What’s the key to selling copies of a novel/play/memoir? Promotion, of course. Regardless of how good your story is, people aren’t going to read it unless they know about it. This sounds obvious, but many people think that after they write the next great American novel that their job is over. This thinking, of course, stems from traditional publishing enterprises. In the past, the hardest part of the book writing process was a) writing, and b) getting an agent/publisher. Now, with the proliferation of self-publishing, this is changing.
While there are scores to be said about Internet marketing, there’s still something unique and worthwhile about doing live readings and performances. Unfortunately, many life events are wasted on people who would, in all probability, have bought the book anyway. Felicia Pride wrote on her blog, The BackList, “For authors who aren’t household names or haven’t yet established a core following it seems that the people that come out for their readings are: family/friends, agent/editor and folks who just like to go to author readings. And the second group, I am learning isn’t that large of a group.”
Why is this? Was there a time when live events actually accomplished their goal? Well, yes, but that was in a time when people gathered entertainment and information from the world around them rather than from a screen. In short, a time very different from today. When everything about the way people interact with entertainment is changing, it only makes sense that author/reader relationships would change, as well.
Neil Chethik, staff writer for Toastmasters, recently wrote about an interesting writer practice taking place in a small Lower East Side bar, Happy Ending, twice a month. The writers here acknowledge that readers don’t want to listen to them lecture; they want to learn about them as people. Before writers speak, they are required to take a “public risk.” This can involve singing, dancing, reenacting scenes form movies—something to dispel the idea of writer as authority, reader as student.
The actual readings are conducted differently, too. Contrary to what the name implies, the Happy Ending’s book readings are less about the author reading the book and more about giving the audience a place to talk with the author. They encourage question and answer sessions, stories, and hearing the author’s thoughts on the writing process. In fact, some authors don’t read from their books at all.
Because it everything comes down to book sales, these writers noticed something interesting—the more engaged with the audience they were, the move books they sold. Author Joshua Henkin said one of his nights in terms of sales was a reading at Happy Ending that he began with a rendition of the Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
These kinds of book readings touch on another change in live book events—venue. Where would you rather go? Barnes and Noble or the bar? The writers who partake in the Happy Ending book readings were tired of holding book signings in bookstores with one or two people in attendance. They didn’t want to make it a chore for the reader—they wanted to make it fun. They also wanted to appeal to people who never would have gone to a book reading voluntarily.
At the Champlain College Publishing Initiative (CCPI) we feel the same way. Our authors are doing such new and interesting things. Why limit them to the bounds of traditional book readings? This year, the Publishing in the 21st Century class took on two live event projects, both with the end goal of promoting a written work. The first, a book launch for a Sudanese author, is a party-type book reading with live Sudanese music and food. The second is the premiere performance of a recent graduate’s second play, The Hot Pink Meltdown. Both are big events that need months of planning and preparation
Planning a live event, or how to write a lot of lists
Note: Because this article is going to be used primarily for the Champlain College Publishing Initiative, it only makes sense that much of the advice is Champlain-specific. If you’re planning a live event outside of the Burlington region, simply follow the more general advice.
Okay, so you’ve decided on a live event. Now what? At this point, it would be worthwhile to start making lists. I’ll give you a few examples, but each live event has its own set of needs and logistics. Your first list should be a comprehensive list of everything you think you need to put on the live event. Unless you have some experience with this or have the insight of a super-human, this list will be missing some necessary things. That’s okay, this is just a starting point. Besides, you can always add to the list later. Here’s a list of things and people I made recently while helping to produce the play:
- Someone to do lights/sound
- Props (toilet, spray paint, cast, pepper spray, crutches, battleship, etc.)
- Someone to design the set
- Press releases (Seven Days, Free Press, Current, etc.)
- Ticket collector (day of play)
- Someone to sell books (day of play)
- Stage crew
- Auditorium for play & rehearsals
- Calendar (one for staff, one for actors)
Once your initial list is made, it makes sense to break it down by different types of needs. For example, What kinds of people do you need? You need a graphic designer, a director, actors, a PR person, stage crew, a set designer, and someone to organize things (get props, make a calendar, price merchandise, etc.). Ideally, you would have all of these people at your disposal. Realistically, you probably won’t. If not, try to divide tasks by matching your team’s skill sets with the tasks at hand. Also, bring in outside help if you can. More people than you would believe are interested in volunteering time if they think it’s for an interesting cause or could be used as resume/portfolio material.
Finding a crew and getting things in motion
After everyone has their tasks, it’s time to get started implementing them. Again, I’m going to use The Hot Pink Meltdown as an example. The first aspect of planning a live event of this magnitude is to book the event space. As we found out, you really can’t do anything without a definitive date, time, and place. This information is needed for marketing projects including poster design and press releases.
While you’re doing this, take into account the weather. Is your event outdoors? If so, it makes sense to book multiple dates just in case. Also, remember where you live. Planning a winter event in Vermont is ridiculously difficult. Event if your event is inside, there’s constantly the threat of snow. Because of this. It would make sense to book at “snow date” or two just in case.
Also, the Alumni Auditorium has certain rules and regulations you should know about. For instance, and production that is to be attended predominantly by Champlain students can rent the auditorium for free. If the event is open to members of the public, there is a fee of about $300 per night. Also, priority goes to events that focus on student audiences. Also, if you think a large part of your draw will be the general public, think about other spaces. Champlain now owns the Ethan Allen club downtown and is sometimes willing to let students use it. There are other great spaces downtown, as well, they just take a little bit more research.
Note: Make sure to get written confirmations of any booking arrangements. While it’s nice to trust that organizations are on top of reservations, mistakes happen, and it’s always good to have records.
Once you have your time and place, it’s time to start building the actual event. For this, you need a group of people to work out the logistics of the day-of preparation and anything that has to be done prior to this to ensure that everything goes smoothly. This group will be in charge of everything from making and ordering food to learning the occupancy limit for the space to making sure that any technological equipment is ordered and in working condition.
Remember how I said earlier that the staff needs calendar? That should be the first task of this group. There should be an over-all timeline, as well as specific timelines for each member of the group. The content of these lists varies greatly depending on the nature of the event. The most important thing, though, is that everyone makes timelines that seem feasible.
Marketing, or how to think like a rock star
The second group of people you need will deal with making sure people know about the event and will attend. Ideally, this group will consist of writers or marketers and graphic designers. They deal with making and distributing posters, creating and selling tickets, and writing and mailing press releases. The worst thing in the world it to have a beautifully executed live event with no audience.
Most book readings market themselves in two ways; they hang posters at the event location and maybe surrounding areas, and they put blurbs on the website of the author and the bookstore (assuming the bookstore has a website). Clearly, that isn’t the most effective marketing strategy. For this section, we’re going to forget about traditional publishing routes for a second and enter another industry that definitely upstaged writers in terms of marketing and promotion. This, of course, is the record industry.
When the the music industry shifted from major labels to independent labels and smaller releases, bands took up self-promotion and actually did a really good job with it. Some bands are even arguably better promoters than the ones the record labels were paying top dollar for. For some reason, writers weren’t as successful. While there could be psychiatric theses written about these groups of people and their respective promotional abilities, this isn’t important right now. What is important, is getting writers to think like rock stars.
What do bands do to promote concerts? They plaster cities with posters, they have street teams put stickers in visible places, they give away pins and patches. All of these things ensure that their perspective audience is constantly bombarded by the name of the band and the date of the concert. You have to be this hands-on to make sure people hear about your event. There’s a piece of market research that says a customer has to see a product five times before he/she is ready to actually buy it. I’m not sure that anything similar has been conducted with live events, but I wouldn’t be surprised it the number is at least five, if not higher. Remember, you’re convincing someone to give up both money and time.
It also makes sense to have a memorable image at the front of your advertising campaign. This should be something people associate with your production. For The Hot Pink Meltdown, we had it easy. One of the main images from the play is a hot pink toilet. What did we do? We found a toilet on Craigslist, spray-painted it pink, and put it in as many high-traffic areas on campus as we could think of. We took pictures of people posing on the toilet and uploaded them to Facebook. We also sold tickets at these locations. While your event may not have such an obvious image, I guarantee there’s some aspect of your project that can be branded.
This brings us back to the issue of time management. Before going ahead with a marketing scheme, make a list of everything you’d like to accomplish. What takes the most time? What has to be done for other things to happen? Do you need to order anything online? Make sure to have time for things that are out of your control such as shipping.
GOA Inc., a religious concert promotion company, created a handy list of week-by-week tasks to successfully promote an event. Although I’m not entirely sure why a promotion company would make a do-it-yourself list of promotional activities, it’s a very good framework (although it is very much oriented toward religious events). Here’s the link to that:http://www.goa-inc.com/promoters/tools/index.php.
This list starts 16 weeks before the event. While that may seem like a high amount of time, it’s a good idea to start that early. Whenever you’re orchestrating an event as multi-faceted as a live reading or performance, the chances of everything going on schedule are small. If you start promoting 16 weeks before the event, you might be able to sleep the week before the event.
If you have everything lined up ahead of time, the day of the event won’t involve doing that many new things. Granted, it will still be hectic, but it shouldn’t be as chaotic as if you’d left a lot of things to the last minute. There are, however, certain things that really have to be done on the day of the event. Depending on the nature of your event these could include:
- Making sure all technology works
- Setting up the venue (putting table clothes on tables, moving around sets)
- Putting up signs directing the audience to the venue (and the bathroom)
- Having someone to sell/collect tickets
- Making sure all speakers/actors/performers are where they should be