Sunday, 10 April 2011

Beyond the Bookstore: widening your audience

by Dan Holloway

So maybe by now you’ve not only been in to your local bookstore to ask them if they’ll stock your book, but also enquired about a reading, arranged it, rounded up way more suspects than is usual for such things, delivered segments of your masterpiece, and are either:

Absolutely buzzing and desperate to do the whole thing all over again.  Or
Shell-shocked, traumatised, and reaching for your phone to call a lawyer to pursue the idiot who suggested the whole idea in the first place.

Well, as the idiot in question, I will simply point out that, in a technical and legal sense, it’s not my fault. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!

Let’s assume that anyone still with me wants to know “Where now?” Well, where you go next will, of course, depend a lot on your book. You may not want to take your account of reed-gathering in 16th century Norfolk to a poetry slam; and you might want to avoid performing your urban masterpiece 69 Swearwords for Skateboarders to your local history society. On the other hand…well, you get my drift. So almost certainly not all of these will be relevant to you (unless your Booker-in-waiting is along the lines of Vampire Erotica for Reed-gathering Skateboarders), but I hope some, or even many, will.

Let’s start with those reed-gathering skateboarders…

Clubs and societies

If your book has a particular slant or subject, and you’ve written it with that slant because it fascinates you, then the chances are you will already be involved in some local societies that reflect that interest, or at least know about them. Clubs and societies regularly hold talks, show and tells, and presentations, and are particularly good places for you to approach because there is no question of cold-calling or hard-selling. You have written a book on a subject that interests their members. You want them and they want you!

You may have to be flexible in what you are prepared to do – but that’s the key to all marketing. You may be asked to give a talk as well as a reading, or to discuss a particular aspect of your book. This is actually a fantastic opportunity. One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is doing vast amounts of research that readability and good editing demand you leave on the cutting room floor – this is your chance to show off what you’ve learned.

There are all sorts of places you can go to find out about local groups who would be interested in you giving a talk/reading. I’m sure Kat will back me up in saying the very best is the local library. The Council website, local newspaper, and museum as well. And don’t forget, unless your book really does have a specifically local angle, there’s no reason to stick to groups in your area. If your talk goes well, ask to be put in touch with similar groups elsewhere.

Open Mic

At the other end of the spectrum, increasingly popular these days are open mic nights. These are evenings when anyone and everyone can pitch up and perform. Once the preserve of teenage guitar bands, increasingly general open mic nights are welcoming the spoken word, and more and more events are popping up devoted to the spoken word. A quick trawl through Oxford’s listings site, Daily Information, regularly reveals 3 or 4 such nights in any one week, and some, like Catweazle Club and Hammer and Tongue, are so successful they’ve spread beyond their original venue. Giving a good performance at a leading night like Hammer and Tongue is not only a great feather in your cap, but can open lots of doors.

The format of most open mic nights is that you turn up a little bit before they start, put your name down on a list, and get assigned a slot to do your thing. As most of them tend to be regular events, it’s a very good idea to go along to the previous staging to get a feel for things, see how it runs, say hello to everyone (really important – the more contacts you get the better, of course, but most of all it’s common courtesy not just to pitch up and then never be heard of again), and possibly most of all get a feel for whether your material is appropriate. You’ll also need to check what the deal is with selling your book. Each night will have its own policies and arrangements.

It’s always important to make your performance sing (not literally – well, not necessarily literally), but some nights, especially those advertised as slams, are competitive, and when that’s the case, your performance will be as important as your material.

The best place to find out about local open mic nights is a listings site if you have one. If not then Google will help. Another great site is Poetry Kapow (not just poetry), who list events across the whole of the south east of England.

Literary nights

Literary nights can fill any part of the spectrum between a local history society and a poetry slam. Slightly more formal than an open mic session in that they tend to have an official line-up, you will need to approach organisers in advance. Because of the broad spectrum, you can find out about literary nights in your area anywhere from bookstores to Time Out.  And for the same reason, it is essential to go along in advance to see what the atmosphere and material is like.


One stage on from clubs and societies is the world of conferences. These can take many forms. Often they will be large get-togethers for all the local interest groups in the country (if you go to speak to such a group, ask them if there is an AGM or conference), and if you’ve already spoken to one of the local groups, that’s a great way to introduce yourself to the organisers.

Often overlooked are academic conferences. These aren’t – well, not always; well, sometimes they aren’t – the stuffy black tie and tweed affairs of esotericism you might imagine (don’t worry, some are, so if that’s your market despair not!). They often, especially as the government’s research agenda for higher education increasingly demands engagement with society as a whole and not just within the academic community, welcome presenters whose interest is in the same field as the conference theme, but who approach it from a creative angle (the awful buzzword is “practice-based”). So, for example, I was in clover a couple of years ago, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a lot was going on to mark the event. The novel I had just written, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, centred on a teenage girl born just as the Wall came down, and her struggle to find her identity in the rapidly changing world taking shape in its former lee. I Google-d conferences on the topic and ended up making some fantastic friends (and connections – it was as a result of going along that I ended up having a piece published in the really fantastic XCP street notes) when I went to talk at the conference “Ghosts of the Past” at the University of East London.

Conferences are super places for authors, and I would – your subject area pending of course – recommend them above any other place to go and read. There are two reasons for that. First, especially with academic conferences, you are reaching out to an audience that is both interested in what you do, and new to you. And, which is incredibly useful, drawn from far and wide. Second, there will often be space in the registration area for you to make a display with copies of your book. And during breaks you can sit there, grabbing, er, politely talking to passers-by, and selling and signing.

There are plenty of other places you can approach. If you write for children, then schools are an obvious choice, and libraries are always worth speaking to. Less likely venues include art galleries, independent music stores, and cafes. If you live near a university, you could see if they hold a ball – these regularly have spoken acts, and will often even pay basic expenses.

What I have found most helpful of all in Oxford has been getting to know other people in the arts – the opportunities to do performances with others from across the arts are rife. We have several wonderful groups in Oxford, from networking groups of people within the local arts community to galleries and arts collectives who regularly host shows and are always looking for people in other fields to make their shows stand out.

Bullet points

Find out if your reading is being recorded and uploaded to YouTube. If so, make sure you get the link sent to you so you can embed the film on your blog, e-mail, or just send a link next time you are asking to do a reading. If not, see if you can find someone who’d be prepared to record for you, and start your own YouTube channel.

Do as much reconnaissance as possible in advance. It’s polite, but it will also help you to network, and to make sure you read your work in the most appropriate setting.

As in so many things, the local library is your best friend – a mine of information as well as a possible venue!

Find out if there is an arts group near you that you can join, and get to know other people in the area who might be interested in working with you.

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