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Book Clubs, Part 3: Preparing and Performing

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Skype can be a great tool for visiting book clubs without leaving home, as long as you prepare carefully.

Book Clubs

Part 3: Preparing and Performing

by Linda Carlson

We all want our books to be steady sellers for years to come, and authors can contribute to that success with book club visits (among other things). Undeniably, book groups create buzz about authors and titles, and buzz sells books.

To learn more about promoting books through these groups, I contacted about 1,000 authors listed in a book club speaker directory. More than 300 responded. In “Book Clubs, Part 1: The Benefits” (November 2011), these writers explained why book group visits are rewarding (sometimes even in terms of immediate book sales). In “Book Clubs, Part 2: Identifying Groups to Approach” (December 2011), authors, publishers, and publicists provided advice on reaching appropriate groups and on promoting titles and their authors.

In this article, you’ll find how-to’s for conducting in-person, Skype, and speakerphone visits to groups.

On Stage and Sometimes on the Spot

A book club visit should be seen as a “performance before an eager audience,” says publisher Brian Howie of Santa Monica’s 4th Street Media.

These performances are interactive, however, and publishers should ensure that authors are prepared for the “improv” nature of the visits. As novelist Jim DeFelice says, “Walking into a room where everyone has actually read the book can be pretty interesting—and intimidating. After all, they’ve read my book more recently than I have!”

DeFelice, whose fiction is set in the Hudson Valley during the Revolutionary War, recalls speaking to a historical society, and, after what he calls his “little spiel,” inviting questions. The very first one was: “Why did you move that barn? In chapter such-and-such, it was located across the road, a good hundred yards from where it actually stood.”

DeFelice admitted he had changed the location of the barn, which is still shown on an old map, so his hero could jump into a creek. “It’s amazing what some people notice. I threw up my hands and told him, ‘You got me.’ We all had a good laugh.”

Questions from readers may also focus on more than the author intended to convey in a book. Richard Mabry, author of the Prescription for Trouble series from Abingdon Press, reports that he’s been asked such questions as, “What is the subtext to Megan’s character?” (“I didn’t know there was one,” he says) and “Why did you choose red hair for your protagonist?” (“Uh, I thought it would look good on her”).

“Be ready to think on your feet,” he advises, “and don’t be afraid to say, ‘I have no idea.’”

“Be thick-skinned,” says novelist Carleen Brice (whose most recent title, Children of the Waters, was issued by Ballantine). Brice also warns about insensitive and personal questions. “It is open season on the author of a work of fiction; no question is impossible,” adds Jerry Bodell, who writes mysteries as G. Hugh Bodell. Among the questions he’s been asked: “Where did you learn about creative murders?” and “How much do you make on each book?”

Questions about Jenna Blum’s first book, Those Who Save Us, have included, “Why did you put so much sex in it?” and “What did your mother think about that?”

Carole Estby Dagg, who wrote The Year We Were Famous: How Clara Estby and Her Mother Walked Across America, adds her examples: “What from your life is in one of your characters or your scenes?” “Does your main character share any traits with you?” “What kind of changes did the editor require you to make?” “How did you get published?”

Practicing in front of friends who will help identify weaknesses is helpful for authors who are not experienced speakers, Bodell points out. “Know in advance how much you will reveal and how you will deal with questions you won’t want to answer,” he advises. “For example, when I’m asked how much I make on each book, my answer is generally, ‘Not enough to buy a yacht. Next question?’ That usually evokes a laugh and no hard feelings.”

Be prepared for the same questions to be asked at most meetings, says Tara Masih, whose collection of short stories, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, was published by Studio 53. She emphasizes that it’s important not to sound bored. “Make your answer sound as if this is the first time you’ve been required to describe what inspired you to write your book and when you knew you were a writer.”

Controlling the Discussion

Controlling book group discussions is important. “It’s crucial to stay focused on the reason for your visit—generating curiosity about and enthusiasm for your work,” says Christina Hamlett, author of plays and such books as Screenwriting for Teens. “Too often, the floor gets hogged by one or two members who want to talk about their own experiences,” she cautions.

These monologues, like too much socializing, can make meetings much longer than authors planned. An unstructured meeting, where no one seems to know when, or how, to make the transition from chitchat to author presentation, or where the discussion seems random, can go on for hours. Cathie Borrie, author of The Long Hello: The Other Side of Alzheimer’s, reports that one book group meeting she attended “didn’t get to the author questions until 9:00 p.m. I nearly had a heart attack!”

Coping with wannabe writers is another challenge. “I have no shortage of people who want to know if I will read their manuscripts (for free) and tell them how to get published,” says Hamlett. She recommends handing out a business card and suggesting that the would-be author get in touch about consulting fees. “Some of them get quite ruffled by this, of course,” she adds. (Hamlett also reports being approached by people who “want to give me their great idea for a book in the hope that I can write—and sell—the book for them in exchange for half the profits.”)

Authors should also be prepared for the occasional attendee who loudly criticizes the book. Lynn Emery, whose most recent title is the self-published A Darker Shade of Midnight, says, “Don’t get defensive. I’ve found it helps to acknowledge that not all books appeal to all readers.”

For obvious reasons, it’s important to understand a particular club’s rules prior to a visit. “I always ask if everyone has read the book, because I don’t want to give away spoilers if there are members who haven’t finished it,” Brice says, noting, “Some clubs have rules about this: if a member didn’t read the entire book, too bad; all of it is going to be discussed anyway.”

“Think about safety,” Brice advises. “A security-minded author friend says she would never go to someone’s home for a book club meeting when she didn’t know the club members. I find it hard to believe someone would take the trouble to lure an author with an Evite. So I never worry about it. But it does make sense to let someone know the address of where you’re going and the name and number of the person who’s hosting the book club meeting.”

Skype and Speakerphone Visits

The advantages are clear: Authors can contact more book group members and control travel costs and time with Skype and speakerphone visits instead of appearances in the flesh. But such visits require forethought and a dress rehearsal with the technology.

Authors experienced in “visiting” over long distances suggest:

Determine in advance whether you want to use Skype.“If you hate how you look on camera or are self-conscious about being viewed via the Internet, stick to voice-only visits,” Tara Masih recommends.

Choose schedules that work for you.“If you start drooping at 8:00 p.m., don’t schedule anything for 9:00 in your time zone,” Masih adds.

Prepare what you’ll say. It’s useful to know questions in advance, either because they’re in your discussion guide or because you get them from the group, so you can practice responses. Masih points out, “You may have only five or ten minutes to make an impression, and you don’t want to come across as inarticulate or unprepared.” If you don’t get questions in advance, have topics you’re ready to discuss in case the group members are nervous and slow to ask questions. “Nothing is worse than dead air space,” she says.

Discuss the visit format in advance. One issue to resolve is where in the meeting room people will be when they ask their questions, as Evelyn Coleman of the Screen Actors Guild’s Storyline Online notes. To ensure that everyone will hear the presentation, especially if it is being transmitted to more than one meeting at the same time, Masih recommends that authors repeat questions before answering them.

Consider how to present graphics. Because PowerPoint presentations cannot easily be shown via Skype, Coleman suggests emailing any images for the meeting in advance, so they can be printed out or shown on a computer other than the one used for Skype.

Try out the equipment a day or two before a scheduled visit. With Skype, test the number, and also ask the meeting host how the room will be set up. “You want to be able to see everyone,” Cathie Borrie points out. And an advance chat with the host will also help you relax and have fun at the actual meeting, says Kristina McMorris, whose second title, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, will be issued by Kensington in February.

Coleman recommends making a test call on the day of the visit too, noting that “even weather can alter the quality of the feed.” This final rehearsal also serves as a reminder to the meeting host to ensure that club members do gather at the computer at the correct time.

Eliminate distractions.“I always go into my office, turn everything off, and shut the door,” says James Lewis, author of Sellout of the Bay Area, who notes that presentations will be better and more professional if there are no sounds or images in the background from television, outdoor equipment, pets, colleagues, or family members.

Have a glass of wine.“One host told me to pour myself a glass of wine first. I didn’t take him up on it, wanting to be really alert,” says Masih, “but it can be pretty intense watching the technical snafus going on when you’re live.” McMorris has a different approach: “Having a glass of wine makes you feel as if you’re actually at the event, because, really, what book club doesn’t have a few bottles of vino?”

Jot down the host’s name. You’ll be less likely to forget it, and you can make sure to thank that person and the other group members before concluding the session, Masih says. Send a written thank-you note afterward, too.

Use Your Valuable Contacts

Whatever the format of your visit, keep marketing in mind. Novelist Erica Bauermeister says she keeps track of all the book clubs she visits and uses contacts made there to promote forthcoming titles. “When ARCs for Joy for Beginners were available, I emailed all the groups and did a contest/giveaway, with my publisher supplying the books. I’ll do the same for my next book,” she reports.

Some authors also carry a guestbook for club attendees to sign, so that both author and publisher have contact information for backlist promotion as well as new-book launches.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com), who writes from Seattle, has fielded a variety of rude questions and inaccurate comments in presentations made since her first book was published in 1982. 



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