How to Hold a Book Launch (from 10 published authors who have done it before)

In less than 6 weeks I will be launching my book Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed Our World. Although my publisher, Affirm Press has been very supportive, this is pretty much an independent launch since they’re over in Melbourne and I’m here in Perth. It’s like planning a wedding but without the husband or fluffy, white dress.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that a few years ago when I went to a career counsellor to determine which direction my post-motherhood life should take, the two options I was presented with were Writer and Event Planner. It’s all finally coming together!

But considering pre-motherhood I used to work in academic research, I decided the prudent thing to do would be to approach a dozen of my published author friends and ask them about their book launches. I asked for their tips and advice, what they’d do differently, and what they loved the most.

Who pays for your book launch?

Most of the time you will be paying for your own launch. Most of the people I surveyed spent up to a couple of thousand dollars on their launch, a small minority were funded by their publisher or supported by a library and ended up spending less than $100, but they seemed to be the exception, not the rule.

Most publishers rarely contribute financially to book launches – unless you’re a prize winner. It’s not personal, it’s business. Even if you sell 100 books on the night – or 200 books – they’re still not going to break even. So most authors agreed it was best not to think about a book launch in terms of profitability.

“Think of this as a personal party to celebrate. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some sales, but launches are not the best selling vehicle,” says Sasha Wasley, author of Spring Clean for the Peach Queen and A Caravan Like a Canary. This sentiment is echoed by Karen Herbert-Whittle, whose latest book is The Castaways of Harewood Hall: “Treat it as a party. It’s not a sales exercise, but a celebration of your hard work in getting to publication.”

And while most people wouldn’t blink at spending tens of thousands on a wedding, or a big birthday celebration, there seems to be the expectation that writing books makes you money, rather than costing you money (but we know better, don’t we…).

I will leave the final word on money to David Allan-Petale whose country B&S-themed book launch at a heritage town hall for his book Locust Summer was memorable for all the right reasons: “It was my party, and I was happy to serve it up. I wanted to hold a launch party people would talk about for years afterwards, or curse that they didn’t go.” He nailed it.

Time and Location

The majority of the launches were held on a weeknight. Friday and Saturday tend to be the busiest nights of the week when guests are more likely to have conflicting engagements (especially towards the end of the year). Sunday afternoons or evenings and weeknights are seen as more chilled (and probably easier to find a venue).

Some people had their dates chosen for them by their publishers, but there seemed to be a general consensus that the date doesn’t really matter, because people will try and be there to support you if they can, regardless of when it is.

Venues fell into three main categories: a private space in a pub or bar, libraries and bookshops, and other function spaces such as sports clubs, function centres and town halls.

The main things to consider when it comes to the venue are (apart from cost):

  • An open space where people can see the stage/festivities
  • Room size appropriate to the expected crowd
  • Centrality, accessibility and parking
  • Facilities – bar, seating, stage, PA

A big part of this decision is if you’re planning to DIY with the catering. Most pubs and sporting clubs have kitchens or caterers onsite who can organise food. All you have to do is pick your favourite platter. The flip side, of course, is that you’re paying extra for the service, they might have a minimum spend and often you aren’t allowed to bring your own food in.

Some of the authors have launched books at libraries and bookshops, which tend to be free. Rebecca Higgie, author of award-winning The History of Mischief was approached by a large library to host her book launch, which was billed as a ‘Words with Wine’ event. She says “The advantage of doing it through a library or bookshop is that they will do their own promotion that will attract local library or bookshop patrons who would otherwise not come to such an event. They come because they like to come to interesting events at their local library or bookshop.”

Other advantages of launching at a library or bookshop are that they tend to take on a fair bit of the organisation for you – arranging ticketing, seating, book sales and (often) decorations. As you’d expect though, libraries and bookshops can be averse to food, so catering is less likely to be an issue. She says that if you are considering a bookshop or library as a venue, it’s best to choose one where you already have a relationship – so start making those connections now.

The grazing table at the launch of Miniatures by Susan Midalia

Food and Drinks at your book launch

There’s no rule saying you have to provide refreshments at your launch, but everyone I surveyed had food and/or drinks at their book launch. Besides, people need something to do while they wait eagerly in line for you to sign their newly purchased books.

Focussing on the writers who organised their own launches, there were two ways of doing the food – either DIY or supplied by the venue.

If you’ve hired a venue that does in-house catering, you’ll be paying a bit more and be restricted to what’s on their menu – but you can assume they will have a range of crowd-pleasing platters, canapes and finger foods; things they know will work. And you won’t have to lift a finger.

Emma Young, whose first novel The Last Bookshop was shortlisted for the inaugural Fogarty Literary Award has done it both ways – having her book launch catered but then doing a DIY for a recent birthday: “Having recently hosted a self-catered 40th birthday party I would not recommend the level of stress that entails. You want to be celebrating with your loved ones and not worrying about the catering, even if you end up just ordering a thousand sandwich platters from Subway. Nothing wrong with that.” 

Grazing tables are hugely popular – and almost anything goes. At Susan Midalia’s recent launch of Miniatures published by Night Parrot Press, the grazing table was a delightful concoction of deli meats, bread and crackers, cheeses and dips, dried fruits and nuts, squares of pizza, fresh fruit and (my favourite) bowls of lollies and chocolates.

If you’re DIY-ing the catering, then chances are you will be calling in favours from friends and family to help. This is what David Allan-Petale did, with a huge spread including sandwich platters, nibbles and cheese, sausage rolls and quiche, all beautifully interspersed with native flowers and fairy lights (he really did hold a launch that people will talk about for years!).

Maria Papas at her launch of Hungerford Award-winning Skimming Stones at a pub in Fremantle supplemented the platters provided by the venue with homecooked dishes made by her family: “I come from a family that always thinks there is never enough food… so my mum made a few extra bits and pieces.”

Regardless of who is doing the catering and organising, it’s important not to take too much on. You have an army of supporters, so call on them. “Let people help so that you’re not stressed and can actually enjoy the evening,” advises Emily Paull, author of Well Behaved Women.

Food should be manageable with fingers, either served on a paper plate or serviette. Anything requiring cutlery is probably a bad idea – the exception being cake.

Emma Young’s book made into a delicious cake

Almost every launch I have been to over the past two years has had either a large slab cake or cupcakes decorated with the book cover in edible icing or wafers. It’s easier and more affordable than you’d think and provides the ultimate in Instagrammable pictures so your book can live on forever.

How much food do you need? The accepted rule for cocktail parties is between 5 to 8 pieces per person per hour. But this isn’t a cocktail party, and you’re probably paying for it out of your own pocket so you can probably drop the ‘per hour’ from that equation. If your launch is running over a meal time, then expect that your guests will be hungrier than if it’s an afternoon event or starts after dinner. If you’re serving alcoholic drinks, then you will need more food on offer than if it’s just tea and coffee.

Should you serve alcohol? Everyone I surveyed did – either with a cash bar at the venue (guests bought and paid for their own drinks) or by supplying beer, wine or sparkling. As I said before, this isn’t a cocktail party so it’s perfectly acceptable to limit what’s on offer.

Selling Books

It goes without saying that you will be selling books at your launch. If you’ve self-published you will have to organise your own stock, cash floats or an EFTPOS machine. Otherwise, a bookseller will usually be engaged to sell on your behalf. In Perth, we have a number of fabulous indie and franchised bookstores that support local authors, and everyone surveyed was very happy with their booksellers including New Edition, Dymocks and Beaufort Street Books.

Authors sold anywhere between 20 and 150 books on the night of their launch, and most said they easily spent an hour signing books.

Maria Papas said the only thing she would have changed about her launch was “the signing table. I would have loved to walk around and chat with all the people who were there, but I was off in my corner just signing. If I had to sign again. I would place myself more centrally.” She also adds: “Have a piece of paper handy to spell people’s names before you write them into the books. It’s easy to be so nervous you end up forgetting. Also, practice signing your name in something other than your formal signature.”

Speeches

You will be expected to give a small speech on the night, but the consensus is that 5-10 minutes is sufficient. Everyone also advises that someone else officially launch the book and introduce the writer. Writers tend to be too modest, so find someone who really wants to celebrate you and your book.

“I think it’s good to have someone introduce you and say all the lovely things about your book and your journey that you’re not going to say about yourself. Ask someone who really knows you and your book to speak; a friend might be better than a publisher or an author who may not know as much about you,” suggests Rebecca Higgie.

Whether you ask a family member, a friend or a fellow writer to help launch your book, the rules tend to be the same. Keep it short and sweet. The writer’s speech often has two parts: the origin story and the thank you’s. You might do some readings from your book – especially if it’s flash or short stories – but keep them under 10 minutes and if possible, always be witty and memorable.

As Brooke Dunnell, winner of the Fogarty Literary Award for The Glass House, and planning her own launch for later this year says: “My speech will probably be a hilarious and heartwarming anecdote followed by a long list of thank you’s. Followed by enormous applause for many minutes…”

David Allan-Petale says the speech is actually a story itself: “I think for speeches, tell the story of the book – what it means to you, and why it’s important. Then thank everyone who was involved – but not in a laundry list style. Tell us why it’s good, and what they did. In a way, a writer’s speech is a story too. And have the attitude that this may be the only chance you have (though I’m sure there will be more!) so make it as loud and proud and rage, rage against the dying of the light as much as possible. Oh, and keep it under 5 minutes. Any longer and people’s glasses go dry!”

Locust Summer cupcakes at Dave Allan-Petale’s launch

Laurie Steed, author of You Belong Here reminds us that the speech is a special time to take stock of what is important: “Be proud, now. Look out at the audience before you start your speech, taking in that warmth from the crowd. The book is the gift. Everything else is just a beautiful bonus.”

Ticketing and Marketing

Without exception, all the authors used one of the online ticketing platforms (such as Eventbrite) to ‘sell’ tickets. All of the debut book launches were free, though libraries/bookstores sometimes charge a small fee to attend.

Most authors recommended sending personal invites (either by email, via social media or actual paper invitations) to close friends and family first and then promoting the event publicly on social media or via local writing organisations.

People started promoting their launches anywhere from three weeks to three months out. Attendance numbers varied from 30 to 150 but as Sara Foster says “engagement is more important than numbers.”

If you’re promoting your book on social media, don’t forget the 80/20 rule: 80% of your posts should inform, educate and entertain (ie. be about other people and things) and only 20% should be about you. Don’t be that guy who spams everyone’s feed with self-promotion. If everyone’s blocked you, how are they going to hear about your launch?

Last words

“Don’t worry about too many bells and whistles especially if you’re really busy; just go for a lovely simple celebration of you and your work.” Sara Foster.

“Don’t skimp on celebrating this; it’s an investment and you have worked bloody hard for it.” Emma Young.

“Think of ways to make it a unique event; it doesn’t matter what, you just want people to feel invested, appreciated and involved as part of the launch experience.” Laurie Steed.

“See it as a party where you and the people you love can celebrate this remarkable achievement. Have fun! The best launches are the ones that are chill, with lots of mingling, and a party vibe.” Rebecca Higgie.

With thanks to Emma Young, Karen Herbert-Whittle, Sara Foster, Laurie Steed, Maria Papas, Brooke Dunnell, Emily Paull, Sasha Wasley, David Allan-Petale and Rebecca Higgie.

Published by Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a Perth-based writer and storyteller

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