Ouch. Firstly, I’m sorry. That sucks for everyone involved. There’s no worse feeling— as a bookseller or an author— than sitting with a bunch of empty chairs, watching the minutes tick away as no one walks into the store. Or worse, they walk in, but with complete disinterest in the event.
Authors and booksellers both have terrible and hilarious stories about events no one came to. The day they hit the New York Times Bestseller List. Or, the author who realized no one was coming, got rip-roaring drunk and snuck out the back. It’s because AUTHOR EVENTS ARE REALLY HARD TO GET PEOPLE TO. People complain that national tours are basically only for the ultra famous, but having also worked in publishing I can see why. A big name is not a guarantee for a big crowd, but it’s a BETTER bet. And yes, it would be nice if there were enough money to send everyone for the exposure but tours are SUPER expensive, and the results, for most of us, is mixed.
I was a bookseller who handled events for years, and now I’m an author. In both roles I’ve had plenty of events with no one at them. So with that history in mind, here’s a little guide for both booksellers and authors to follow in the worst case scenario that NO ONE CAME.
This is ALL predicated on the assumption that BOTH parties did everything they could to promote. That means the author and the booksellers should already have been in contact on social media. That means this event should be listed in the bookstores emails to customers, with signs in the windows leading into the event, and— if the budget allows for it— handouts to promote the event. If you do not have the bandwidth to do any promotion for a particular event, do not host it.
The author should be beating the drum on social media on the days leading into the event. Tag the bookstore. Likewise, bookstores, tag the author. RT each other, share. Bookstores should not expect authors to do ALL the promotion, and authors certainly shouldn’t expect that of bookstores, either.
The fact is, authors have the best line to their own fans, but bookstores can often find connections that authors may not have known about. The local cartography club, or a teacher who’s a fan and can get his students there. Who knows.
There’s still a good chance no one is coming.
2.) Be nice.
This seems like a no brainer, but it’s not, so let’s get into it. Everyone’s disappointed. So don’t ignore the author. Make sure there’s a bookseller on hand who knows their work, and can make that author feel at home. As the author, take it as an opportunity to make pals with a bookseller. They’ll have recommendations coming out their ears for you, and be more than willing to share. Chat. We’re all in this together.
Booksellers: Have the author sign ALL THE STOCK. Even if you end up returning some of it. There’s no worse feeling as an author when ALREADY no one has come to the event, and then the bookseller pulls 3 copies of the 20 ordered and is like, just sign these. We know what that means. Indulge us at least in this small courtesy.
Authors: Sign the damn stock. Be nice about it. Get to know the store. Buy something small— a card, even— budget allowing.
3.) Be prepared.
Booksellers: Don’t put out 50 chairs if no one has expressed any interest in the store about the event. Maybe start with 10. Put them in a circle. It doesn’t look as bad that 4 out of 10 chairs are filled as it does when 4 out of 50 are. Little touches like that can make the author feel way less HORRIBLE about the fact that no one expressed interest in the project they literally bled into for years. Because that’s what books are. Our BLOOD. So it’s DEVASTATING when no one cares. If no one on your staff cares about the book, then don’t accept that event (barring local author book launches, which are a totally different beast.) So be flexible, figure it out. One time, only two teens showed up to an event, so we walked them around the block to get cupcakes with the author. Did we plan that? Not really. Was it great? Yes.
Authors: Sure, you have a presentation that’s great for 40 people. But if only 1 person shows up, maybe have a back up plan. I mean, if that ONE person is dying to see your power point by all means get at it. But maybe a conversation would be better. With story time aged kids, I opt to read my story, but also two that THEY choose. Let’s just try to have fun now. If you do, everyone else is more likely to as well. Authors set the tone here, so may as well make it a good one.
4.) Be realistic.
This is for authors. Know this: 10 people at a bookstore event is actually pretty ok. That’s ten people who COULD be at home watching Netflix, or at soccer practice, or whatever. Sure, it’s not GOOD and it’s definitely not GREAT, but don’t sneeze at any number of people who show up. Those are just your new friends, and new biggest fans because they got to have some real quality time with you, the author they wanted to meet. More public events have between 5-15 people than 50+ that’s just how it is.
Events are not free for bookstores to put on. They staff an extra person most of the time, print materials to support the event, and also spent time booking, planning and promoting. So if no one comes, they’re taking a hit, too.
5.) Be selective.
This is for booksellers. We’ve all had things slip through the cracks. Maybe the person who booked the event left the company. Maybe things just got out of hand. But when you’re filling out your tour grids and considering who you’d like to host, remember that NO is a very kind answer. Don’t think you could possible get people to come? Say no. Don’t think anyone on your staff cares about the book? Say no. Suspect your community is only sorta interested in a topic? SAY NO. You are doing no one any kindnesses by booking things you’re likely to forget about. Even if you’re hyper selective, bad events will happen. So why not try and limit it?
6.) For Kids Books Only
School events are a metric ass ton of work to put on, but also far and away ALWAYS a great option for bookstores and authors to pair up. There’s guaranteed headcount— even if there aren’t guaranteed sales— and the school library will (should, tbh) buy a copy of the book so kids can keep reading it after you leave. So if you’re busting your balls organizing your own tour, which most of us do nowadays, put your effort into getting into schools. You get a guaranteed shot to talk to exactly the kids you wrote your books for. And some school visits will be better organized and better behaved than others. But it’s worth it.