Shakespeare’s Book Release Party — A Small Publisher’s Guide to Creating a Million Dollar Book Event on a Poor Man’s Budget.

For the historical purists, William Shakespeare never had a Book Release party. As a writer, he was a primarily playwright at a time where there was no publishing industry as we know it today. Nevertheless, I used his name for the title because it’s catchy.

The following tips come from a combination of my experiences with successful book release parties, miserable failures, horror stories I’ve heard from other publishers and authors, and general Event Planning 101 I’ve learned from an “Event Planning for Dummies” book as well as talking with real event planners.


THE TOP THREE LESSONS I’VE LEARNED:

  1. Don’t just do a book signing or a release party. Do an event, or at least some semblance of an event.
  2. Don’t Skimp or get Chintzy with an event. Don’t go overboard with it either. Figure out your entire budget for the location, the catering, added atmosphere (e.g. – possible entertainment, a professional photographer) and the other incidentals (e.g. – cash boxes, guest book, pens, promo souvenirs, etc). For a first-time author, I would recommend against spending over 15% of the book’s production budget OR $1500 dollars USD, whichever is higher. The reason is simple: that money could be better spent on long-term marketing and promotion. At the risk of disregarding how special the book release party is, one has to keep in mind that ultimately it is meant to serve as the kickoff for your book’s entire marketing and promotional campaign.
  3. Ultimately, you want everyone that attends the event to feel important (read exclusive) for being there as well as enjoy themselves.

And now for some more tips, almost typed in at random as they come to me.


THE VENUE:

  • There are many types of venues to choose for your release event — and rarely should they be your typical bookstore. I found that reserving a small sports-oriented restaurant with a bar (250-300 person occupancy) worked well. The farther out you reserve it in advance, the better the chances you get the date you want. Also, work it in so that the establishment is also catering the event (I know that seems obvious but I’ve already heard of a couple of situations where the writer tried to reserve a restaurant and bring in someone ELSE to cater). Expect to spend no less than $500 dollars on this aspect alone. In my opinion, it’s well worth it. Aside from putting your best foot forward and taking into account that there’s no telling what members of the local press or potential book buyers will be present, there is a tiny overlooked item that often plays a major factor — the cell phone. When people are at a good party with good food and good drink and they’re stimulated and it seems to be an open affair, they are prone to call their friends and invite them out. You want everyone that comes to this event to feel important as well as enjoy themselves, which will not only result in more book sales right there but the impression will carry on indefinitely.
  • The reason I recommend a sports-oriented restaurant-bar is because they generally have plenty of televisions throughout the place. Maybe reserve one television at the bar to actually show sports (or whatever) but use all the other televisions to show any kind of video that will help enhance the ambiance that goes along with the theme of the author’s book. A multimedia slideshow works perfect for this, something that showcases photos of the author, scenes and subjects in the book, and maybe product shots of the book itself. Again, it all depends on the author’s book, prospective readers, etc. Be creative with it — as long as it FITS.
  • There are several reasons I recommend against bookstores for your release event. The average independent bookstore isn’t attached to any kind of restaurant or cafe. This means that your food options will be limited, regardless of your catering budget — bookstore managers don’t want food or drink stains on their floors or their merchandise. Bookstores don’t have wait staff that are trained to constantly clean as they go along, meaning more work for the staff and your volunteers. The typical bookstores also aren’t equipped with any kind of decent audio/video systems. Most first-time authors that decide to release their books by doing a simple book signing in a bookstore quickly come to learn that it will be the longest, most desolate-feeling couple of hours of their lives. I’ve seen it happen and it was about as enjoyable as being stranded on the side of the highway in a broken down car.


PEOPLE (THE ONES ASSISTING THE AUTHOR):

  • You’ll want to have at least 2-3 people on hand to help you. Preferably one person should have experience counting out money fast (e.g. – someone who has worked in a restaurant, accounting, etc). The other person should be ready to act as a runner to take money from the cash box when it gets full and move it in the back. If invitation-only policy is strictly enforced, the third person should be at the door (or with whoever is working the door).
  • If available, secure 2-3 people to “take pictures and video”. If one of them is a seasoned (or professional) photographer, that’s great — you’ll primarily depend on this person to take all your best shots. The other person should be roaming around taking candid photos throughout the event. If a camcorder is available, a third person should be using it, both for candid shots and also to record the author’s speech when it is time to do an actual reading or just talk about the book and thank everyone for coming out. My preferences would be that both cameras and the camcorder *all* be digital. No offense to film lovers but in this case it will cost much more to capture alot less, not including the cost of getting the rolls developed. Based on the average storage card capacity of most cameras these days, going strictly digital with 2 cameras and 1 camcorder will give you anywhere between 500 and 1000+ photos and anywhere between 2 and 9+ hours of video footage. You want to document this event as much as possible and between the digital photos and footage, a promotional video can be edited together using any modern PC or Mac with rudimentary video editing software (the stuff used to put together home movies).


SHOWCASING OTHER TALENT:

  • If there is a fit (and the key word is IF), consider inviting another artist, photographer or musician to be present at the event. If it’s a visual artist/photographer/whatever, have that person bring in some of their work and set it up gallery-style. Aside from adding flavor to the event, the co-promotion has many possibilities, including splitting the cost of any promo printing. If this other person is selling copies of their own work, let them handle their own money and keep the cash completely separate.


HANDLING THE BOOKS AND THE MONEY:

  • Have a couple of people present to help with selling the books (refer to “PEOPLE” section above).
  • With the exception of the books set out on the table for immediate sale, all other copies should still be in boxes and several of the boxes should be stowed under the table(s) where the author and the person handling the cash drawer are sitting. Cover the table(s) with tablecloths. Someone should be at this table at all times while books are being sold.
  • Get two (2) locking cash boxes, the simple Officemax variety should do well. Also, get a stack of some latenight deposit bags from your bank (if you’ve got a business account with them they’ll gladly give you a bunch of them to get started).
  • Get the restaurant manager to start you off with some change. $100 in change is a nice round amount to start off with because it can easily be subtracted when it’s time to cash out.
  • Have a big-button calculator on-hand along with pencils, pens and a notepad, mainly needed for the money counts. You also might consider buying one of those money detection markers to keep in the box. Officemax sells one for about $14 dollars. Granted, it may seem like overkill but if you anticipate the possibility of people paying with $50 or $100 dollar bills (which happens often if the book retails for over $20 dollars and they’re buying multiple copies), the cost of the marker spent would be a cheap in comparison to the hassle of getting beat by a fake bill AND the losing the books.
  • Write up a cheat sheet that shows the cost of up to 10 or 15 copies of the book and stick it on the underside of the cashbox lid so the person handling the money can see it when accepting money. This way, although the calculator will be available, whoever is handling the drawer can easily calculate exact change at a glance, thus keeping the line moving.
  • Every time your cash box begins to overflow and there’s the need to clear out some money, take one of the night deposit bags, count off all but $100 in change (and do so several times to be sure its accurate) and put the money in the deposit bag. Have whoever did the count to write the amount and their initials on a slip of paper (written in ink), put it inside the deposit bag (where it is visible through the plastic) then seal the deposit bag and let one of your helpers take it into the back and put it in the other cash box, preferably somewhere in the manager’s office.
  • If your event is going to run late into the night and book sales have cleared at least a few thousand dollars, ask the restaurant’s manager about making arrangements to store your cash boxes in the safe overnight so you can pick them up the next day. Sometimes better safe than sorry, especially if the author and everyone involved with selling the books has started drinking to celebrate.


STUFF RELATED TO THE AUTHOR:

  • What seems to work best is to position the author’s table(s) within eyesight of the entrance, somewhere in the middle between the front door and the other seating area closest to the bar. Consider positioning the catered food somewhere either across from the author or further into the establishment yet still visible from the front door. Do NOT position the food any closer to the front door than the author is. Since every place is different, it’s strictly a judgment call. From where the author is sitting, the person handling the cash drawer should be on his/her side closest to the entrance. The idea is for people to come in and see activity, get in line (if there is one) leading toward the author’s table, buy one or more copies of the book, then sit down at the end of the table with the author as s/he signs the copies and chats for a few minutes, get up, go fix themselves a plate, then sit down and eat. Sooner or later, people will also buy a few drinks from the bar. After a few plates and a few drinks, people begin to mingle which, believe it or not, will also help book sales during the course of the event.
  • Have author and publisher business cards available on the part of the table where people are paying for their copies. Consider also having promo giveaways or bookmarks that match the books, too.
  • Have a guest book available for people to sign.
  • If this event is going to last at least 4-5 hours, have the author bring a complete change of clothes along with a small bag of basic toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc). Not only does this cover the author in case something gets spilled on him/her, s/he can also go and freshen up as needed. Always better to be prepared than for John-Doe-Author having to explain a hundred times how got a Merlot or meatball stain on his shirt or the garlic-and-Chardonnay on Jane-Doe-Author’s breath is kickin’ like Bruce Lee’s Chinese Connection.


MUSIC:

  • This really depends on the type of crowd expected to show. Sometimes it’s best to hire a general-purpose deejay or a deejay specializing in music that fits the environment in the book (e.g. – if the novel is set Harlem in the early 70s, a deejay that specialized in old pre-Disco Soul & R&B music would be great). Other times it might be best to go with a live group, like a jazz trio playing lightly in the background. And still, other times you might be able to get away with having someone put together a mix-CD of several hours of music.
  • If I had to handle the music and wanted to save money, I would install Winamp (http://www.winamp.com) on a laptop and load up about 10 hours of music that fits the crowd (average music CD holds about 1 hour of music). I’d then have it play songs at random using the cross fade feature so the next song starts to slowly fade in as the current song fades out. I’d make arrangements with the venue manager to go in a few days prior to the event to plug it into their sound system and test it out.

There are probably a ton of tips that I’ve completely overlooked with this list but hopefully this will help give you perspective on the kinds of things to think about.

Hope those help… good luck with the event.

— Max Nomad