Rachel Fershleiser works on Tumblr’s strategic outreach team, specializing in publishing, nonprofit, and cultural organizations. Previously she was the Community Manager at Bookish and the Director of Public Programs at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, where she now serves on the Board of Directors. She is also the co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of the New York Times Bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three other books. Her writing has appeared in the anthology My Parents Were Awesome and in The Village Voice, New York Press, Print, Los Angeles Times, National Post, Salon.com, Fray Quarterly and several amazing print and online publications you’ve never heard of. She’s also great at making soup.
In our ongoing series looking to help authors do better events, we knew Rachel would be the perfect person to talk to. We chatted with her about the importance of community and collaboration, the best events of all time, and how well PB&Js can pair with PBR. We also got her fantastic advice about exactly how and why authors should use social media. ”When people tell me they don’t want to do social media I’m always sort of confused about, like, well why did you write a book?” Rachel says. “I presume it’s because you have things to say that you want people to hear.”
Togather: What do you think makes for a good book event? And I’m sure there is more than one answer.
Rachel: In general, I think there’s still this ridiculous cliché that book events are one author standing at a podium, droning on and on, and in my experience that’s largely untrue. But maybe I just go to good events? You know, ultimately people are coming out for a night of entertainment, they’re not coming out to be sold to; they’re not even really coming out to learn. For the most part they’re going out to have a fun and interesting time, and so I always think there should be more than one voice. So if you’ve written a book about parenting you can invite a couple of other parenting bloggers to read a little bit, or someone to do comedy, or someone to sing a ukulele song about the baby or whatever. I think that whenever you can add a music element or a film element, or an interactive game, or audience participation, that’s always a lot of fun. I think that it’s nice when there’s a social element, so that people aren’t just there to hear from you, they’re also there to hear from each other, so it’s not just like they can be home watching you on Livestream. They’re in a community with like-minded people, and that’s a really valuable thing that you’re offering as well as your own work.
Togather: And that definitely helps to eliminate the barrier between the author, or whoever is performing, and the audience. It makes it easier to socialize and then for the crowd to participate and ask questions if the format is more like that than just having somebody reading at the front and then a doing a Q&A session.
Rachel: I think you always want to look at it from the point of view of your audience. Who are the people who are coming, and why do they come, and what are they hoping to get out of this? It depends on the book. If your book is How to Raise Funding for My Startup then they’re probably not coming for a great time, they are coming to learn something practical. That doesn’t mean you can’t be funny. It never doesn’t help to be funny. There maybe two topics where it doesn’t help to be funny. If you can serve snacks or booze, that’s always nice. I love a theme party. I’m just trying to think if I should speak generally or give a specific example.
Togather: A specific example would be great! Is there one event that really sticks in your mind?
Rachel: Rachel: Yeah, one of my favorite events we did at Housing Works was called “I Like Your Glasses.” It was sort of a book nerd meet-up/mixer/reading, and so one of them was a missed connections theme and all the stories were about either the subway or people who you missed, the ones that got away, and then we did one that was specifically back to school themed, so all the readings were about school, and then we had a photo booth with a laser backdrop where you could get school portraits taken.
Togather: That’s so great.
Rachel: And then the drink special was PBR and PBJ in a brown bag — peanut butter and jelly and Pabst Blue Ribbon. If you’re going to have snacks or you’re going to have an activity, you can move it into the theme of the book. If you’re doing a wedding planning book there should be cake and flowers, or it can be a humorous novel about a girl that gets fired from her first job and it can be like an office space kind of theme. Give people goodie bags and cardboard boxes for carrying their stuff out. I just made that up, that’s totally tasteless, but anyway I think it’s funny.
Togather: I totally agree! I think the best book events I’ve been to too obviously involve some sort of food or theme element, just to wrap everything together.
Rachel: Yeah. Just the other night Rosie Schaap did a reading for her book, Drinking With Men, which is about lives in bars, and it was a pretty straightforward reading, but the snacks — instead of just being cupcakes — were bourbon cupcakes from Spirited, a bakery that specifically does liquor-themed desserts, and it was just such a nice thing. The woman who made the cake, Kimberly Wetherell, is from the neighborhood, and she’s trying to start up this business, and it’s a really perfect community connection.
Togather: Yeah, I saw Jami Attenberg at WORD a couple months ago and they served dumplings there, which was the perfect tie-in to the all the Chinese food that Edie eats in The Middlesteins.
Rachel: Absolutely! And maybe whatever the themes are in your book, maybe there’s something someone that can come in and do, or whatever’s relevant to the theme of the book. There are a lot of really fun things you can do where you’re also creating an opportunity for another great person in the community who has creative work to share.
Togather: Playing off that a little bit, could you give us some tips to share with a new author who doesn’t have a lot of experience doing readings to make that process successful? Six months before your book comes out, how should you get ready for the process of speaking in front of people and having it be fun?
Rachel: Six months out, you should really be working on your social media presence. The first thing that I think people need to know about events — and I imagine that this is very central to Togather — is that you need to build an audience of people who are interested. That’s hard work, and that’s long-term work, and you can’t just show up the day of your book is published and say, “I’m a published author, so people will care.” I think that there’s a real tendency to do that, especially among people to whom just being published was such a huge accomplishment that they feel like obviously everyone is going to sit up and take notice, and it can be really, really demoralizing to figure out that that’s not true. And so you ought to be building your audience online.
If you are not a person that really likes to speak in front of people that’s where it can be really helpful to bring in other people, so if you have a friend who’s a comedian who can do a bit on a theme or something that you’re talking about, or if you don’t like to read, but you have a really cool slide show of photos that are relevant to your book — that could be great. For example, I did the Six Word Memoir books in one of my past lives, and we didn’t want to show up and read from the book because it’s 800 six-word sentences. What we ended up doing was a straight reading of the introduction and then a slideshow of some really cool art that people had submitted. We told some anecdotes behind different people we had met through the book, and then we would have a bunch of people who lived nearby who were in the book world come up and tell their own story for 30 seconds, and then we would make sure that everyone in the audience got a form that they could fill out with their own six word memoir and a pen. We would go around at the end and do a slam, and everyone in the audience would participate, and we would give them a prize for participating.
It broke up the event with a bunch of different voices and a bunch of different kinds of things, and it was really fun, and it came from a book that people were like, “How are you going to read from that?” I think that if reading is not your thing, you should get together with a couple of smart friends and brainstorm all the different things you can do around it.
Togather: The networking aspect and working with people that are kind of in your same realm is such a great idea, but what would you suggest for an author that maybe doesn’t have those contacts yet? How do you reach out into that world and make connections without making it seem forced — like you’re just doing it because you just want them to buy your book, or use their network to get them to buy into your book? Even if it’s a genuine thing, it’s hard to get across.
Rachel: I think that’s a big part of why I’m saying six months in advance, like “I have a book out” should not be the first, or second, or tenth thing that people hear from you. I always think you should join Twitter or Tumblr and just listen for a while — you should follow people you think are interesting, and you should hear what kind of things they’re talking about, and what they have to say. Sometimes it’ll be about books, or about business, or whatever your topic, and sometimes it’ll be their amazing chili recipe, and you’ll find out which ones are engaging to you overall, and then when you start replying to them, it’s going to be like “check out this recipe from my grandma,” and not about just buying your book.
Togather: That’s a good point. It’s not just a connection, or based out of something for your career; you’re interested in what they have to say in general.
Rachel: When people tell me they don’t want to do social media I’m always sort of confused about, like, well why did you write a book? I presume it’s because you have things to say that you want people to hear. I think there’s a real genuineness in that. If I wrote this novel because I was so inspired by Jennifer Egan, or I wrote this business book because I was so inspired by Jeff Jarvis, there are people who I’m genuinely interested in, and I’m interested in more than just what they can do for me.
Togather: How should an author reach out to someone at a venue to try and book an event?
Rachel: Absolutely. First of all, if you are with a mainstream publisher, you want to be in contact with your publicist and your marketing departments before you do anything on your own, just so you’re coordinating and not toe-stepping. But if you’re on your own, or if they’ve sort of told you to go it alone, here’s what you can do.
Number one, don’t just show up at a store and ask to talk to their event coordinator, because they’re really busy people. Call the store and ask for the email of their event coordinator. Introduce yourself.
Start from a position that you know that you’re asking them for something. I feel that some people have this idea that if they come in believing confidence is going to be best, and I would get these emails that would be like, “I WOULD LIKE TO OFFER YOU THE AMAZING OPPORTUNITY TO HOST MY VERY FIRST READING FOR MY POETRY CHAPBOOK!” and that’s not actually a respectful way to speak to someone.
You should know about their store and the kind of events that they do. You should have been to events at their store before. You should say a little about yourself, when the book is coming out, what it’s about, your ideas for a great event, why that event is a great fit for that particular store, and what media you have coming up, or connections that you have or friend groups that you’re expecting — to give them a sense about how you expect people to hear about it and come to the event. I think that some people have the sense that the store is going to build the audience for them, and unfortunately, that’s just not really how it works. You need to come at the store with as much information as you can, and sometimes some people will be like, “That sounds like a really amazing book, and I don’t care about your media,” or whatever. Some people will be like, “That sounds like a really fun idea for an event.” There was an event I did at Housing Works, for a pretty unknown book, but it was a novel about summer camp, and she had this great idea to do this summer camp themed party with s’mores making, friendship bracelets, lanyards, and campfire songs, and it was the greatest event. It was such a fun idea that people came for the fun social event and they learned about the book there. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be that everyone knows about your book already. You have to be offering something that the coordinator can get excited about.
Togather: If you have a really engaging event people will come even if they don’t know your name or your book. Any other quick advice you would offer?
Rachel: Come from a place of understanding that there are more books published every minute than people will read, or go to events for, or book events for. So you need to come to people, whether you’re talking about the booker at the Strand or whether you’re talking about the audience that you’re hoping will come to something, you need to approach everybody with the sense that you know there’s a lot going on in the world, and you respect their time and interest, and you genuinely believe that you deserve it, and here’s why. And that you genuinely believe that they will enjoy the event that you’re having, that they will get something from it.