On the “good old days” of book events — and how to bring them back.
Book events aren’t what they used to be. But what was it like, back in the day, when readings were the most important promotional tool in publishers’ and authors’ arsenals? Why and when did that change, and – most importantly – how can we change it back?
I asked technology and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who’s published more than 15 books over the course of the last two decades, what it was like to witness this change firsthand. He’s currently on the road promoting his latest book, Present Shock, which is about the culture of instant gratification.
The first thing Douglas points out is that when he was first being published, way back in the mid-90s, there was a much greater barrier to entry to being published in the first place. Publishers simply acquired fewer books, so they had more resources to promote each one. The media landscape was different, too – there weren’t a ton of ways for people to find out about new books. For both established and brand-new authors, it made sense for publishers to spend money and resources booking tours of that took authors all around the country. People would show up to these reading because they heard about them in the arts and culture section of local newspapers, which might have even had someone on staff to specifically cover books. Authors, says Rushkoff, generally had it pretty good. He remembers nice hotels, media escorts … the kind of thing that you get now if you’re either David Sedaris or the star of a network sitcom, but not so much if you’re, well, pretty much anyone else.
Nowadays, Rushkoff books his own tours. He says he’s been told by his publishers that they’d rather have him spend his time writing pieces for Boing Boing and Mashable than go out on the road to promote his books. “For them, online reads are more important than personal interactions,” he tells me. He thinks they’re both right and wrong, and points out that different strategies are right for different books.
When I got off the phone with Douglas, I thought long and hard about whether I agreed with those publishers. It’s true that a lot of our lives happen online these days, but I still believe – because I witnessed it happening firsthand–that speaking to live audiences can be the best way to create community around a book. So how can we accomplish that?
So much about our cultural landscape and the relationship readers have to the media they consume has changed, and the changes keep coming. It’s hard to predict what the future of libraries and chain and independent bookstores will look like, no matter how hard we try.
But even in this changed and unpredictable world, I believe that events are still useful and more important than ever. We just have to be flexible and willing to adapt. In the same way that the music business shape-shifted in the past few years, authors need to change the way they think about events, and so do readers. The first thing we need to do is bring back value to events.
As authors, we need to get used to the idea of asking something of our audience. Let’s ask them to at least commit to attending or pay a few bucks for ticket or even buy the book in advance, so authors can afford to make the trip or know that folks that are interested in us will be there when we arrive.
As readers, we need to get used to the idea that events shouldn’t always be free, and that books aren’t something you bargain-shop for. If you love reading an author’s work, you should be committed to the creation of a cultural ecosystem that enables that writer to write more of it.
This isn’t a terrible ask. And although no one has done a double blind study for the value of author events (we would invite one), we have a fair amount of evidence from general events and other industries that people assign more value to an experience as soon as they have to pay any amount of money for it. That’s not too shocking. And in this context it actually means that people are MORE likely to show up for your event if you use Togather to get them to make a commitment – of whatever size – in advance. Sell tickets for $2 a pop. Or make buying a book a requirement, so that the book functions as a ticket. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the audience at a fantastic book event and heard someone say, “I should buy the book … hmmm … that line’s long,” and then watched the putative book-buyer shyly slink away. Even I’m guilty of this crime. But when I’ve done a book purchase event where most of the audience has read the work in advance, it changes the whole feeling of the event. Readers engage with meaningful dialogue. These are some of the best events I’ve ever been to, both as an author and as an audience member.
The reality is, people want to support the authors they love. People want the culture they love to be sustainable, to continue to exist. No one will think you’re a greedy jerk if you ask them to put a small amount of money where their mouth is. With committed audiences who have a stake in the event and in the work they’re supporting, everyone has a better experience. We pay for things we value–whether it’s with actual dollars or time or effort. Most people want to pay for better events, even if they don’t realize it yet. The only problem, up until now, has been that there was no simple, elegant way for readers to show their support.
And then the trick becomes to consistently create events that readers will feel good about paying for. I have some ideas about that, too – which I’ll share in my next letter.
Do you think it’s too crazy to ask your audience to support you with more than likes and retweets? Let me know at @kesslerandrew.