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Pitching an Author Event: Tips from Talks with Bookstore Event Coordinators

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On any given night across the wide metropolis of Los Angeles, scores of authors can be found in area bookstores chatting up their titles through presentations. My flamboyant city is one of the largest and busiest book markets in the nation. I figured that L.A. bookstore event coordinators would have valuable advice to offer about author events, and I was not disappointed when I interviewed Lise Friedman at Dutton’s of Brentwood, Maret Orliss at Vroman’s of Pasadena (who co-reviews submissions sent to Jennifer Ramos), and Christine Louise Berry at Book Soup of West Hollywood.

The insights gleaned from three of L.A.’s best-known and most prestigious independent bookstores are revealed in the following eight tips:

1. Research the interests and personality of each store where you’d like to present a program. I was surprised to discover how different independents can be in character and outlook. On the hip Sunset Strip, Book Soup leans toward celebrity and the notorious. In the upscale Westside neighborhood of Brentwood, Dutton’s is known for events featuring local authors and star novelists. With a Pasadena cityscape behind it, Vroman’s is a 110-year-old literary landmark offering all types of author events. So, since bookstores’ interests and customer bases vary, do your research.

If a store you’re considering is local, begin by stopping by and checking out its ambience and clientele. While you’re visiting, pick up a copy of the events calendar and see what types of books it emphasizes. Chat with the folks at the info desk. Whether the store is near or far, look for a Web site with an events listing and inventory that you can study. While on the site, sign up for calendar e-blasts. Also, during your research phase, see if you can get a feeling for what’s near the store and how this might affect your decision about proceeding. For instance, the store’s neighbors might include college students (as is the case with Vroman’s) or media people (which is true for a new Border’s on Vine Street in Hollywood), and those demographics might–or might not–be good for your book.

Research may save you from wasting time and embarrassing yourself with a misplaced pitch. For instance, Christine Louise Berry at Book Soup refers all New Age titles elsewhere and rarely does self-help books at her main store. Berry reports that she recently turned down an insistent pitch for Dr. Laura Schlessinger, pointing out that gay West Hollywood was unlikely to be the best venue for this author.

2. Investigate the available performance space. The area provided for author events may be too small for the probable audience, or it may be so filled with the sounds of chatty customers, clacking dishes, and an espresso machine that an author can’t be effective without a microphone. Survey the lay of the land by calling or stopping by the info desk before you approach someone official. If the bookstore is local and it’s a likely candidate, experience one or more of the store’s events firsthand.

3. Be inventive with your presentation format. While standard fare is a presentation for a nonfiction author and a reading for a novelist, more creative formats can help an author stand out for booksellers deluged with requests. Maret Orliss at Vroman’s shared two great examples. First, Elaine Bernstein Partnow, author of The Quotable Jewish Woman, does a one-woman show based on the quotes in her book, and she offers bookstores a condensed version of the show combined with a talk about putting her book together. The other out-of-the-box thinker Orliss mentioned is Barbara Odanaka, the creator of a children’s book called Skateboard Mom. Since Odanaka really is a skateboarder, she could do a dramatic skateboarding demonstration without literally breaking a leg. “That was a great outdoor event,” Orliss noted.

4. Make your approach professional. A good way to start is by sending a media kit, along with an advance reading copy of the title. This media kit can include press releases, reviews and comments on the book, an author bio, an extra book cover, marketing information, and articles about the book, subject, or author. Be sure to call ahead, though, and get the specific name of the person who should receive this. Berry at Book Soup says she just tosses packages with generic addressees.

Another option is contact by email. While your message should be as brief as possible, Berry points out that you need to provide enough background on the author and book (or hyperlinks to such info) to paint a clear picture.

Whether the initial contact is by mail or email, be sure to include an appearance pitch that spells out what the author would do at an event. It helps if the author has a proven track record with a certain presentation format, Orliss of Vroman’s advised. Also point out the reasons your author is right for a particular store (the author’s readership profile fits the store’s customers; the author grew up nearby; the book has a regional angle, etc.).

Follow up by phone or email, but don’t become a pest.

5. Mention what you can do to help boost attendance. Lise Friedman of Dutton’s pointed out that providing a mailing list of a local author’s friends, family, and acquaintances is helpful. For instance, last November, first-time novelist Patricia Smiley (False Profits, from Mysterious Press, a division of Warner Books) did an early appearance and signing at Dutton’s after providing a list of those Friedman referred to as Smiley’s “nearest and dearest.” The people on the list responded despite bad weather, and Dutton’s sold 90 books that night before running out of stock. (A side note: Smiley kept promoting, and her book debuted on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list right after Christmas.)

For both local and nonlocal authors, media coverage that mentions a store event is helpful. Ask events coordinators about the best media for drawing people to their stores. The three I spoke with all highlighted National Public Radio affiliates.

In general, the key is coordinating your outreach efforts with the store’s as much as possible. For example, most stores send monthly releases or emails to media about their events that list book signings. You might offer to send your own release about your author event to these same people, as well as others the coordinator may suggest.

6. Consider working with a local publicist. Sometimes a news tie-in or celebrity involvement can justify the expense of hiring a regional publicist to stir up media interest in an author event. Berry at Book Soup says that having an experienced publicist on board allows her to relax about an author appearance. In addition to easing the pressure, a PR firm can dream up an original angle, as an L.A. publicist recently did for Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the LAPD Archive. Mystery writer James Ellroy and Chief William Bratton of the LAPD appeared together to promote the book. “It was a blast,” Berry recalled. “We did chalk outlines on the sidewalk. We had yellow caution tape all over the events room. And then the chief and James Ellroy arrived in a squad car from the 1940s. We had all kinds of TV crews there, because it was special.”

7. Be on the lookout for new developments and additional opportunities. If you’re dealing with an independent bookstore, find out whether it has one or more affiliate locations where authors could also appear. This is the case for two of the three indies I selected, with Dutton’s having a new Beverly Hills store as of just last October and Book Soup branching out to Orange County with a store in the South Coast Plaza mall. If you find a branch store, you may discover that the customer profiles are the same, or that they’re different. When you’re dealing with a chain store, wait until you have had a successful author event there and then ask the events coordinator about contacts at other branches.

8. Explore stocking options for each venue. An author appearance can get your books into a store around the time of an event, but don’t assume that it will stay on the shelves for long. Policies differ. Some stores, like Vroman’s, won’t consider a book unless it fits into their regular inventory. Others, such as Dutton’s, believe that what sells at events tends to be very different than what they should typically shelve. Check a store’s inventory before you start pitching to see if your book is there. If not, know that you may need to get an OK from a store buyer before you can get an event booking. The events coordinator can let you know. And, of course, make sure the store will have an ample supply of copies for both the event and the promotion period that surrounds it.

While many event coordinators get more requests for author appearances than they can accommodate, they’re always eager to have events that create excitement about their stores and stimulate sales. Weigh what each store wants in an author against what you have to offer, and make a pitch where the two match up. Think about which locations could heighten interest in a book and author in important ways, and work appearances there into a multipronged marketing plan. Keep in mind that starting in the author’s region is often a smart move. And once an event is over, assess the lessons and take advantage of them as you create your strategy for the next round.

Since 1991, Robin Quinn has provided writing and editing services for publishers, writers, and experts. Through Brainstorm Editorial, she ghosts and collaborates on book projects. Her Quinn’s Word for Word supplies copywriting, including ghosted articles, media kits, Web site text, cover letters, etc. To suggest topics or interviewees for future installments in her “What They Want” series–which will focus on distributors, librarians, agents, and others–email quinnrobin@aol.com. To learn more about her services, email her or visit www.writingandediting.biz.

 

5 Don’ts When Pitching Author Appearances

1. Don’t be stingy in giving background on the author and book during your initial approach. You’ll need to orient the events coordinator.

2. Don’t dally till the last minute, then contact the targeted bookstore in a rush. (Schedules can require lead times of two or three months, if not more.)

3. Don’t pitch a store that isn’t right for your book. Clientele can vary from venue to venue.

4. Don’t stalk the events coordinator. Follow up, but give people room to think and breathe.

5. Don’t oversell and underdeliver. Say what you can truly do, and then make it happen.

 

The Independent L.A. Bookstore Gems

Vroman’s

“Southern California’s Largest & Oldest Independent”

www.vromansbookstore.com

Contact: Jennifer Ramos, Promotional Director

jramos@vromansbookstore.com

Dutton’s

“A Browser’s Paradise and Treasure Trove”

www.duttonsbrentwood.com

Contact: Lise Friedman, Events Coordinator

lise@duttonsbeverlyhills.com

Book Soup

“Bookseller to the Great and Infamous”

www.booksoup.com

Contact: Christine Louise Berry, Publicity Director

christene@booksoup.com

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