Author Events — Behind the Scenes

ArmchairBEA LogoExampleHello Armchair BEA Participants!

I’ve been coordinating author events for a small independent bookstore for many years. I can honestly say every author we’ve worked with has been delightful and interesting. Authors are the nicest people! Since becoming a blogger less than a year ago, I’ve discovered that most of them like to interact online. I think when they are procrastinating or have writer’s block, Twitter and Facebook call to them.

I’d like to point out something about the etiquette of author events. Most of our events are free. The publisher sends the author on a publicity tour, at no cost to the author or the bookstores involved, with the expectation that books will be sold. Bookstores that exhibit a poor track record of sales at their events won’t be offered many more authors. So if you want to continue meeting authors at events in your community, you need to show your support by buying books at the events. Nothing irritates an independent bookstore more than attendees who show up with books they’ve previously purchased on Amazon to be signed by the author. Does Amazon bring authors to your community?

Thanks for listening . . . and here’s a post from October, 2013, about one of my favorite recent author events. In this case, Carol Rifka Brunt arranged her own travel. She came all the way from England for several appearances in the United States. We were thrilled and honored to host her!

Lunch with Carol Rifka Brunt

This week I was fortunate enough to meet Carol Rifka Brunt, author of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It’s always an amazing experience to meet the actual person whose writing you’ve admired. I’ve met many authors over the years, and I’ve almost never been disappointed. At first, I was surprised to learn that it isn’t enough for an author to write a successful book. Once the book is finished, author has another job: to market the book. If the author is lucky, his or her publisher will provide a lot of marketing support, including a publicity tour. But often the burden is on the author to arrange and publicize events.

ImageCarol Rifka Brunt is a case in point. Carol’s first novel landed on the New York Times bestseller list and has received rave reviews from all sorts of publications, including the Wall Street Journal and O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. Nonetheless, Carol was on her own when it came to organizing events promoting the book’s paperback release. Her friend Rebecca Makkai (Lake Forest resident and award-winning author of The Borrower and many short stories) suggested she contact Lake Forest Book Store. We were excited to hear from Carol, since we had read Tell the Wolves I’m Home and were enthusiastically recommending it. She told us she planned to speak at Western Michigan University on October 14 and wondered if she could visit Lake Forest afterwards. Of course, we immediately scheduled a luncheon and started spreading the word. Here’s what Carol posted on her blog:

Unlike a lot of authors, I haven’t done any readings or live events to support or promote Tell the Wolves I’m Home in the US. One reason for this is that I live in the UK, which makes it kind of logistically difficult. Another is that I’ve been lucky enough to have readers pick up the book and spread the word without me having to set foot to pavement, which is fantastic. In fact, Tell the Wolves just hit the New York Times bestseller list–a minor miracle for a geeky little book like this–and I haven’t been in the US once since it first came out in June 2012.

But although events haven’t really been a necessity, I have to say that I think I’ve missed out on one of the really enjoyable parts of being an author by not getting out there–meeting readers.

Readers in the Chicago area were thrilled to meet Carol — 50 of us gathered at Authentico in Lake Forest for a luncheon to hear Carol speak about her wonderful book. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the story of a 14-year-old girl, June Elbus, whose beloved uncle has just died of AIDS. June adored — almost worshiped — her Uncle Finn, whose last work was a portrait of June and her older sister. The portrait becomes a virtual character in the novel, as June and her family come to terms with their loss and with an unlikely friendship that June develops. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a perfect book club selection — it’s immediately engaging, it has layers of complexity without being dense, and it’s thought provoking. There are no heroes or villains in this story — only people trying to do their best in a difficult situation.

Carol read a lovely passage from her book, talked about the art that inspired her, engaged the audience in a discussion, and answered questions. I think those of us who had already read the book wanted to read it again after hearing Carol speak — and I suspect those who hadn’t read it couldn’t wait to get home and start reading. Spending time with Carol added another dimension to the reading experience — so we thank her for doing so well at her second job: book promoter.

Carol’s website is full of interesting information and links to reviews: http://www.carolrifkabrunt.com.

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Fall Reading, Part 2 — Top 10 Lists

Last week I attended the Heartland Fall Forum,  a conference for independent booksellers. Book nerds from all over the Midwest gathered to “meet, network, promote new titles, place orders, and learn crucial skills”. (That’s from the official literature.) It was, as promised, very informative, and loads of fun as well.  Sue Boucher was asked to present her favorite books for fall at the Buzz Panel session; unfortunately,  I couldn’t attend because I was at the social media session,  creatively titled “Tweak Your Tweets”.  I learned a lot about Twitter at that session,  and have actually started tweeting. Right away, I attracted some followers — including someone whose name I can’t reproduce here because it’s in a foreign alphabet, and another person who seems to be running an escort service.

Another thing I learned at the social media session was that people like to read lists. This made sense to me because I like to read lists, but then I realized I like to read almost anything, including cereal boxes and church bulletins. Anyway, I thought Sue put together a great list of 10 new books to read this fall:

  • The Daughters of Mars (Thomas Keneally) — Australian author Keneally won the Booker Prize for Schindler’s List; his new novel tells the story of two sisters, both nurses, who leave their home in Australia to join a hospital ship at the beginning of World War I.
  • Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune (Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.) —  Dedman (who won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism) is a cousin of Huguette Clark, the heiress who grew up in the largest house in New York City yet lived the last 20 years of her life in a single room.
  • A Guide for the Perplexed (Dara Horn)– Three interconnected narratives (from the Book of Genesis, medieval philosophy, and modern technology) explore the meaning of memory.
  • The Last First Day (Carrie Brown) — A quiet and beautiful love story about a couple facing their retirement from a private boys’ school.cover
  • Longbourn (Jo Baker) — For fans of Jane Austen and Downton Abbey — Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants.
  • The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri) — Two brothers grow up together in India; one becomes involved in radical politics and one travels to the United States to pursue an academic career . . . and they both end up marrying the same woman.
  • The Outcasts (Katherine Kent) — A great romp! A woman escapes from a Texas brothel and finds herself on the run from the law.
  • The Rosie Project (Graeme C. Simsion) — Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this is an absolutely delightful story about a brilliant yet socially challenged professor on the hunt for a wife.
  • The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert) — Yes, the same Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat Pray Love and Committed. But this novel is a total departure from Gilbert’s two memoirs — it’s about a 19th century female botanist.
  • Someone (Alice McDermott) — Like The Last First Day, this is a quiet book — the simple, beautifully written story of an ordinary woman, her life, and family.

My book club met last week and we came up with our own list of books. We hadn’t met all summer, and the purpose of our meeting was for us to share our favorite books we had read over the past few months. Here are 10 books our members suggested:

  • Sharp Objects  (Gillian Flynn) — Flynn’s debut novel is just as dark and disturbing as Gone Girl.
  • Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Anton DiSclafani) — A coming of age story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1930s.
  • The Burgess Boys  (Elizabeth Strout) — The author of Pulitzer-Prize winner Olive Kitteridge returns with the story of three siblings leading very different lives.
  • Rules of Civility (Amor Towles) — One of those rare books everyone loves. In Depression-era New York, a young secretary catapults into high society.1-dbda025b04
  • The Other Wes Moore (Wes Moore) — Nonfiction account of two men named Wes Moore — one a Rhodes Scholar, decorated war veteran, and White House Fellow and one a convicted murderer serving a life term in prison.
  • Flat Water Tuesday (Ron Irwin) — One reviewer called it “A Separate Peace with rowing”.
  • The Perfume Collector (Kathleen Tessaro) — A young woman in London receives a mysterious inheritance that takes her to an old Parisian perfume shop. Packed with information about how perfume is made.
  • Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter) — The New York Times loved this book just as much as Madonna Merritt, our book group recommender, calling it a “high-wire feat of bravura storytelling”.
  • Stations of the Heart: Parting With a Son (Richard Lischer) — Lischer, a professor of theology at Duke, has written a beautiful tribute to his son, who died at age 33 of melanoma.
  • Sutton (J.R. Moehringer) — Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar (a book group favorite), succeeds admirably at his first foray into fiction. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was a complicated and brilliant man, full of contradictions.
Thank you, Diane Grumhaus — who served as book club hostess and scribe!

Men, Women, & Reading

Today is my husband’s birthday (Happy Birthday, Jeff!) and that made me think about the differences between men’s and women’s reading tastes.  I was trying to decide which book to give him for his birthday. When I started working at Lake Forest Book Store, our owner, Sue Boucher, gave me a “tour” of the store. The space we occupied at the time was only 1000 square feet, so the tour didn’t take long, but I learned some interesting things along the way. Sue pointed out the “men’s” and “women’s” sections. The men’s, as you might guess, was filled with murder mysteries and spy thrillers, while the women’s shelves contained literary fiction.

I had never given much thought to which books might appeal primarily to men and which might be “women’s” books. I had always dismissed a few authors as men’s authors I didn’t want to read, (such as the recently departed Tom Clancy), but I had always liked all kinds of books and vaguely assumed everyone else was the same.  I knew that my sons didn’t want to read The Babysitters Club series and my daughter wasn’t interested in science fiction, but they had all enjoyed listening to us read Charlotte’s Web, The Witches, the Narnia books, and the Little House books.

Now I was learning to think like a bookseller, not just as an independent reader, and what I learned fascinated me. First of all, I discovered that the differences start early. If a book features a female as the main character, boys, for the most part, won’t read it. However, girls are happy to read about either boys or girls. Why do you think J.K. Rowling wrote about Harry Potter, not Helen Potter? Yes, Hermione is a smart and independent girl, but she’s still a sidekick. Do boys want to read about “the girl who lived”? This difference carries through to adulthood — it’s a rare male reader, in my experience,  who is interested in reading a novel featuring a female character.

Over the years, I found that another generalization held true — boys and men are more interested in novels featuring action, humor, and factual information than they are in books about love, family relationships, and young people coming of age.  And men are much more interested in nonfiction than women. If you tell a woman a work of nonfiction “reads like a novel”, that’s a great selling point —  but it’s not necessarily for a man. I wonder why elementary school teachers insist that boys read fiction, when so many of them would much prefer to read a sports biography or a factual book about war? Is the literary value of any novel greater than the literary value of nonfiction?

TheBoysintheBoatAnyway, I finally decided not to get my husband another book. I looked at his nightstand and realized I had already provided him with enough reading to take him through 2013 and well into 2014. (By the way, he’s not a fan of mysteries or spy thrillers — but he does love history.) He’s now reading The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown — which was my favorite book from the last few months.  Everyone knows about Jesse Owens’s famous victory at the 1936 Olympics, but how many know about the University of Washington crew team’s win?

This is a perfect book for both men and women — if you’re looking for a book to share with your spouse, this is the one.  On the surface, it’s an underdog sports story in the vein of Seabiscuit or The Greatest Game Ever Played,  but it’s much more than a sports book. The “boys in the boat” were the nine students at the University of Washington (eight rowers and one coxswain) who overcame obstacle after obstacle to defeat the Germans at the 1936 Olympics. The fact that they were attending college at all was a miracle — almost all of them were from dirt-poor families struggling to feed their families during the Depression. One of the boys was actually abandoned by his family and had to forage in the woods for food. This book hooked me from the first page, when Daniel James Brown describes his first meeting with his neighbor, Joe Rantz (one of the legendary nine):

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked his daughter Judy’s door that day. I knew that in his mid-seventies he had singlehandedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over — a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington — farm boys, fishermen, and loggers — who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

It’s a thrilling story, even though the outcome is known from page one. The personalities involved, the historical context, and the details about rowing and boatbuilding all combine to create a multi-dimensional narrative. It’s an inspirational story as well; Brown starts  each chapter of The Boys in the Boat  with a quotation by George Pocock, the British-born boatbuilder and unofficial coach and guru to the University of Washington crew. The final quotation in the book is posted in the boathouse at the University of Washington:

Harmony, balance, rhythm. There you have it. That’s what life is all about.

Link to a video of the famous race, complete with a German announcer: