by Ali Shaw, Executive Editor
Sometimes, despite all the best planning, something goes sideways at a book event. And sometimes, that something is missing books.
But that doesn’t have to mean an unsuccessful event! In truth, this hiccup probably happens more in the book world than new authors realize, and there are management strategies to ensure the event is still a crowd-pleasing success.
How do I know this? Well, I’ve got a bit of a background in behind-the-scenes work for book events.
I started volunteering for author and bookseller trade shows back when I was still in grad school for publishing. It was an amazing way to meet booksellers, authors, sales reps—in short, lots and lots of book people. Plus, I got to see a look behind the scenes of events, since some of my duties involved assisting authors for their book signings, sorting a hundred-plus titles by order of events, and—as is always the case in event coordination—putting out proverbial fires.
The first time I had to tell an author her books weren’t there, she teared up, and I wanted to cry with her. She felt like it was a blow to her career, and I could see why. All these booksellers were there to meet her and take her book home, except she didn’t have any books.
“Why?” she asked. “How could this happen?”
I stood back and watched a more seasoned trade show staffer talk with her. “These things happen sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the publisher doesn’t get the shipment out in time, or maybe shipped them to the wrong address, and sometimes there’s a problem with the printer.” Knowing the reason why couldn’t make this author’s books appear, though.
In the past decade and a half, I’ve seen this scene replay usually once per trade show and occasionally at an author’s individual event too. And I’ve also seen many authors come out of it with just as many sales as if their book had been there—possibly even more. Here are their tips for success:
1. Make Use of a Mailing List: Your event attendees want your book, and you want to give it to them. In this world of online shopping, just about everyone is prepared to have an item mailed to them. Grab a nice-looking notebook, or print out a paper with your book’s title and perhaps logo at the top, and gather mailing addresses. If you’re at a bookseller trade show where you’d be giving the book away for free, that’s all you have to do (except, of course, give the list to your publisher to send out the books, or to yourself if you’re the publisher). If you’re at your own personal event and are selling books, take sales just as you normally would, and be sure to get those books in the mail as soon as you have them in your hands.
2. Have a Different Kind of Take-Home Available: People love to have take-home items from events, even if it’s not the actual book.
- An ever-popular one is a bookplate. If you’ve got a stack of these on hand, then you can still have your autographing line at your event, sign the bookplates and even personalize them as you would the book, and people can place the bookplate in the book when they receive it.
- Postcards with your book’s cover and specs are really easy to have made in bulk, and they’re great to always have on hand in case anyone asks about your book. I recommend having these at your events even when you do have your books there.
- If you really want people to get to reading your book right away, that’s easy too! When they sign up for you to mail your book to them, give them a code for a free download of the ebook. You could have the code printed onto postcards that you give out, or you could take people’s email addresses and email them the code.
3. Take It In Stride: As with all event hosting, attendees will take their cue from the host about how they should feel about a change of plans. If you explain calmly, “I received word that there was an issue with the printer, so there’s a small change in plans about how you’ll be receiving your book, but we’re still going to have a great time tonight!” attendees will raise their glass to you.
Having backup plans is great and all, but of course the best possible outcome is to never have to deal with this at all. So here are some preventive tips too:
- Review your proof and order your books well before your first event. We recommend at least a month.
- Triple-check the shipping address—especially for trade shows. Note that often the shipping address is different from the address of the trade show venue. This is key for events that feature dozens of authors, where the staff has to shuttle thousands of books.
- Always travel with at least one display copy—and those bookplates and postcards I mentioned above too! They don’t take up much space, and they’re worth much more than their weight in your carry-on.
- Know your local printers. If it’s a couple days before the event when you find out that your books won’t be ready as planned, contact your local printers. If you can give them your print-ready file, they may be able to do a quick short print run for you. Keep in mind that book-binding glue usually takes at least a day to dry, though, so this is not a day-of fix.
- Check your local bookstores. If your book is already available in bookstores, give nearby shops a call. They might have some copies you can buy back for your event!
Ali Shaw grew up in a print shop, and her first job was saddle-stitching chapbooks and booklets for her parents’ clients. When she told her family she was going to work in publishing, most members nodded and said, “Of course.” Ali loves the solitary work of editing, and she also enjoys the very social work of on-site event coordination. Mostly, she loves everything to do with books and the people who make them.