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Book Event Observation: Brian Lutterman at Eat My Words

For my Readers’ Advisory Course, I was to attend a Book Event.

This was for dual purposes: one, to experience a literary event and hopefully learn something about its execution and planning, and two, for personal enjoyment. Only one of these was listed on my syllabus. Go ahead and guess which.

I went this past Saturday. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned on my blog recently that I just moved, but I just moved, and that makes regular responsibilities such as attending literary events for class more difficult to keep on my radar than usual. Ultimately, I ended up attending an event last-minute although I’d been trying to find something just right for a few weeks.

Finding an event to attend

A couple of years ago, I met the lovely sisters who run Hazel & Wren, a website for Twin Cities writers and other literary folk, at a(n amazing) fundraising event for local publisher Coffee House Press.  The site is simple but useful, particularly for writers looking for help workshopping assistance and deadlines for submissions. It also features a calendar of local literary events.

The event I chose to attend, “a reading, conversation, and book signing” with local author Brian Lutterman showed up on the calendar late (within the past week) as far as I could tell. I’d been checking the calendar regularly and did not remember seeing it the last time I had checked the site (Wednesday, July 9th).

Publicity!

Advertising is great. Free advertising is great! Advertising beyond your own organization’s website is valuable for increasing your regular audience. Advertise early and often.

Hazel & Wren do not search for events, but the event planners need to place their events on the calendar.  That takes some work, especially if posting in multiple places. What I took from this event was that advance press is potentially important to draw a crowd.  I was running late to the event myself and it was a rainy day this past Saturday, so I expected to come in the middle of author introductions or a first reading.

Entirely unexpectedly, I walked into the store with my friend Amanda to find the author and bookstore owner chatting with each other, no one else in sight.

Later I spoke with the store owner at Eat My Words, the local (and new – it opened in February) NE Minneapolis bookstore where Lutterman was present, and he mentioned going to the bookstore’s website for event information first and foremost, and that if possible, they advertised in Rain Taxi as well. He didn’t seem to know of Hazel & Wren’s website, but one of his employees is also in charge of setting up and publicizing events…I was getting second-hand information regarding publicity for author events.

It was indeed a rainy Saturday, which I’m sure helped keep potential attendees indoors, but I suspect that a further reach with planning ahead in both booking a speaker/author and in publicity may have brought in more bodies.

How the event went.

Brian Lutterman displays his book for a photo I requested

Brian Lutterman displays his book for a photo I requested

I have been to several literary events, readings, and book launches. This was the weirdest event I had ever been to, possibly because it was the smallest, the most poorly attended, and the most casual.

As I said, I had been expecting to walk in towards the beginning of an official introduction, but instead, I walked in and was given a seat at the front of the bookstore (cozy and impossible to miss) and shook hands with Brian Lutterman directly. He asked my friend Amanda and me if we ready mysteries, and if so, what kinds. It was a little like being on a blind date with an author. I found this unsettling, although Brian was lovely and the store was beautiful.

Physical Layout

I spoke with the store owner (whose name I did not catch, unfortunately) and discovered that most author events are held at the front of the store as they were this morning.  I considered what it would be like to do this in the space of a library and saw one major draw and one major drawback.

  • Pro: People are free to join in the event organically. If they are not aware of the event as advertised, they can see that it is going on and “tack on” to the event if they find it interesting as they pass.
  • Con: It might prevent people from entering the store or library if they feel “confronted” by the event. There is a sense of pressure to attend, particularly if the space used directly at the entrance or exit of the space, and particularly if the event is informal or small. Two groups of bookstore patrons came into the store as Amanda and I chatted with Brian Lutterman, and each time he greeted them nicely and encouraged them to join us, but they obviously just wanted to look for books and gave awkward excuses before schooching past.

What I take from this is that I might consider keeping an event in a library in an area public enough to be noticed but not so public as to intrude on patrons who just want to go on about their normal library business.

Program Layout

As the post I had read mentioned that there would be “a reading, conversation, and book signing,” I expected a bit of structure to the event, but this structure did not appear. Obviously this may be largely due to the fact that there were so few attendees, but as the event began at my arrival, I still anticipated a reading, but one never came and I was too nervous to ask for one. I did manage to ask about the author’s body of work and new book, so I gained some information, but only after my own inquiry. Amanda and Brian had been discussing other mystery and thriller writers until that point.

There were plenty of books to purchase

as well as bookmarks about Lutterman’s most recent novel, Downfall. No complaints on availability of information and materials.

What I found most trying about the experience is obviously that given extreme circumstances, one can not always expect an event to go as planned. However, as an attendee, it became clear to me that an audience member may have a specific expectation regarding your event, particularly as it is publicly described, and not referring to that description can be disorienting. I like book readings in particular and would have felt I’d had more to say conversationally had I heard some of the book (versus the overall plot description [vague] I was able to get from Lutterman after questioning) before jumping into the “conversation” portion of the program.

Timing

There was obviously not a clear start to the event without participants present at 2pm, but the event also had no clear end. Listed as a 2-3pm event, I didn’t feel I was able to leave the store until our conversation naturally dwindled, despite the fact that I had other things to do. We left at 3:30 or so.

When planning literary events in future, particularly in public libraries where space can be used for so many activities, I suggest the use of a timed outline for the event, even a vague one, in order to keep things on track, and that the organizer of the event check in and remind speakers and participants of the time. There was no “last question” of a Q&A I am used to, and as a result, I felt uncomfortable and did not enjoy myself as much as I would have expected at this event.

What did I take from this experience?

Planning can be everything, as well as planning for as many possibilities as possible, including a low-or-no attendance event. Brian Lutterman said that being treated well by local bookstores is part of what makes him loyal and supportive of them (he mentioned an anecdote regarding the store Once Upon a Crime turning away a big-name author who was coming into town because they already had another, smaller, author set to speak on that date). In addition to this, I felt that planning for the attendees of these events is as important as treatment of your guest of honor. As a future librarian, I want to develop good relationships with authors/speakers/guests but it is more important that I do not lose library patrons in the process. Ideally, I would like to plan events ahead of time, planning even for laid-back portions of programming, so that all attendees know what to expect and will want to come back to the library again.

What to plan:

  • Line up event participants early
  • Outline the event structure
  • Publicize early and often, making sure publicity accurately describes the event
  • Plan for worst case scenarios in the event that they occur.

Reader Request!

Please share your own thoughts and experiences with literary events, as attendees, as speakers, or as planners! I’d love to hear from you.

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