Launch Fun: Notes on Small Scale Book Launches

Recently, a former student from the Solstice MFA program where I teach, Jenifer DeBellis, wrote me that her first book, Blood Sisters, had been accepted. She was excited but uncertain how to shepherd it into the future with that “human touch.” Then a similar question from T.J. Harrison on the acceptance of her book, The Fruit of Love and Grief.  Both of these women had worked hard, weathered rejection, triumphed over the odds with dedicated revision, persistence, practice, and had placed their manuscripts with small independent presses. Each had a website, Instagram and twitter account; they were better branded and had stronger platforms than I’d ever had.  But here’s the thing: both wanted readership more than money or notoriety, and each had a sense that as much as a book needs care and attention, the reader also did.  What advice could I offer about launching these books, not the brand stuff, but the… um… people part. And especially, the critical launch part of the people part.

In my experience of watching literally dozens of small-scale book launches unfold, that’s the critical difference, the people part. That in-person practice is often discounted because so much can be done on social media, and sometimes, depending on how the branding works and how good you are, that may be enough. But it takes time and psychic energy.  It can be monotonous, can suck the fun and excitement out of you because it feels, well, pretty manipulative, even mercenary. So how to do the people part?

First, full disclosure. I am a small scale launcher in every sense. I’m not a big five author, and I don’t have an agent, expense account, or fancy purse, and I’m not an all-in expert at the marketing stuff—though I do it because it’s part of every writer’s job.  I suspect these young writers turned to me because, honestly, they know I like people, and if anything, that’s my one success.  Thus, despite the fact that I’m an introvert, I throw a good party.  I offer good food, wine, coffee, and most of all, talk about books. I appreciate rich literary conversation and love to be in the presence of it, listening. I also deeply believe that for writers, once that first copy is in hand, we deserve a party! Anyone who’s worked as hard as we writers work NEEDs to celebrate.

Here’s another small-scale reality: I do not have a lot of money.  I prepare to support my book by saving up for this part.  So even though the dollar signs may be scattered throughout this post, I do everything on a shoestring.  Over the years, I’ve learned how to be budget clever, and to put my money where it will get the biggest bang.

Thus, the book launch party.

Plan a special kick-off reading and party, no matter how humble. Announce on email and Facebook and the local newspaper and regional events pages. Talk it up. I call people. I make it free, and sometimes add prizes (dishtowels for Love, Sex, and 4-H). Sometimes I buy a small ad. I send snail mail postcards with personal notes notes like I hope you’ll come because there’s this chapter I’ll read that I know you will sooo understand!  And I mean it.

Choose a place that fits the book, an important and often overlooked consideration. I’ve attended launches in homes and parks and churches, depending on the book’s message and how much the author could spend. I had my book launch for Love, Sex and 4-H in a historic cathedral barn. For Lake Michigan Mermaid, Linda Nemec Foster (co-author) and I held the Grand Rapids launch in Schullers bookstore which supports a fine speaker’s space, but is pretty traditional. However, it was centrally located, and thanks to that and Linda’s contacts, the reading was well attended. In contrast, I wanted the northern launch for Mermaid to have a view of water. A destination. To keep down costs, we booked an “off-peak” time (meaning right after work on a week night) in a beautiful event space with a full view of the West Grand Traverse Bay staring right down its gullet to Lake Michigan.  In both cases people were drawn to the place as much as the book.  Then they bought the book.

Here is another idea. Turn the launch into a fundraiser—but NOT for you, (though yeah, you may need the money). Here’s the thing: IF you can advertise that the profits from the sales that day go to an appropriately matched up nonprofit–you not only pass on your good fortune, but you draw in more people. The right, carefully chosen nonprofit helps with publicity, and you help them, and both audiences get acquainted, spread the mission, and buy books. It’s a win-win for both. My first three books were all support launches for the Fresh Food Partnership.  Love Sex and 4-H was for—you guessed it—4-H clubs of Leelanau County, and Lake Michigan Mermaid, with its focus on water, was for FLOW, a nonprofit that supports wise water use—so timely given the Flint water crisis in our state. If readers spend their money on your book, help them feel good about supporting a cause.

Next, shine the light on others. As you plan your launch and follow-up readings (there’s usually a series of readings after), invite an up and coming writer or poet to read a poem or two with you–they read first, kind of a warm-up act. Ask someone who is working hard but maybe hasn’t yet received proper attention.  Again, you pass on good fortune, and that younger poet invites people too, and you share the light, and the light always comes back.  Also, invite a more experienced friend-poet to do an introduction for you—maybe someone you admire who has helped you; same deal. Developing writers get much needed support. Experienced writers have the opportunity to be generous and spread the word as someone once likely did for them. 

Oh yes, make or order food. I often ask a couple friends who somehow still love me to donate a plate of cheese and fruit.  I make punch or buy a case of wine and beer if that’s appropriate to the place. Mawby’s sparkling wine “Sex” elevated the Love, Sex and 4-H launchBlue Mermaid cocktails at the Saugatuck launch left everyone laughing and blue-tongued.  I buy good chocolate and pass it by hand.  People love to feel feted; food and beverages help with that. And for some reason, when people have had a glass of wine, they tend to buy more books. Go figure.   

DON’T just read.  Create the story of the story.  Make it interesting.  And get folks involved.  Invite people to read a section with you.  For Love Sex and 4-H, I asked seven friends to read two-minute segments before I read a longer segment.  Lynne Rae Perkins once asked friends to each read a chapter of her new children’s book—and everyone loved reading for her.  For another launch, I took the funniest scene from my book and made a script, then asked other friends to read it with me, reader’s theater style.  For Lake Michigan Mermaid, Linda and I created a power point that unfolded our ten-year secret of the tale, interspersed with the poems that would most draw people into that narration of a two-voiced tale in which a girl nearly drowns. Build your own story.

After the reading, a tip about the Q & A. Taking a cue from Bonnie Jo Campbell (Once Upon a River), plant humorous (but still informative) questions in the audience before the program, and address these afterwards.  You can hand them directly to people as you welcome them, explaining the plan, or place them on chairs or tables for people to discover.  This eases the initial awkwardness in a Q & A. Once people relax, other questions bubble up. I once put questions in a fish bowl, and had people fish them out to elicit answers from crowd and me.

For the post program signing, ask another young writer to help at the signing table, taking cash, etc., so you can talk to people. If that writer has a chapbook or broadsheet, be sure they showcase it.  They get a little press, and I have more time to talk with people, even if I’m signing. 

Thank everyone!  Many times.  

Thus, small scale launches pay off big time—at least when it comes to the people part.  Overall, my point is that one of the most overlooked aspects of the self-promotion gig is the personal touch in your launch, celebrating the community of your own and others’ books.  It’s the party that helps people see you as a host of both story and of welcome. If done right, that generous impulse to give, as always with giving, comes back to us in more ways than we can count.  That’s not why we do it, but it’s a benefit of the work.  And why do we do it?  We do it for the pure joy of being with and connecting to readers and writers! We do it for our art and our pleasure.  Even if we’re introverts.