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Thursday, January 28, 2016

The one thing I would have done differently for my standing room only Best Women's Erotica of the Year reading in San Francisco

For the most part, I've retired from organizing readings, because if you didn't already know, they are a lot of work and while there are rewards, they aren't usually in a direct financial form. Yet they are still an important part of what I see as my involvement in the erotica community and, I believe, a valuable way to connect with an audience live. For me it's a way to meet my authors in person, when I've only ever interacted with them via email. Yes, I may get to know them by doing interviews with them and following them on Twitter but that's not that same, and as much as I'm a loner, I'm also a very social creature.

So when I commit to it, which means taking time away from income-generating tasks like writing, I commit to it. I've been organizing readings since my first anthology publication in Best Lesbian Erotica 2001, when I was able to get readers from around the United States to come to Bluestockings in New York City for what was a wonderful evening.

I wanted to share a little of what I've learned from 15 years of organizing readings. Now, in some cases, your publisher may organize ever aspect of it for you, and this will be irrelevant. For me, I'm as hands-on and involved as possible because that way I know exactly what's happening and can ask whoever's booked the reading any questions I may have in advance. As you'll read below, I didn't ask a key question and that wound up costing me book sales. But aside from the rookie mistake made with last week's reading, it was still far more crowded than I was expecting, so much so that we were standing room only for the first book reading from Best Women's Erotica of the Year, Volume 1 at Good Vibrations. One of the first things I do is try to organize a reading as early as possible to give people time to mark their calendars and give myself time to promote it in local media and readers time to share the news with their networks.

Telling people about readings is a tricky endeavor; you want to tell them early enough that they can save the date, but don't want them to forget about it by the time the reading happens. You also have to stagger your media outreach so that the places that need the most advance notice get it, but the daily publications or blogs also get notified at the appropriate time. One thing I failed to do with this one, because I was packing to move and busy with other work, is have my publisher send a hard copy of the book along with the reading listings to local press. I had meant to send that list but got distracted, although I did submit the listing to several local newspapers and sites.

Other places I like to list events, if applicable: Galleycat on Facebook, She Writes, Poets & Writers, Eventful, Yelp (under the venue's page and then "events"), Craigslist (whatever the local site is for your event). Anywhere that hosts event listings that are relevant to your topic, go for it. You may not have time to list it everywhere, but if you have an assistant or someone who can help you, the more places you can list your event, the broader the audience you'll reach. You can also survey people at the event with a show of hands or just asking people about how they heard about it to get a sense of which places yield the best results, although I've found that varies with every event, which is why I try to list as widely as possible. When I do readings, there's always aspects that I don't get to, but I try to cover as much ground ahead of time as I can, including reaching out to local friends and asking readers to spread the word as far and wide as they can. You never know who will show up.

The things I did right, though? Getting the event posted on Facebook and Fetlife. I also actively used the Facebook listing to share links to the Q&As I did with the authors to generate ongoing interest and provide free samples of what they'd be reading so people could get excited ahead of time. Those also came with photos of the readers to make the connection more personal. Facebook turned out to be a major source of interaction about the reading, both before and after.

A little over a week before, I sent the listing to SFist, and they published it on a list of "12 Cool Things to Check Out This Week" and even gave it a little plug, so people who may have been hearing about the book for the first time, whether or not they could attend, might be inclined to further check it out. Here's what they said:
San Francisco is a literate town (think Litquake), and tonight's reading of Best Women's Erotica of the Year, Volume 1 puts a very SF twist on our love of all things literature. Featured readers include editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, and well as various contributors. Not for the heteronormative, the "hot, varied pansexual stories" should make for a fun evening.
I arrived in San Francisco that morning by what felt like the skin of my teeth; my Virgin America flight from Los Angeles kept getting delayed due to weather but finally made it. Then I had a rush assignment so I spent a few hours at the airport, then headed over to Good Vibrations, arriving around 5:15 for the 6:30 reading to check in. I asked to put out the postcards I'd brought and asked about copies of the book.

Here is where I'm majorly kicking myself, because as it turns out, the store didn't have that many copies of the book (I don't know exactly how many but they weren't prepared for the demand, which I take responsibility for since I booked the reading and didn't even ask about this beforehand). Later on, they sold out quickly and there weren't any more, which was a lost revenue opportunity for everyone: me, my publisher, and the store. Now, I probably don't need to tell you that every book sale counts, especially when you factor in the cost of my flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and my time, but just in case, I will. I make about one dollar for every book purchased, so I knew going in I'd be losing money on this event. Still, those book sales are important, beyond the specific dollar amount, especially in the first few weeks a book is out. Early sales help set the stage for how a book will do going forward, and strong early sales can give stores a hint of whether they should stock more copies or wait and see if anyone will purchase it. That's why I pushed hard to have this reading held the same month as the book's release; the book is still new and there's excitement about it, but soon other new titles will be competing for readers' attention.

I'm not involved in the regular purchasing process, but I would imagine that if a book sells a lot during a reading that would prompt the store to order more because it's been proven that their customers want to buy it. Good Vibrations is an exception because they had a few copies on their shelves (see my Instagram snapshot below) and are officially carrying it, but most small independent bookstores that purchase my books take 1 or 2 copies of it, since shelf space is limited, so that means that buying a copy at one of those stores has a great impact, because it shows that there's an audience for the book. (Here's a sobering post about what we really mean when we talk about book sales for many independent authors.) So my goal for the reading wasn't to make back my costs, because I consider those business expenses and part of what I'm willing to invest of my own money to promote my book, but I want to use this mistake to make sure I don't do it again. While I can't control how many copies of a book a store takes, I can give them a heads up about how many people I expect to attend and purchase, and now I have this successful reading as an example to refer to (I am hoping to do a reading in the summer or fall at the Good Vibrations store in Brookline, Massachusetts).

If I knew I wouldn't make a profit, why did I decide to do this reading? There's several reasons, beyond my desire to leave my house and interact with live people rather than purely electronic communication. One is that I think there are few venues where you can hear erotica read out loud, and that means people will remember and appreciate those who can offer that. You can simply hear different aspects of a story when the author reads it, whether that's little asides or jokes or backstory or simply the inflection and emphasis they put on certain words. Secondly, my book just came out and it's my first time editing the Best Women's Erotica series, and I wanted to come out swinging. I wanted the book to be buzzed about, to have people remembering the stories vividly in a different way than they'd get just reading them off the page. I chose San Francisco because that's one of only a few cities where my far-flung authors, who are located in six countries, could attend. If I ever win the lottery, my dream would be to do a reading with all the authors in one of my anthologies who were interested, but until that day, I have to rely on local authors or those willing to generously donate their time to travel to readings.

bweoninstagram

I also wanted to have photos and video of readings to share on my social media channels. For this book, because I believe in its potential so strongly, I've branched out and tried something new: a dedicated Best Women's Erotica of the Year Instagram account, one I plan to use for Volume 2 and any others I edit in the series. I love that because it means that when I saw the book on the Good Vibrations shelves, I could tag them and have the focus be on my book. I will be doing that for any stores stocking Best Women's Erotica of the Year, so if you see it anywhere, pretty please snap a photo and send it to me at bweoftheyear at gmail.com and I'd be more than happy to credit you.

Posing for the cameras
We were awash in cameras wanting our attention! Back row: Amy Butcher and Rose Caraway. Front row: Jade A. Waters, Dorothy Freed, me

I don't have the resources to pull off a book trailer, but I did invest in hiring someone to record the readings so that those who couldn't attend could also hear the authors read (these will be up in about a month). To me, this is invaluable because as an editor, I can read the words on the page over and over and believe in their power, but hearing them read aloud, in every single case, put a new spin on them. I got to hear what the audience's reactions were to the funny and the sexy parts and everything in between. I got to find out what questions people had about the stories and my Volume 2 call for submissions during our Q&A. That is invaluable market research and that is another reason I wanted to do this reading; people may not know they have questions until they hear the work read aloud.

So the one thing I didn't do was make sure with my publisher that there would be a large supply of books at the store the night of the reading. I didn't even ask, because I was so focused on doing everything in my power to make sure there was an audience there to hear us. Clearly more could have sold, which made me feel heavily disappointed in myself for not taking book sales more seriously, because what better souvenir of a reading is there than an autographed copy? I know every time I move, I save my autographed books because they capture a specific moment in time that I want to treasure. Ultimately, I'm still thrilled with how the reading went. This was a best case scenario: a room full of people eager to meet the authors, get their books signed (someone who reads almost exclusively ebooks even bought a print copy so they could get it signed) and go home and read the stories they'd just heard snippets of. I'm hoping those who didn't pick up a copy that night either go back to Good Vibrations and buy one or purchase one elsewhere.

As it turned out, it was a perfect learning opportunity, because the next Best Women's Erotica of the Year, Volume 1 reading is coming up March 31st at The Pleasure Chest in Chicago, and you can be damn sure I am starting early on promoting it and spreading the word and will be actively engaged in finding out how many books the store has on hand. I booked the reading then because I will be in town for CatalystCon and can't wait to meet Tara Betts and Rose P. Lethe and read with them. Hope you can make it, and if you can spread the word about the Chicago reading to anyone who might be interested, I'd be very appreciative!

A final note: these are just my experiences with booking readings. Your mileage may vary, but I think for any genre, the wider a net you cast, the wider a potential audience you'll draw. You're still competing with weather, other events in your town, and the rest of people's lives. There will always be people who want to attend but can't, but that's a better scenario than someone who might have been interested but never even knew your reading was happening.

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