The most memorable literary event I've ever attended was held at an art gallery in London. I'd been a judge for some writers' awards. It was a black tie event so everyone was dressed up to the nines.
Half-way through the evening, the doors were sealed, security guards appeared and a "surprise guest" was announced. Salman Rushdie walked in looking defiant, gave a speech, mingled, and promptly disappeared again.
It was in the early 1990s, just after he had gone into hiding. But I still remember it like it was yesterday. I can still see those canapés dusted with gold icing, the artistic bowls they were served in, and the strategically-placed minimalist sculptures. We were mesmerised even before Salman entered the room. When he did, we were blown away. The thought and planning that went into that event were phenomenal.
Equally, I've known of some pretty dire events. At the worst end of the scale, a multi-millionaire business author and hired a mansion in an exclusive part of London and sold tickets, promoting it as an opportunity to mix with high net worth entrepreneurs. He had a large cake made, with the cover of his book on it, and set up a "mini-bar" and a sound system.
What happened next by all accounts was a cross between a football scrum and a school disco. More people showed up than expected, and jostled with each other for space. Wine had to be served from boxes in white plastic cups. Vases were broken. The neighbours complained about the goings on next door, and the landlord was called. Of course, no permission had been given to hold an event of this scale on the premises. So everyone was asked to leave. Not quite the impression you would want to give, unless perhaps you are one of the Gallagher brothers.
Generally though, book launches tend to follow a pretty standard format whether they're held in bookshops, libraries or galleries.
A glass of Merlot awaits you when you roll up. You stand around mingling with the great and the good for an hour. The author makes a speech thanking everyone who has helped them. A request is made for you to buy the book if you haven't already. Half an hour later, it's time to go home. You've enjoyed yourself, but there's very little to distinguish one event from another.
So the question is: how can you host a memorable book launch that really stands out, regardless of your budget? Any author can do this if you apply the same degree of creativity that went into writing your book in the first place:
1. Find a venue that complements your book
A bookshop or library is a safe, but conventional, option. If you're looking for something more prestigious, then pick an upmarket venue like an art gallery, a museum, or a university function room. If it's the height of summer, then consider a BBQ in a park or garden. If you're a speaker, then why not tie in your book launch with a talk you're giving? If you're a children's author, can you hold the event in a park, a school or a zoo? If you have the resources, how about a boat, a place of historic interest or a castle? One of my clients wrote her book on her laptop while sitting in Costa's, so it was natural for her to host a signing there. You don't have to spend a fortune to make an impact.
2. Set the mood for the event
How can you set the mood from the moment your guests walk in? Do you want candlelight, day light, or fluorescent lighting? Will your guests drink from plastic cups or glass goblets or champagne flutes? Will you offer them Beaujolais or bubbly? Will they have cheese on cocktail sticks, or something more exotic? Will they be served on paper plates or silver platters? Will the room be decorated in bunting or photographs that tie in with your book? Roller banners, with your business logo or your book cover, are a very cost-effective way to make an impression.
3. What will your photos look like?
Imagine a photograph of yourself signing a book at your launch. Would you prefer the event to have a serious or a fun feel? Would you like attendees to wear dress suits or jeans? Should it be upmarket or informal? Is this a no-children affair or a family event? How about a theme where people wear fancy dress? If you've written a novel set in the 1920s, could you play jazz, serve Mint julep cocktails, and ask the women to wear flapper dresses? I remember a children's book launch where the author dressed as a big yellow bird with stripy legs. These photographs will be around for a long time to come. You and your attendees will post them on social media and share them. How will you like to feel when you see these photos: proud and happy, or slightly awkward?
4. Determine your grand finale
A finale is essential for any book launch. Often, a speech or a reading from the author will suffice. But you can be more inventive than this. One of my clients taped copies of his book beneath the seats of 150 people who attended a property event. They had no idea until he told them to look under their seats. He then asked everyone to look at a certain word on a certain page inside their books. The person who had the book with the word highlighted in yellow won a £500 prize. The event was fun. Everyone then stood up and gave him a standing ovation.
Another author I've worked with enticed people to pay £65 for his book and attend his event, by offering a seminar to teach attendees how to create a successful million dollar business.
How can you surprise or wow your own audience so that you over-deliver on their expectations and they remember your event for a long time to come?
5. How can you attract the media?
A client of mine wrote an anti-evolution book and invited Ireland's Minister for Science to launch it (though it caused such a controversy that he didn't). "Darwin" showed up at the book launch, linking arms with a Gorilla. The author had a glass bowl filled with 15 tennis balls which he announced he would dump on the floor to see if they would arrange themselves in a perfect circle. Of course they didn't. The author had media coverage in over 50 outlets.
Another property author held a book launch at an event near Marble Arch, in London. She held an auction that raised thousands of pounds for a shelter for homeless people, and the event had coverage in various papers including The Times.
Why were journalists interested in these events? Because they were different: they weren't traditional book launches.
6. Your invitation should excite your attendees
Many authors send out invitations that have an undercurrent of fear and insecurity. You can almost hear the cogs whirring in their head: "What if no one comes?" They say things like: "Please bring along your friends, neighbours and anyone else you know". What can you offer them that will make sure they'll move other events in their diary just to be there? Strike a confident tone with your invitation: you are offering a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for a limited number of people. When the tickets are gone, they're gone. They'd be foolish not to come. Offer more than just a book launch and set the tone of your expectations. Take for example, the author who recently held a launch at The Ritz in Mayfair, telling attendees to "dress to impress!" and bring along a business card to share with others.
7. How can you have impact and influence beyond this event?
It's been like sales day at Harrods. People have been desperate for you to sign their books. They've loved your idea. But once the wine or champagne has gone, and guests start to drift away, what impact will you have? You've had a great event. But what can you do to ensure these people buy your future books, come to other events that you host, or want to work with you? Can you give guests a reason to sign up on your Facebook page, your blog or your newsletter? Can you hand out flyers offering them a free consultation with you? Can you ensure that everyone has your business card or contact details? I've had clients who have trebled their speaking engagements after publishing their book, authors who have generated weekly leads for their business several years after their launch, clients who've got their own magazine columns. What impact will you have?
Pay attention to all these small details and you should have a book launch that really sings!