What Makes a Good Event?

Josie Leavitt -- August 13th, 2012

I have been asking myself this question a lot lately. Every event has its own questions that make me tense. Will enough people come to the event (and it turns out that my view of this and an author’s view can be vastly different)? Will I have enough books? Will I have the right mix of books? Will the author show up? Will people who came to the event have a good time and leave feeling enriched? Will my press release run in the paper without me needing to pay for an ad first?

The past year we’ve had a lot of different kinds of events, ranging from Fancy Nancy and other  New York Times bestselling authors, to a local poet with small press release. Obviously, different events will draw different crowds. More than 200 people, most of them in tiaras, showed up for Fancy Nancy. The poet drew almost 30 and that was fabulous.

There is a deep, dark secret that most bookstores will not talk about: sometimes, medium to big name authors don’t draw the crowd they’re expecting. There is nothing more disheartening than having a bestselling author who doesn’t draw the hundred he or she is expecting. Yes, we’re in a small town, but we can pull over 200 for certain events, and others only get 50. To me, a 50-person event is still a good event. But for some authors this is not enough.

Generally, authors are seasoned enough to know that sometimes, even with the best media push, a large crowd just isn’t going to materialize. Of course everyone is unhappy, but most of us are professional enough to hide our disappointment until after the event. After 16 years of being in business, I still can’t figure out what events will spark a huge crowd and what events that should be huge are mid-sized or small instead.

We had an event for a paperback release with a very well known regional author that only had 40 people in attendance. The 40 people in attendance had a great time, which is a testament to the author’s skill and adeptness at hiding his disappointment at the size of the crowd. I thought the event was fabulous because all of those in attendance had really felt a real connection to the author. Books were bought and signed and I thought all was good.

The following morning we received a pointed email from the author (which was shared with the publicist) suggesting that unless we could guarantee at least 150 people at the next event, there would be no further visits from him. Once I calmed down, I realized the request was a tad unrealistic. I have no way of guaranteeing any size crowd. Even when people RSVP, they don’t always show up; there are snowstorms, lacrosse tournaments, etc. The list goes on as to why folks sometimes miss an event they were excited to attend until their life got in the way. Perhaps my town shows a laissez-faire attitude toward someone they think of as a local (even though he’s not, but it’s sweet how folks like to claim him as their own) and they don’t rush out for a paperback release event. It was a frustrating time for all involved. But to be told, essentially, I’m better than your store, is galling to say the least and shortsighted at worst.

What publicists and authors need to understand that not every event is going to a crush of hundreds of people. But having a good event means that the folks attending will remember you and your work. They will tell their friends about how wonderful it was to meet you and talk to you about your work. And most importantly, they will now become loyal fans who will not only buy your books, they’ll give them as gifts.

I explained this in an email to both the author and the publicist. I don’t think much will change, but I know from a bookseller’s perspective, we still had a great event, and folks from that event still come to thank me for having the author to the store.

15 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Event?

  1. Christina

    That author should be ashamed of himself. I know I was shocked when I went to a local event by a very famous children’s author-illustrator who began by telling the audience that she never visited the same bookstore twice but, lucky us, our bookstore sold so many books she was visiting us again. This attitude really soured me on someone I assumed would be a down-to-earth, humble, cheerful sort of person.

  2. Elizabeth Bluemle

    I also think it’s funny that attendance numbers are viewed with fairly static expectations no matter the population of a region. When we pull 200 people in a town of 5,000, that’s an astonishing per-capita return. When we pull 30 (.006 of our population), and a New York City store pulls 50 (.000006 of its population), we’re still doing a fantastic job of bringing in readers! : )

  3. Andy

    I run a reading series at a bookstore in NYC, and I find that a packed house is sometimes worse for engagement between author and audience. Those times that I’ve had a celebrity memoirist have seen huge numbers of attendees, but they feel cramped and anxious and leave as soon as the talk ends.
    Better to have a medium-size crowd that feels comfortable and excited. In turn, they’ll feel like the value of that evening is something they need to pay back to the author and bookstore by buying the book and telling friends.

  4. Jason Hunt

    I used to write country music in Nashville, and I knew Garth Brooks when he was still working in a boot store. (In fact, I bought my first Western boots from him!) Although he is a musician and not a writer, I think the author referred to above can learn a lot from him. In the early days, Garth would treat a group of five fans with all the enthusiasm most artists reserve for huge auditoriums. And once he was famous, he would spend hours signing autographs for hundreds of people when there was really nothing for him to gain from it. The lesson I took away from that was this: If someone is willing to take a few hours out of their life to read one of my books, then I can certainly take a few hours out of mine to thank them, whether there are 4, 40 or 400.

  5. Susan Kushner Resnick

    I might be upset if only 7 people came to a reading, but never at the bookseller! It’s the author’s job to create desire. Personally, I would be thrilled with 20 strangers taking the time to come hear me read. Fingers crossed, I’ll get such crowds when I hit the bookstores who are kind enough to have me this fall.

  6. A.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

    I have been on the receiving end of the “not enough attendance” rebuke, both from authors and from publicists, and I know it stings, especially when the message is delivered haughtily and without courtesy or consideration. I am sorry that happened to you.

    I am the marketing manager/event booker for a bookstore in the Southwest; we do a lot of events at our store. I try to maintain a good balance between nationally-touring authors and local folks with something to say. We struggle with this same attendance issue all the time. Sometimes, no matter what you do or how hard you work, the attendance just doesn’t materialize the way you want it to. Fortunately, for us, that experience is usually followed up by an event that draws dozens more people than we expected. We are methodical and meticulous in our promotion, but we are competing for people’s attention with a lot of activities and events.

    For me, this is the bottom line, and believe me when I say this knowledge is hard-won: it does not matter how big an author is in New York or Cleveland or Dubuque, Iowa. We have a particular customer base for our store that has very particular interests. We can draw 150 people and pack the store for a local author with a small-press book about water issues in the West (a very hot topic for us right now, literally and figuratively), and then the next week draw 20 for a NYT bestselling novelist who draws 200 in other markets.

    I think in this age of constant media bombardment, people know what they like, and what they want to pay attention to, and that’s it. People are not as swayed as they used to be by media celebrity or news coverage or NYT-listed status. A big “media push,” or sending out 10 emails about an event is not the solution to a problem of appeal and relevancy to the audience.

    We know what works for our store, and I try to book what works, but I have had publicists take personal offense when I try to gently explain to them that while we COULD host their brilliant debut novelist writing dense literary fiction about Nova Scotia, we will get maybe – MAYBE – 10 people at the event. It’s not about the quality of the book. It’s about not the author. It’s certainly not about the publisher (our customers can’t tell one publisher from another, in 99% of cases). Our customers like what they like and that’s the end of the story. We have tried over, and over, and over again to do “different” and “new” things, and it always ends up the same way. And I firmly believe in that old saw about “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.” I also believe in Seth Godin’s advice that marketers need to “find products for their customers, not customers for their products.”

    At the same time, we have had twelve people at a poetry event and I considered it a “success,” because the audience was really engaged and active, the author loved the interaction and the enthusiasm, we sold some books, and everyone walked away happy. And then we generated repeat business from that happiness. If we can connect people to a great book or author, and that creates an emotional connection between the customer and our store, I believe that is success. Success is how you define it. I do not do what I do just to achieve big attendance or sales numbers at our events; if I wanted to live my life by numbers, I would be a stockbroker and not have to worry about how I’m going to make my student loan payments. I do what I do because I love books and I want to help other people love books. I care about our customers, and want to help them get what they want. I am not in this business to make authors or publicists happy. Our customers are who keep us in business year after year by buying our products, and loving the store.

    I understand perfectly why publicists, authors, and store owners are concerned about the number of butts in the seats at events – that’s only practical, and just good business. But it’s also good business to treat people right, and that goes for folks on both sides of the fence, IMO.

    One more thought. Every year, big movie studios put out big movies costing millions of dollars, that then flop at the box office and lose buckets of money. The same thing happens in the music business, both with CDs and with concert tours. At the publisher level, publishers put out expensively-acquired, mega-hyped books that fail to reach anticipated sales levels. Bookstores really have no reason to expect that we will not be subject to the same whims of the market that these other entities are subject to, when it comes to events.

    I apologize for the length of my reply, but again, thanks for posting this. It was just what I have needed to hear someone else say, for a long time. 🙂

  7. Ellen

    I inquired of a local bookstore what would be required to have a reading/signing at that store and was informed that I’d have to guarantee a certain number of attendees. Obviously, some bookstores also don’t “get” it.

  8. Susan Weis-Bohlen

    Josie, so well-written. You’ve expressed what happens to all of us in the Indy book world (actually when I worked at B&N it was the same! So perhaps it’s universal). I think it’s up to us to (gently!) educate publicists and authors on the realities of events. In large cities, sometimes the author has to compete with himself if he/she is appearing at several different bookstores. In small markets, there are so many variables, but often the author does better when there is less competition for an evening of free entertainment. Sometimes we just have to take the time to explain…and I wish they would understand. Ego abounds in this business!

  9. Leigh Michaels

    I can’t agree more, Josie. I’ve done MANY events where the numbers were disappointing, but the people who did show were well worth the time invested.

    Once the governor showed up at the exact time of my presentation, so the crowd and media all moved out to see him and I had just six people in my audience (three of whom were my relatives!) But one of the other three listeners was a PR person who later arranged half a dozen more events for me — so what seemed a total bust at the time ended up being a door to much bigger things.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Yes, so often we get librarians and teachers at events, who book paid visits with the authors, or end up ordering multiple classroom copies of a book. You just never know who might walk through the doors! I’ve been on both sides, as an author and a bookseller, and had “crowds” of 1 and groups of 100. I think it helps to have realistic expectations, to understand the variables that affect attendance (and remind ourselves what events we attend and skip in our own lives), and for all parties to engage in the process with energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism. Our events almost always have a magical feel, and customers leave thanking us for bringing those authors and artists to the community. For every person who attends an event, the good word spreads to five or ten other people, and that is gold — for the store, and for the author.

  10. James

    Rude indeed! There are no guarantees on anything – concerts, film attendance, book signings, etc. If there was some magic way to accomplish this, everyone would be doing it. The author should just be grateful that he had an appreciative audience that showed up.

  11. Desiree

    I’m a publicist at a small indie publisher, and even I know that sometimes you just don’t get what you expect. It’s very unrealistic and rude to behave that way to a bookstore that has graciously welcomed you in. We always do our own promotion in addition to the bookstore’s or venue’s promotion, and I ensure that my authors push the event to all their personal contacts as well. And when I book an event I always start by booking it with an incentive to come: food, music, giveaways, etc. It’s an extra draw that doesn’t always bring in more, but in my years of event planning, it’s not the quantity of attendees, but the quality of the event.

  12. Kathleen

    Wow, that was really rude of the author. There is no way to guarantee the size of any crowd and he should be enough of a professional to realize that. I have to say I think you’re better off without him.

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