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’ a course in miracles. 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 TV personality hired a mansion in an exclusive part of London and sold tickets, promoting it as an opportunity to mix with high net worth entrepreneurs. She had a large cake made, with the cover of her 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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.