Saturday 11 February 2012

.... published a book 3: Launch

Part One: My life (so far) in launches

The first book launch I ever went to was at the age of 22. It was in Kensington somewhere – a long, high, white room full of tall posh people. I'd been invited by my ex-boyfriend, a poet who was launching his latest collection; my chief memory of the event is of his brother, an actor, introducing himself and, seeing me with a glass of wine in one hand and no book in the other, challenging me somewhat aggressively as to whether I'd bought a copy yet. No, I replied testily, thinking that if anything I deserved a dedicated freebie – especially considering one of the poems was about me. I was naïve in the politics of launches, then – even the exes (perhaps especially they) are expected, if invited, to fork out and get a copy signed. But it's not all hard sell – if you work them right, book launches can actually be a lot of fun. (See Part 2). 

My career as a muse was a short and ill-fated one, as I'm sure you can imagine; over the next few years I started writing my own stories and was therefore slaveringly, put-me-in-a-straitjacket envious when one of my friends from university, a prodigiously talented prodigy of 25 called Gregory Norminton, invited me to the launch of his first novel, The Ship of Fools. OMG: Greg had done what every English undergraduate with a bottom drawer full of abandoned first chapters dreams of. The bastard!

And this was no small-press small beer either (no offence to small presses) – he'd got an advance, broadsheet reviews, an Arts Council grant, a big-name publisher; everything a promising young author could dream of. The utter, utter bastard. I was experiencing mixed feelings: on one hand I was proud of my friend and incredibly pleased for him: on the other, I really wanted what he had. Especially if he ended up being famous and rich and got the Nobel Prize or something, which frankly, given that he had WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED A NOVEL, all seemed well within his reach to me. Nonetheless, I congratulated him, showed up and bought a copy: I knew the drill now.

Greg's launch was at Daunt Books in Marylebone, a wonderful travel and general bookshop every bibliophile in London should visit at least once in their lives, and I was extremely impressed: there was champagne, speeches, and hundreds of copies of his novel, as well as quail eggs and celery salt for snacks (the first time I'd had either – what a rube). Greg had two publishing professionals stand up and say fantastic things about him and his writing, then he read out a short section of his book to general appreciation and laughter (where appropriate). He trained as an actor so of course he did it brilliantly. Sweet Lord, I wanted me some of that.

Six years later ...

I'm standing outside Bloomsbury's offices, on white Georgian steps leading down to Soho Square, smoking a cigarette. It's a year or so before the smoking-indoors ban will kick in, but we – and by we, I mean the smoker friends of Lucie Whitehouse, gathered to celebrate the publication of her first novel The House at Midnight – are outside anyway, chatting about this and that. By this time I've won a few prizes, published a number of stories, done the Creative Writing MA at UEA and got an agent. I'm 75,000 words into my first novel (if you don't count the completely unpublishable one) and the going is grim. I'm stuck, dispirited and (of course) jealous as hell.

Except it's even worse this time because Lucie was in my writing group for several years; I watched her novel take shape; I was so close I could almost touch it ... A strange girl asks me how I know Lucie: I tell her about the writing group. She suggests that if I want to “break in” to writing, I should try Mills & Boon or erotic fiction. Again the red mist clouds my eyes. It reminds me of the days when fresh graduates of drama schools would have to take on “exotic dancing” jobs to get their Equity card. Could hack work really be all I'm good for? Could I even be good enough at that? Surely I have what it takes to make it on my own ... don't I? I go home drunk and angry (mostly with myself), get back to the bogged-down novel again and don't stop writing until I've finished it, a few months later.

Four years later ... (we're now in 2012 if you haven't been keeping track)

Less of the meander down memory lane, more of the nitty gritty about how to organise a book launch! I hear you cry – seeing as the blog is called I Have Never ... and clearly I've been to book launches before, I just haven't thrown one.

OK, here goes; people with no professional interest in the subject will be pleased to know that I have illustrated each point with a LOLcat. You're welcome.

Part Two: Ten things you need to know about launching a book

Here's a few facts about book launches it's useful to know, whether you're a debut novelist or merely a confused and thirsty guest – along with what I did for my launch and why.

1) Launches are always – and I mean pretty much always – on Thursdays. I do not know why this is. I presume it's because books are nearly always released on Thursdays: hence Kate Williams's novel The Pleasures of Men, the launch of which I attended, was published and launched on Thursday 19th January; Nick Harkaway, the launch of whose second book Angelmaker I went to this week, also chose a Thursday. Why are novels always published on Thursdays? I have no idea. It's not because of reviews – all the big papers get proof copies months in advance. Is it so the books have time to hit the shelves for the weekend? Christ only knows. It's a publishing mystery, but if anyone can solve it I'd love to hear from them. Maybe it's precisely so that the launches are then on Thursdays, which means people are in a kind of weekendy mood and so more likely to come, but the long-suffering publishing folk don't have to sacrifice their social lives every Friday night for the rest of their careers. I think that's probably it, actually.

What did Katy do? I took Penguin's advice and had it on a Thursday, even though this meant I had to miss teaching my City class and another person's launch. I might go crazy and have it on a Wednesday (or indeed Friday) if & when I get the chance to do another one, though ...

2) The wine you are drinking and the nibbles you are nibbling are almost certainly paid for in whole or part by the author – so yes, if you are a true friend, you are morally obliged to buy a book :) Gone are the days when anyone but big-name, big money authors get a lavish bash thrown for them on the publisher's tab: given that 90% of the attendees will be the author's mates, I can see the reasoning behind this.

What did Katy do? I was steeled to underwrite the whole thing myself, but then Penguin kindly offered to pay for half. The whole thing, including booze, snacks and venue hire (AND four bottles of beer stolen from the venue's private fridge, you know who you are :) came in at under 500 quid – which is about a fiver a head, given the turn out. Which brings me to ...

3) There's usually about 50 to 100 people there. Guests should wear whatever they like; it's not formal. Authors should always invite at least twice the number of people they want to show up.

Authors only have so many friends (with their partners/guests), but you can double or even triple this number if it's a second or third book and the first has been successful: then the publisher will stump up more cash and everyone will want in on the action.

What did Katy do?
Invited about 200 people of whom 100 or so (including partners and guests) turned up – a pretty good ratio. The booze ran out about 15 minutes before the official party end, which was very lucky and meant people cleared out of there in no time and followed me to the pub ...

4) Unless the author him/herself is famous, there will almost certainly be no famous people or journalists attending – just the aforementioned publishing folk and the author's friends, parents, children, pets, plants etc. However, there certainly will be at least one literary agent (the author's) and probably quite a few more there: note to aspiring novelists – book launches are good places to meet agents. Not journalists/arts columnists/people off the telly, though, unless the author's famous. If you're the author, feel free to invite journalists, editors, reviewers etc. but unless they are a personal friend they almost certainly won't show up, and who can blame them – it's work as far as they're concerned, after all.

What did Katy do? I asked my publicist Caroline to invite any journalists she thought might be up for it, and then invited all my mates and only those journalists I had met in person. (They didn't show up, but I didn't mind).

5) The author will have run out of witty things to say on the signing page of his/her book by about Book 5. If you want the dedication to be witty, apt, moving or legally binding, the best thing to do is make it up/write it yourself and get the writer to simply sign their name underneath. Don't be hard on the author for this inevitable inspiration fail: they wrote a whole friggin' book, you know! What do you want, blood?

What did Katy do? I asked my friends to tell me what they wanted me to write, but only two of them did, so I was forced to make repeated references to p.263 (one of the saucier scenes in the novel) when I ran out of idea-steam.

6) At some point there will be a speech. Or a reading. Or (if you're unlucky) both. 
 Expect fulsome praise from the editor or agent (it's their job, after all) and either a saucy or funny or poignant extract from the novel in question. Also lots and lots of thanks from the author. If you don't hear your name in the thanks, you may have to sneakily flip to the acknowledgments section in the book. If you're in there, now you really do have to buy it.

What did Katy do? Juliet Annan, my lovely editor, made a speech and read from a nice review and I did a reading. I was planning to read about four pages of  one of the London scenes, but cut this to two. About 5-7 minutes seems to be about right. I also forgot one of the characters had an Irish accent before I got to his first line: cue my Martin McGuinness impersonation ...

7) Most book launches are in bookshops. Seems obvious, doesn't it? And yet launches are a bit like parties (the good ones anyway) and bookshops are a bit like libraries. Would you try to hold a party in a library? Exactly. Although authors and publishers often take the bookshop option because it means a) free venue and b) you don't have to lug multiple copies of your own book around all day, as the shop will stock and sell them ... well, in my opinion, booze and bookshelves don't mix. I have come perilously close to ruining stock with a misplaced glass of wine. I have also left  other launches clutching two new books, neither of which were the one being launched (in my defence I already had a copy). Bookshops are dangerous: pubs, bars and restaurants much safer.

What did Katy do? Bravely breaking away from the bookshop convention, while checking out pubs in Bloomsbury, I wandered past the Horse Hospital off Russell Square and asked if they had the date free. Luckily for me, they did, because the Horse Hospital (the “Horse Asylum”, if you will ... geddit?) is a uniquely atmospheric venue: a Victorian stable where hackney carriage drivers would rest and recuperate their sick or lame horses. The only annoying thing is that the cobbled floor means smashed glasses or bottles are lethal – are are stiletto heels – therefore I had to use plastics. I still wore heels though. A girl has to have standards. I also decorated the walls with Max Schindler's superb artwork for the book, and a few Victorian Top Trumps. And a nice review in Metro.

8) You can generally expect to drink and eat the following: Champagne (if someone's really pushing the boat out), white wine, red wine, orange juice, crisps, nuts. That's it. Greg's quail eggs were a mad gourmet extravagance I have only ever seen at his launches (he's had four – launches, not eggs). Guests: if you're hungry, get a burger on the way. Authors: Don't worry about feeding your guests; 90% of them just want to get pissed. The British, after all, cannot bear to look a free glass of wine in the mouth ...

What did Katy do? Went to TOWN, baby! My long-suffering dad went to Belgian hypermarket Makro and brought back pink cava, white cava, Hoegaarden, Maes Pils, Japanese crackers, tortilla chips and a fancy Tuc biscuit selection. For the non-drinkers I bought pomegranate juice (after a knock-down drag-out argument with my boyfriend in Morrisons about the relative merits of pomegranate and orange juice) and finally a MASSIVE chocolate and vanilla cake with the book cover printed on it appeared, courtesy of my boyfriend's Mum. I treat my crew right.

9) How many books should you bring?
The optimist in me says as many as you think you can sell, plus 20% (probably what I should have done). The pessimist says as many as you are prepared to carry home unsold ...

How many should Katy have brought? A lot more (what can I say, I have nice friends). The Fig Tree estimate of the number we could sell on the night turned out to be a bit under, even when extra copies brought from the office were factored in. I think I sold about 40 books and could have sold at least 10 more had they not run out – which is one book per two guests (and that was without selling a copy to any member of my family, or to my boyfriend). This, however, is apparently a much higher ratio than usual (probably a debut thing). It helps to sell your books at a round-number discount (mine were a tenner, down from £12.99) and to carry change for a twenty ...

10) What are book launches actually for? 
Let's ask the audience:

Author says: To celebrate me and my book, of course. I MADE A BOOK, FUCKINHELL, LOOK!!!
Editor says: To celebrate my truly excellent taste in literature, and maybe hang out with a few colleagues/authors.
Parents say: To repeatedly mention to friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances etc. for the rest of my life. (Parents are usually pretty proud of such things).
Publisher says: To shift lots copies on the wings of wine and goodwill, and propel the book a bit further up the sales charts in its first week (before most reviews come out).
Guest says: To celebrate my friend's book, maybe buy a copy, definitely drink a lot of wine. Now hand me a quail egg.

Book launches are what you, my dear author, make of them. They can be an awkward business function, an impressively heaving networking event (Kate's), a louche and classy drinkathon (Nick's on Thursday) or a fun party mostly for friends – which I hope mine was. As long as you don't cry, arrive late or throw up (too much) you should be fine. As so often with these things, it's the morning after you have to worry about ...

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