Because I have zero planning skills, I had to fly back to Chicago in the middle of my tour to speak at the Reaching Forward conference for Illinois libraries.
And since I've been going non-stop for 14 days, I haven't written a speech yet.
It's been a while since I've posted actual advice on this blog, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and write the speech and my blog at the same time.
The name of my speech is Author Library Events: What Authors Want. But I'm taking that as a jumping-off point to explain how author events can be successful.
Libraries are more than book and video rental stores. They're hubs for the their communities. Books don't make a good library. People do. And an author event is a great way to bring people together.
If your library wants to sponsor an author event, the first step is recruiting authors. Writing conventions are the best way to do this. Nothing beats face-to-face contact. Ask your boss to send you to writing conventions. When they stop laughing, pay for the trip yourself, and remember to write it off on your taxes as a work-related expense.
Approaching authors is easy. If you begin your sentence with, "I love your work" then you've already got a captive audience. Introduce yourself, and your library, and ask if they'd like to speak for you. If they're somewhat receptive, get their card (or their email) and give them yours.
This is a good time to talk about paying authors. I've discovered that you get what you pay for. Most famous and semi-famous authors are asked to speak all the time, and they charge speaking fees. These can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
If you've got thousands of dollars in your events budget, go after some bigger authors. They'll also want their travel expenses paid for. Is this excessive? Perhaps. But the writers that are good at this sort of thing are usually worth what they're paid.
I usually charge between $300 and $1500 to do a speech, plus expenses. I've taken less if the library is nearby, or if I'm friends with the librarian.
Often a library is hesitant to make a monetary offer, worried it will be insulting because it is low. I say, "Go ahead, insult me." If I'm interested, we can always negotiate. And like any good negotiator, your first offer should be lower than what you're actually willing to pay.
Usually, I'm happy taking an average of the last three speaker fees they've paid.
If you don't have a budget, you can still get authors, but they'll be of a slightly lower caliber. For example, for free you can get the guy who self-published his Print On Demand book "I Can Fit My Whole Fist Up My Butt." If you book him, remember not to shake his hand.
OTHER PLACES TO FIND AUTHORS
Besides meeting authors in person, meeting them online is a good way to recruit them. Every author has contact information through their website. Authors are also on many social networking sites, such as Facebook, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, Twitter, MySpace, and so on.
A typical offer would list the type of event it is, the date, what you can pay, and what you expect the author to do.
Flexibility is important. The more flexible you are with your dates, the more likely you'll be able to get authors. Authors have deadlines, and travel a lot, and I often have to turn down events because I'm doing another one. So if you need to book a lecture room months in advance, request several days and give the author some options.
It's important to mention that you should NEVER book an author without having seen them speak in public. Most authors suck at public speaking, and these are often the ones most anxious to speak. If you've never met them in person, try to find them on YouTube.
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM THE AUTHOR
Content is king.
Library patrons are looking for two things: Information and entertainment.
Simply booking an author for a signing isn't going to draw much of a crowd, unless the author is a huge bestseller.
In other words, it isn't enough just to buy the monkey. Now the monkey has to perform.
What are some types of events I've done?
BOOK FAIRS. These are often a collection of authors, and usually an annual event. The key to a successful book fair is to get a great keynote, who you'll probably have to pay for. But you'll also get all of your local authors who will come out for free.
BOOK CLUBS. I speak at a lot of book clubs. If I can't be there in person, I'll talk to the club via conference call. Most authors will do this, and none of them, me included, charge for this.
HOW TO. I lecture a lot about how to get published. Since every community has newbie writers, this is always a good bet. Other lectures can focus on the writer's area of expertise. Raymond Benson successfully lectures at libraries about movies, something he knows very well, having been a writer of James Bond novels. Michael A. Black and Dave Case, both cops and authors, have a crime scene presentation.
Should you advertise on radio or in the local paper? I say no. I'm not convinced paid advertising gets people to come to events, and I think your money is best spent elsewhere, like on snacks. Or beer. (Yes, I've done library events that had an open bar. The turnout was amazing.)
Here's what you should do instead:
Contact the local media for free publicity. Most papers and some radio stations list community events.
Ask the book club and writer's group to read the author's book prior to the event.
Print up some cheap flyers and hand these out to patrons checking out books a week before the event.
Posters are nice, if you can get them cheap. Flyers posted on every wall works just as well.
Your website and email list should promote the event. Ask the author to use his net contacts as well.
HOLD A CONTEST/GIVE AWAY FREE STUFF
If you've been burned before with low attendance, even though you had decent, name authors, then you need to think about stepping up the program.
People love free stuff and give-aways. Someone on the fence about attending the event might decide to come if attendees can win something.
It can be something donated by library patrons or sponsors--a night in a bed and breakfast, a free hair style, an oil change, round trip tickets to Mexico with complimentary face masks to ward off the swine flu, etc.
It can also be free books, supplied by you or the author. Some authors will donate a character name. The sky is the limit, but contests and freebies do bring people in.
The day finally arrives. You make sure the chairs are set up, the sound system works, there are plenty of cookies and coffee, and then you cross your fingers and hop the author and some patrons show up.
If the author doesn't show up, for whatever reason, have a back up plan. That's why a contest is nice--in case something happens, your patrons won't hate you.
If no patrons show up, the author might feel a bit stung, but a stipend takes much of the bite out of that. You'll probably feel the need to apologize, but all smart authors know that it isn't your fault, that these things happen, and they should be kissing your butt for thinking of them in the first place.
Then, of course, inflate your numbers on the report so your budget doesn't get cut.
But if you've followed the proper procedure, chances are you'll have a decent turn out, and everyone will have a good time. Be sure to collect email addresses from people who show up, so you can inform them about upcoming events. If the author had a good time, ask them to suggest other authors for you.