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Coping with No-show Authors

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by Linda Carlson, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Photo of Linda Carlson

Linda Carlson

Fires, floods, spines that come unglued, and computer failures: That’s how most publishers define “crisis.” Last month, in “Coping with Crises,” publishers shared their contingency plans and emergency procedures for times when offices become inaccessible without warning and times when key managers become incapacitated or die.

This month, publishers and authors provide advice on a similar issue: What happens when authors unexpectedly cannot fulfill book promotion commitments such as bookstore and conference presentations. Sometimes these situations are easily remedied with apologies and a reschedule. Although there are exceptions that have resulted in a book’s failure, even serious issues can often be managed by anticipating what could go wrong and developing backup plans.

In the worst-case category, Seattle’s Thistle Press had to write off most of a press run when a new book’s dramatic 40-something author died without warning. The Pioneers of Lake View: A Guide to Seattle’s Early Settlers and Their Cemetery was delivered to Thistle’s warehouse early one October, and the press had planned graveyard tours as a Halloween-themed launch. But within days, author Robert L. Ferguson was hospitalized. (He did get buried in the cemetery he’d written about, with “The tour stops here” inscribed on his headstone.)

A university press has a couple of similar sad stories. In one case, the much-acclaimed author of a three-part series died right before the third volume was published. “The lack of interviews and personal appearances definitely impacted sales, which were less than half of what we had for either of the two earlier books,” the marketing director reported. Another title from the same press was to be promoted via the author’s visits to university classes in the region, but she soon became too frail to keep making appearances, “so most of the expected sales were lost.”

Square One Books, a large independent publisher based in Garden City Park, NY, borrows from nearby Broadway theaters to guard against such emergencies. The company has understudies for its authors whenever possible. Anthony Pomes, its vice president of marketing, public relations, and rights, says he tries to have contact information for someone with the same expertise as the author who could substitute at a conference if the author were suddenly unavailable. Even Square One staffers have filled in when they were familiar with the book topic.

“The author of our history, Macy’s: The Store. The Star. The Story became seriously ill the day before he was scheduled to speak at a Long Island Jewish Community Center not far from our office, where more than 100 people were expected,” Pomes recalls. “Because I was conversant with the book’s content as the book’s marketing/PR contact, I felt I would be able to share the often fascinating history of Macy’s with enough enthusiasm and anecdotes to avert a crisis.”

And, he reports, “The talk went fairly well; we even sold half a dozen copies of the book.”

Besides being well prepared to discuss a book’s content, Pomes points out, it’s important for a publisher’s staff to have complete information on events scheduled for authors, whether the publisher or the author scheduled them. “For radio interviews, it is crucial to always get the emergency phone number for the studio where the show is being taped or done live,” Pomes cautions. “For an even more fully reliable measure of control, get the cell phone number of either the show host or the producer with whom you planned and secured the booking.” This contact information is invaluable in a variety of situations, ranging from when an author becomes ill or is involved in an accident en route to the appearance to when an author misses a train or ferry.

It is easy to get such information when an appearance is arranged and easy to update it as necessary when the appearance is confirmed a few days in advance. For early morning talk shows, when guests may have to ring a doorbell distant from the main entrance for building access, directions should be detailed. Directions for an author who is driving should include parking tips.

At Word Forge Books in Ferndale, PA, Mary Shafer echoes Pomes’s recommendation that publishers fill in for their authors whenever possible while noting that she is not currently publishing new work by authors other than herself. “Because I tend to publish only books in which I am interested, I generally have some level of expertise in the topic,” Shafer notes, “and I wouldn’t hesitate to offer myself as a substitute speaker if the group had no other options and the show had to go on as scheduled.”

Especially for presentations where a fee will be paid, Shafer always requires a speaking contract with a force majeure or “acts of God” clause that frees both parties from liability when an extraordinary circumstance prevents the author or the host from fulfilling a commitment.

Backups as Plan B

Shafer, like Pomes, also feels obligated to help presentation hosts, especially conference organizers, find substitute speakers. Barry Maher, who publishes motivational books at Barry Maher & Associates in Corona, CA, emphasizes the importance of vetting potential fill-ins. “I never leave for a speech without having at least one backup. These are people I’ve personally seen present.

“I meet a lot of speakers in my business and I note the ones I consider high quality and likely to be moderately priced, which is my price range. Many of these are speakers we refer clients to when I’m already booked, so we’re familiar with their abilities and their fees. One of these days, I’m going to get stuck in a blizzard traveling through Buffalo or Boise. It’s important to me to know I have someone who can deliver a quality presentation if that happens.”

Maher doesn’t discuss a possible substitute when contracting to speak, but Para Publishing’s Dan Poynter says his guarantee to clients is, “If I fail to show up on time (this has not happened yet), I will return all fees and pay $500. You can count on me.”

Says Maher: “I never mention the possibility of me not making a session to the client. First, it’s never happened. Second, I always fly the day before the session, and never on the last flight of the day, so we always have an alternative if something goes wrong with travel arrangements. There was an article about me driving all night through a snowstorm to make a gig a few years back. ‘The show must go on’ is truly the motto. And that means the speaker the client contracted for. Anything else is only a very last resort.”

Still, he travels with his confidential list of possible backups. “If something were to happen, either my assistant or I would contact one of them. Speakers are wonderful about filling in for each other, because we all understand that it could happen to any of us. I’d start with someone close by the engagement to keep travel expenses at a minimum. Obviously the fee and expenses would be negotiated but of course I wouldn’t be looking to make any money on the deal, and anything charged by the substitute that is above and beyond what I expected for my speaking fee and expenses would come out of my pocket.”

Should he ever have to propose a substitute for one of his commitments, Maher would give the conference planner veto power. If the substitute was acceptable, “Then I’d brief the speaker as completely as possible about the client, send the speaker the results of my preprogram questionnaire and put him or her in touch with the meeting planner. I’d follow up as soon as possible after the session with the meeting planner to make sure the session went well. If there was a problem, it would be up to me to make good, probably at their next meeting or at the next year’s convention.”

Other Options

Instead of arranging for a substitute, some authors fulfill commitments via telephone or Skype when it turns out they can’t fulfill them in person. Donna Childs of Prepared Small Business in Warwick, RI, which publishes Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best, cites what happened when she needed to travel from Africa to get an award at a National Association of Women Business Owners event in Atlanta, GA.

An in-person interview to be published by the Atlanta Journal Constitution was scheduled in connection with the event, but by the time she reached Georgia, Childs was seriously ill. (“A not-uncommon experience when traveling from that part of the world,” she points out.) “Instead of doing the interview face-to-face as planned, we did it by telephone with me in my hotel room and the reporter in the hotel lobby.”

You cope as circumstances allow, says Childs.

Beverly Hills self-publisher Elizabeth Gorcey of Bowie Books agrees. Her Liv On Life series is inspired by her eight-year-old daughter, who often does readings and Q&A. “If I’m not available,” Gorcey says, “she would go with someone else driving her.”

Yet another solution for book signings: Use book plates. Judson Press in Valley Forge, PA, Parenting Press in Seattle, and Martingale in Bothell, WA, are among the publishers that send sheets of bookplates to authors of new books for autographing. These can be made on an office printer with desktop publishing programs and shipping label paper stock, and then sent to a bookstore when an author is unable to attend or used when autographed copies are requested.

Sometimes there isn’t even time to overnight bookplates or brief a substitute speaker. “In those cases, the very best you can do is to remain calm and respectful of everyone involved—and make it clear ASAP to the hosts that the author is unavailable because of a truly serious circumstance,” says Square One’s Pomes. And all the publishers I interviewed tell authors early on that those truly serious circumstances are the only justification for cancellation.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) has canceled very few commitments since her first book was published in 1982. However, to ensure she makes it to bookstore presentations that require riding a crowded ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle, she now travels as a foot passenger and the host bookseller picks her up at the cross-sound ferry dock.

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