It’s fair to say that most people who work in bookshops primarily do so for one reason. It’s not for the glamour, or the adrenalin rush, and it’s certainly not for the wages! It’s because they love books. That’s it. I know, because I was a bookseller for Waterstones for almost ten years.
In my humble opinion, booksellers are often the most over-qualified and arguably some of the most passionate people you’ll meet in retail. They know their stuff and they read an awful lot of books. If a bookseller likes a book, they will tell their customers all about it – they can’t help it! – and their recommendations will certainly help to sell your book. When you see a ‘bookseller review’ online or in store, it means they actually read it and enjoyed it; not because they’re the authors’ best friend, but because it was a good read. Customers will trust that.
I left Waterstones a couple of years ago to pursue my writing career full-time. I must confess that I’d looked along the fiction shelves more than once to see where my novel might sit (usually between John Le Carré and Angela Carter, to my delight). So, when I chose to publish my debut novel, Sleeping Through War, with Matador, I couldn’t imagine a better place for my first book launch than my old shop. The manager was more than encouraging and we fixed up a date for the launch to coincide with the official publication date. We planned it together and she was as enthusiastic as I was. She’d already read Sleeping Through War after I’d dropped a copy in for her and, to my relief, she loved it! Even before the launch, Matador were ready with finished copies and the next time I popped into the shop, there it was – right next to Angela Carter!
Planning a book launch as an author was a new experience for me. I’d worked at book launches, signings and author talks behind the scenes, but thrusting myself centre stage was pretty daunting. Where do I start? What do I say when all those eyes are looking at me? Then an American author friend of mine gave me the best advice ever about self-marketing. She said: “Don’t try to be clever. All you have to do is share your love for your book with other people.” Read that sentence again…it’s simple but it relieves stress massively.
Think about your book, where it’s set, what the subject matter is, and plan your launch around it. Sleeping Through War is set during 1968, so I trawled the internet for images from that year because I wanted a context for the book that people could see when they walked in. I found lots of amazing pictures and prepared boards around the shop, which worked really well. It brought people into the world of the story as soon as they arrived. There are three narrators in the novel, so I asked two other people to read short extracts with me, which really brought the words to life. I’ve been a playwright and theatre director for some years, so it was natural for me to want to ‘animate’ the words with real people.
At 6pm the doors opened and both friends and strangers started to arrive. Even more people than I expected. I’d made posters for the event, had bookmarks printed that people could take away with them, publicised the event on social media and local radio, and it worked. After all, you only get out what you put in, like everything else in life. We had glasses of wine and nibbles ready, and somebody even made delicious, book-themed cupcakes. After a short introduction, some readings and time for a couple of questions, people actually started buying the book and I happily signed copy after copy. The atmosphere was relaxed, people were happy and I was in my element; surrounded by books.
One person that I’d never met before told me that she’d come along because she saw it advertised on Waterstones’ facebook page. She said she’d made a bucket list and ‘going to a book launch’ was on it. She’d never been to one before but enjoyed it so much that she planned to go to many more. And that’s what it’s all about. Book launches should be enjoyable, interesting and, above all, inspiring. They should inspire readers to read and writers to write.
Of course, a bookshop is not the only place to hold a book launch. What about an autobiography at your old school; a book about fishing by a riverbank; a historical novel in a museum…? You can be as inventive as you like. However, for an old bookseller like me, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a pile of my paperbacks in a bookshop.
So, next time you’re in a bookshop, look along the shelves to find where your book might be sitting one day. It can happen.