If you’ve made it far enough in your writing career to have found a publisher or put in the time and effort to self-publish, then you may think the work is done. Yay! Your book is going to be out there in the world! It’s done! Time to have a glass of wine, sit back, and be content.
Yeah, no. That’s not happening. Now you have to go out and sell the book by making appearances.
If you aren’t a fan of public speaking, of shaking hands with strangers, or making eye contact long enough to get someone’s attention, then this is going to be very awkward for you. Maybe this can be a drastically different experience if you only show up at events run by friends or family, or perhaps you command a legion of fans like JK Rowling or Dan Brown. You might even be lucky, as I am, to have a super supportive publisher who lays a lot of the ground work for you, but even then for most first time authors I imagine the experiences are very similar to my own.
For me, if we’re counting experiences where you are the center of attention as the author, then my book launch with friends and family would be the first. Thank goodness for that, because when you show up to a place as a first-time, unknown author you don’t get a lot of love or attention. My book launch was amazing, though. I invited my friends, my colleagues from work, and my family. We set it up in a local art gallery, brought in some food, and set up the books. My son, in particular, got really into the whole mood of the event. I was relieved on this point because when I first presented him with this book that I spent seven years trying to get published, this book that was made for him in the first place, he only took enough time to acknowledge the book existed before asking if he could go back to reading Dog Man by Dav Pilkey. I don’t blame him. Those are great books!
That appearance was wild. People were asking me to sign books as though I mattered. I mean, I know I matter to them personally, but it was weird to be treated like an author for the first time instead of a guy who wrote a bunch of words in his basement. What really warmed my heart, though, was when I found out some of the people there were also asking my son and daughter to put their names in both Battledoors: The Golden Slate and Paramnesia. I’ve never seen my son look so proud. Dog Man was nothing to him that night! He helped my wife set up the book displays and handed out change for the people who were supporting me.
That night was such a blur that I forgot to take a single picture. Luckily my wife snapped a couple and one of my friends got a number and sent them to me. He even took a video of my first ever reading.
I’m glad all of that happened to send me off on my career, because my next appearance was a little more realistic. I went to Bakka Phoenix, which is in the Annex near the University of Toronto. They had a joint signing set up for myself and another new author, Nancy Thorne, who wrote a great book called Victorian Town. The signing was just a little affair with some modest seating and the books lovingly set up.
Well, the seating turned out to be a bit much. Book appearances are fickle things, apparently. You can never predict having a storm of people lining up or a dribble, but you give it your best. Some former students came to support me and I had a few great conversations with strangers, but it was hardly the mob scene that a rock star might expect.
But that’s the business. If, when you’re starting out, you know that you have to build an audience and that there isn’t one built in, then you’re good to go. Most good things travel by word of mouth. Look at shows like Stranger Things, Lost, or some of the excellent documentaries that you might find on Netflix. Often, someone finds it and encourages someone else to pick it up. My books had only been out for four days at that point. Perhaps I’d need to dip back into that first well I talked about: patience.
So, a mindset needed to be developed. If you go into appearances and just let yourself be open to the experience, it’s a lot of fun. Find ways to connect with people. Stand up, make eye contact, and talk to them about something else you see that they’re interested in. Sometimes you’ll have no choice. A few people at Indigo have asked me where to find items in the store as they assumed I worked there. So, I directed them as politely as possible. Beyond anything else, get people talking. Both my publisher and fellow author, Craig Terlson who wrote the brilliant book Fall in One Day, suggested making signs that encourage people to ask you questions. I put up one about ghost stories, because who doesn’t like a good spooky tale? I have more than a few, as well. Maybe I’ll put that in as a future blog post.
Once people start talking, they’re more interested. I did my best to share details about the books and my life, and try to find ways to get people chatting. I met one guy who was also a teacher, and we talked about how hard it is to get some students out of the reluctant reader category. He had no plans to get my book, but by the end of the conversation he had bought Book 1 of Battledoors and was interested in hearing more about Book 2, The Black Spyre. On the flip side, I also had a conversation with a man who talked about the horrible things he had seen when he worked for the TTC subway, in great detail and for nearly an hour, and then he abruptly wished me a good day, turned around, and headed home. Alas, no book sale, but hey… new book idea?
You’ll meet people. You’ll sell some books. You’ll get people to see what you have made and maybe you’ll be lucky enough that if they don’t buy your book today they’ll pick it up later or suggest it to a friend. Word of mouth can be slow to build but powerful once there’s enough momentum. At the very least, you’ll meet some interesting people who will all add to the experience.
Remember, just have fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Brian Wilkinson attempts to juggle multiple careers as an author, high school teacher, and librarian. He currently lives in East York, Ontario, with his wife and two children, who served as the inspiration for the main characters in his first novels, Battledoors and Paramnesia. Brian was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, where he attended the University of Guelph and received a BA in English Literature. He continued his writing career by earning a diploma in Journalism from Humber College, and applied those skills by working as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and EYE Weekly, as well as serving as a co-publisher for the comic news site ComiXfan, and an editor for Humber Etcetera, where he won a Columbia Scholastic writing award for first-person column-writing. He was even lucky enough to realize a lifelong dream by writing for Marvel Comics when he co-wrote X-Men: The 198 Files. Brian feels like he is the luckiest person on Earth. He gets to be a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. Not too bad, huh?