Stuff that authors need to know #1: book launches

The first in an occasional series: what I wish I’d known before getting published. Every now and again, folk ask me practical questions about publishing, and I’m always struck by how we all go through the process sans road-map. I can’t offer a map for all eventualities, but thought I’d give some directions from time to time. Today, it’s:

How To Throw A Book Launch

More and more authors are throwing DIY book launches these days. (A DIY launch is what happens when you’re determined to launch a book and your publisher is equally determined not to.)

Publishers and authors never see eye-to-eye on these matters.

Publisher: “Every author wants a launch. They don’t care that launches don’t sell books [Gospel truth so far]. We’d much rather spend the money on more effective forms of marketing [crib to reel thorts: We’d much rather not spend the money at all. Largely because we don’t have any to spare, much less the time].”

Author: “My publisher doesn’t understand that I need some sort of event that marks the arrival of this creation of mine. I thought it into being. It’s been in production for yonks, while I’ve been in limbo. I need something more than a phone-call from my gogo saying she spotted a copy in Wordsworth to make it real. I need verification. And affirmation. And closure.”

Anyway, it was because of a similar sense of limbo following the publication of Open: an anthology of literary erotica, that a handful of the contributors finally said, “Let’s just do it ourselves.” However, we mostly just talked about it – it was Duracell-bunny Suzy Bell, a former events planner, who made it happen. She herded us as hyperactively as a sheepdog, and yip yip yip, we had a venue, a date, stunning digital and print invitations (thanks to Monique Strydom of Struik), multi-racial breast-shaped cupcakes, and – blare of jazzy trumpets – real live sponsors.

But it didn’t stop there: colour theme, dress code, music, lighting, cocktails, martini glasses, bar staff, waitrons, mixers, ice (rocks and crushed), cooler boxes, trays, napkins, fresh and silk flowers, rose petals, not one but two TV crews, themed T-shirts (three meetings to settle on colour, fabric and font), co-ordinated plating and presentation materials, media gift packs, a cake, strawberries, fairy lights, fabric throws, photographers, invite reminders, after-party – she made it all happen. I was slightly stunned – I belong to the haphazard school of entertaining.

But by golly, by gee, by gosh, by gum, did she ever pull it off. A vast number of very glam people descended on the Book Lounge – think Sex in the City comes to Cape Town – all buzzing with a tremendously elegant and celebratory vibe. Book launches tend to be rather vanilla affairs in the Cape, unlike the masala mixes of Jozi and Durbs – but not this one. Arch Tutu would have smiled to see the rainbow (mostly dressed in pink and red) at this event.

The word I’m looking for is “classy”, and looking around at the crowd sipping rose liqueur cocktails and eating Lindt truffles, it dawned on me that there wasn’t the slightest whiff of sleaze or smut. I wonder whether this accounted for the publishers’ reluctance to launch a book of erotica – perhaps they thought the event would attract dirty old men in raincoats. On the contrary – although there were some raucous tannies!

Here’s how Sooz did it, with a LOT of help from a LOT of friends:

She got ALL the sponsors (Pernod-Ricard, Lindt and Mango Air) on board, unless you count me begging free ice from Roeland Cellars and the Book Lounge contributing the wines of the stalwart Leopard’s Leap (may their spots never change)Mango were the real fairy godpersons, making it possible for three Jozi authors (Liesl JobsonLiz Pienaar and Palesa Mazamisa) to fly down and join in the fun. Given that Gauteng and Cape book events are usually firmly segregated, this for me was truly special.

Sooz didn’t stop there. She roped in her boyfriend, photographer Daniel Burger, to take photos, fix lights, lug boxes, decorate and supply music (and music system) – he did it all with a smile. She worked her networks tirelessly – media, Facebook and the party tom-toms – insisting that lackadaisical Capetonians RSVP properly and show up at the appointed time. She found a T-shirt supplier, and put me in charge of him. Now that was fun: picking slogans of no more than eight words from each story to adorn individual shirts. Pity they arrived late on the actual night, but hey, the waitrons got to wear pink Tees with cerise slogans announcing, “An Open-minded woman is irresistible” and “Use Condoms Openly” for the latter half of the evening.

Meanwhile, Sarah Lotz’s mum, Carole Walker, provided a cake straight from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rougea lavish bustier bed, with a deliciously plump lady sprawled next to it, surrounded by tiny champage bottles and a copy of Open, all made of icing. A work of art – much too beautiful to cut. It was donated to a soup kitchen at the end of the evening. Carole also supplied the cupcakes and various other little pink goodies, all out of the kindness of her heart. Grazi mille, Carole.

I rounded up my GBF Keith Martin to do the grunt work (he washed up all evening and qualifies for sainthood) and Kate Templeton, my neighbour, to keep drinks and snacks circulating: she brought her flatmates to act as waitrons, which was great, because with the crush (200 bodies!), it was nice for folks to have fleet-footed service.

Karin Schimke, who commissioned the stories, made a great speech, and organised gifts from Whet: Sensuality Emporium. Sooz got massage oil, and I got a chocolate penis. I still haven’t unwrapped it (the packaging is so pretty), although I’m curious to know whether it’s decent dark chocolate, or that stuff used to make Easter eggs in America.

What I learned:

Create hot-spots for selling and signing

We should have had a dedicated table both upstairs and downstairs with piles of the books for sale, and a signing spot for authors. A few people complained that they couldn’t find a book to buy – there was a huge stack of them by the till, but with that many bodies, it’s hard to fight your way to a single sales point. (Obviously this will not apply if only eight people come to your launch. So get those invites out and then harass people into RSVP-ing. Especially in Slaapstad.)

Oh yes: Never, ever try and sell books yourself – even if you’re holding your launch at a private venue, ask your favourite bookshop to send along someone to sell books. They make a profit from doing this, so don’t be shy. Plus they have credit card machines.

No liquor unless you’re liquid

Unless you’re very flush and/or a provisional taxpayer, be wary of accepting sponsored liquor (unless it’s wine, with glasses provided, or a zinc tub of beers, ice provided). We really appreciated the generosity of Pernod-Ricard, who supplied us with Absolut, Kahlua and a very cute ‘mixologist’, who made like Tom Cruise with a cocktail shaker. But this meant sourcing, hiring/buying/borrowing, fetching and returning: martini glasses (the single one that broke set me back R34.50); tumblers; ice; cooler boxes; mixers and other ingredients needed for the cocktails; waitrons; trays; and someone to wash up. The total cost of the sponsored liquor to Sooz and myself therefore worked out to about a grand each. Struik kindly gave us another grand (thanks to Helen Brain, who cajoled it out of their marketing department), but a lot of that went towards the napkins, bowls, posters, flowers, car-guards, etc. However, I can claim my share off tax, being self-employed. If this applies to you, save every receipt — SARS considers anything launch-related a legitimate business expense.

Was it all worth it?

Absolutely, especially looking at the gorgeous event photos – there’s something so Ian Fleming about a woman in red holding a martini glass filled with something pink.

Further (non-Open) thoughts:

I was too meek to even mention the “l” word when my first book was published, but I launched the next two by myself at UCT’s Centre for African Studies gallery, although the respective publishers supplied the invitations and the wine once I’d gotten things moving — plus they showed up on the night (do not take this for granted). The books were anthologies, so it was easy to turn the launches into readings by some of the poets/writers involved.

And this raises the question of chairs. Setting out and restacking plastic chairs dressed in one’s best bib and tucker is a pain in the neck – if they’re even available. They also take up space, which is often at a premium. BUT if there are several authors reading from a compilation, or a line-up of speakers (sometimes appropriate for more serious books), or you expect an older crowd for whom standing is likely to be tiring, then you’ll need chairs. Hanging around on high heels listening to speeches wears thin very fast.

If you have speakers or readers with soft voices, or you’re expecting a big crowd, you’ll need to organise a mike — and triple check that it works. It’s also wise to exercise restraint in the speech department. Last year I attended a launch at which FIVE people made speeches. One of them held forth for 25 minutes – I could have cheerfully stabbed him with my kebab. If there’s a panel, get a quick, clever, funny moderator who’ll prepare properly: someone who hogs the proceedings will kill your event. The rule of thumb is never to say or read anything that lasts longer than it takes to drink one glass of wine. This holds especially if you are expecting children at your launch – and give that some thought, too. Decide if you want children to be part of the celebration – and then make it kid-friendly. If your nice local bookshop is hosting the event, it is not kind to put “hyperactive toddlers welcome” on the invite, and then to serve sticky and highly coloured snacks. Consult first.

Don’t forget, launching your own book is hard work, much of it highly unglamorous (schlepping crates to and from your car trailed by the local bergies, fishing half-eaten samoosas out from under chairs, washing glasses in cold water, etc.) You need to decide what’s at stake for you. But bear in mind that your family may also need some sort of event to make sense of the time they have sacrificed to enable your book to be born.

And most NB of all, even if you’re too nervous to make a formal speech, do thank the people who made your book possible.

Nick Mulgrew