporary literature and anything to do with helping their book on its way, feeling this is inauthentic or, perhaps, someone else’s role. More often, the writer may simply have little experience of what is to come or might be expected of them.
Crescendos and fireworks
You will by now have made efforts to prepare the way for your book, you can read some thoughts on this here. Your launch is the moment these efforts come to fruition. For a moment, let’s consider what has happened by this point.
Ahead of your launch, your publisher will have been arranging for review copies to reach key people in the media: long-lead magazines, newspapers, journals, magazines and blogs. Additionally, copies will have been sent to sales staff, booksellers, central buyers, TV and radio producers, festival directors, events managers, rights agents, film and TV production companies. Beyond this, copies will be heading to key people who can influence how your book will be received, those movers and shakers who can inform public opinion. And, of course, it may have already been sent to many important literary prizes in proof form.
The desired effect is one of crescendo. All the efforts listed above are influenced by the talk around the book, by the human shape of its reception. Naturally, it’s important to turn up, to meet and greet everyone, to talk and gossip, to laugh and bring your book to the attention of your audience as it begins to emerge in bookstores. No audience is too small to attend to. Whether your book will be read by 50 people or 50,000, the readership should be served. Literature is an act of readership, and readership is a living thing and can be nurtured over time. Do not expect that your readership is someone else’s responsibility. You are the most important collaborator in its construction. It’s vital you work with people to find your audience, especially in the first 90 days of its life.
In these days of social media and a highly competitive book trade, your audience will expect to have access to you as well as to your books. You are the story at this point.
The structure of the show
One important thing about the launch is the construction of your book’s reception. You want to have a sustained effect. Your publisher will be facilitating this moment for you. But the moment is yours. How you celebrate is both a personal act of pleasure (and sometimes relief) even if it is also a public window on you the writer and your work. Do remember that you can have more than one launch, if your audience lies in several parts of the country.
Plan your event as a small piece of theatre
- Think carefully about choosing your venue, your publicist may help here. Consider how central it is: how easily can people attend? Is public transport good. If you are choosing a special venue, can books be sold there? How will unsold books be returned? Who will take responsibility for the money? Check with your publisher about getting stocks to the event in time and who will take receipt of them. Because of these considerations, a bookshop is often the best partner for a launch.
- How will the event be advertised? Certainly, social media has its place here, and the events manager of a bookshop will have audiences that can be reached online and in store, too. A bookshop may take posters. Tell the local press. Use noticeboards. Keep it personal, too, and send an email to invitees early, notifying them of the date. Check that the book will be available. If you have seen delays in production, think carefully of planning an event too soon after the publication date. The launch does not need to be on the publication date, and may even be months later, if the timing proved inconvenient (for example, during Christmas and New Year, or the August holidays). However, prepare to work hard for the audience ahead of your launch. Remind people of the date and time. Consider involving friends in the preparations and the evening to share the burden. Muck in.
- Think carefully about the time of the event – will people find the event is too late in the evening (if they have a commute ahead of them), or too early if they are working in the city. Is it on the wrong day of a working week? Check with people, especially those critical to you, that they can attend. Work with the bookstore on both the time and duration. Booksellers also have homes to go to.
- Always invite those who helped the book happen: family and friends, of course. Your workshop, if you are part of one. Writer friends and those who read the book in draft. Your colleagues if you have been part of a Creative Writing course; your tutors, too. If magazines have been important, invite the literary editors.
- Orchestrate the evening: can your reading be divided in to sections, can there be an introduction from a friend or colleague, can there be a small Q&A involved. Would it be better to increase your audience by combining a launch with another writer, or three writers? Work out how the event will run and if you do collaborate, plan how that collaboration will work for each writer. Provide a reason to turn up.
- Allocate a good photographer to capture the event. Think of how the event is being documented. The event can be used to publicise you and sell the book long after the champagne has been drunk, the cakes and blinis eaten, and all the books sold. And speaking of wine and nibbles, check the venue is licensed and happy to help – some bookshops don’t allow wine. (Also, note that some venues always appear to come with a ready supply of anonymous drinkers – be careful who is taking the wine early and regularly and to excess.)
- Put photos and any videos on your favourite social media platforms and share files with your agent, publicist and publisher.
- Practise reading out loud before the event. Stand and read into a mirror to see how you appear. Learn to project your voice. Stand straight, feet slightly apart, relax your shoulders, remember to look into the eyes of your audience and address them. Vary the tempo and the timbre of your voice, choose excerpts well. The event will involve your performance, so let it serve the book and your writing well. Leave the audience wanting more.
- How long is enough? Prepare an introduction, an anecdote about how the book came about, a little humour can go a long way to putting an audience at ease. Prepare a reading of around 15-20 minutes, or split something longer into sections perhaps spaced by a pause to drink and mingle. Everyone will enjoy a brief reading from the book, especially one that is well delivered, and provides some sense of temptation to read on. Time will be tight, so don’t overburden it and allow time for book signing.
- If the extract you are reading needs some context then provide it succinctly, don’t let an anecdote dominate your delivery. Don’t forget to send people to buy your book at the end of the readings.
- Allow people time to grab a drink and catch up with you, if only briefly. Prepare a space to sit and sign your book. If you are unsure of someone’s name, have a writing pad beside you and ask how the reader spells their name, jot it down on your pad before signing the book.
- Ensure you thank who needs to be thanked, but do not over elaborate. Thank the audience for coming. Thank the venue and its staff.
- Hugely enjoy yourself once your duties are over.
- Mix with the audience, chat. Leave everyone with a sense of having shared in your moment. Remember to follow up online swiftly with thanks and photos.
- While all of this may seem constructed, the planning will provide space for fun though perhaps at the expense of relaxation. A launch is, above all else, your personal celebration.
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Chris Emery is a poet and director of Salt. He has published three collections of poetry, a writer’s guide, an anthology of art and poems, and edited editions of Emily Brontë, Keats and Rossetti. His work has been widely published in magazines and anthologised, most recently in Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe). He is a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing, edited by David Morley and Philip Neilsen. He lives in Cromer, North Norfolk, with his wife and children.