Promoting in the Flesh: Launch Parties, Readings and Book Fairs


If you’ve been reading my last few columns of Shameless Promotion, you know that I’ve joined the chorus of contemporary writers who call cyberspace the most cost effective venue to promote a book in the twenty-first century, especially erotica. In fact, I think it would be possible to organize a reasonably successful campaign that involves no more travel than a walk over to your computer to type out a flurry of cordial emails queries and witty blog posts.

But you’d definitely be missing out on one of the most thrilling—and yes, scary—parts of publishing a book: the “in the flesh” encounters with your readers.

Way back in my very first column in this series (“Dreams and Realities: Our Journey Begins”), I encouraged you to get in touch with your image of a “successful writer.” Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but the first thing that came to my mind was a woman standing at a podium reading from her novel in an impassioned voice while dozens of mesmerized literature-lovers listened from their folding chairs at the back of a funky independent bookstore. Even in the digital age, an actual public performance still has an air of glamour and symbolizes achieving the status of “a real writer” to me. Of course, as with all of my promotional experiences I’ve described thus far, I discovered that fantasy did not translate into real life without significant changes, for the good and the bad.

This month I’ll discuss my experiences with book launch parties, readings at bookstores and working a booth at the West Hollywood Book Fair as well as advice I’ve gotten about signings from other writers.

One word of warning: all of these events involved a lot a preparation, some financial outlay and pre-performance jitters. Although I probably sold only about fifty books all told from seven events (not counting the unknown and probably tiny number of readers who were inspired to buy my book later), I spent much more money on transportation, swag and catering than I earned. However, I gained something much more valuable. More than any other promotional activity, these efforts gave me a genuine sense of myself as a real writer in personal touch with her audience. They showed me I how far I can stretch myself beyond my comfort zone—accomplish things I never thought I could manage—to do my best for my book. I truly feel a stronger person for it and I’ve used these empowering lessons in my daily life ever since.

Plus I made sure to keep detailed records so I could write off the professional expenses on my taxes!

Let’s start with the natural opening public event of your shameless self-promotion campaign: your book launch party. When my first book, Child of Darkness: Yoko and Other Stories, an academic monograph and translation of a novella by a modern Japanese writer, was published, I fantasized about throwing myself an elegant cocktail party to celebrate, but somehow I just didn’t feel worthy. So I bought a big box of books and gave them out as gifts to friends, not even expecting anyone would be willing to buy it. Everyone accepted their gift cordially, although I suspect few actually read it. In fact, I heard from several people more than a year later that they were dusting the bookshelf and only just realized I’d written this book, since my name appeared in small print below the Japanese author’s name.

So, when my next book was published, I was determined not to make that mistake again. I decided to throw myself a nice bash without any shame, whether I was “worthy” or not. I’m really glad I did. If you do nothing else, at least treat yourself to this celebration with your family and friends.

A book launch party can be a larger event held at a restaurant, cafe or friendly bookstore. It can also be a simple brunch or cocktail party at your own house or the house of a friend. I was fortunate to have a party-loving friend who lent me the use of her pad overlooking the San Francisco Bay. I did the catering for the brunch, settling on a Pan-Pacific menu of a summer fruit plate, mini bagels with cream cheese, pot stickers and shumai, trays of sushi and rice crackers and a selection of my home-baked cookies. Drinks included an inexpensive sparkling wine, orange juice, and Asian teas.

yummy cookies I had a center table set up with copies of my book and bookmarks, along with some Japanese candies (not touched, but they looked nice). Ask for help from friends and family! My husband steamed dumplings, while another wonderfully helpful writer friend greeted and mingled with my guests. However, I would recommend designating a photographer as we were all too busy to take any pictures, and it is nice to have photos from all of these events.The guests at my party were friends and friendly acquaintances, some of whom brought along their friends. I sent an email invitation to about sixty people and eighteen were able to attend. I definitely suggest casting the net wide and approaching any potential erotica reader in your address book. Some attendees were not my closest friends, but it was a great way to get to know them better. Another word of warning—for all of these events, getting an audience takes work. Unless you’re already famous, and then I assume you wouldn’t be reading this! Author fantasies aside, you can’t just announce the event and expect the literature-loving public to line up around the block. Nearly every published writer will assure you that if you believe that, you are definitely living in a fantasy world.

But back to the fun. After the guests had their fill of the pot stickers, I gathered everyone together and gave a brief introduction to the book and my inspiration for writing it. And yes, I labored over the text and practiced it about ten times beforehand so it would seem “off the cuff.” I read a fairly tame eight-minute selection from Amorous Woman (our kids were upstairs playing video games and might wander through). Then we had a great discussion about the book, cultural stereotypes of Japan, the difference between erotica and porn and the literary inspirations for my book. In a sense this was like a book club discussion, and all of these tips can be translated to a book club appearance as well (which will be cheaper for the author!).

There are plenty of other ways to arrange your book fête, but I’d say your guests would be disappointed if you didn’t read at least a short snippet from your book. But, even if you’ve got a tiny budget or you’re shy in front of an audience, I encourage you to celebrate your wonderful accomplishment with a party. You deserve it!

Donna George StoreyPublic readings are another step up in the ladder of shameless self-exposure. I happen to enjoy reading my work aloud very much, but I also always suffer an attack of nerves as the event draws near. I’ve developed a few strategies to help me get through my fears. First I practice the piece several times beginning about three days before the reading. I print out the excerpt in larger type and do a trial run to gauge the minute count—ten minutes for a solo reading is about right in this age of short attention spans. Then I fine tune for page breaks and words or sections I want to emphasize, which I change to bold print. I reprint the excerpt and practice a few more times, paying attention to changing tone, characters’ dialogue, and tongue-twisting passages. The day of the reading, I run through it one or two more times just for polish. During the reading, I pretend I’m a confident person who is thrilled to have the chance to present her work in her own voice—I’m not me, I’m the “successful” writer of my fantasies. I instinctively choose two friendly faces in different parts of the room as my focus and read to them (I ignore the old guy drifting off in the corner).

Arranging for a reading can be very difficult, however, especially in these challenging economic times. One way to go is to join in with an established erotica reading series such as In the Flesh New York or In the Flesh LA. These events often have themes and may not be open to all, depending on the time of year. But it wouldn’t hurt to send a respectful email of inquiry to the coordinators. Another option is to organize the event yourself at a local bookstore or cafe. Some places are welcoming to erotica and local authors. Many, alas, are incredibly snobby and condescending, so don’t take it personally if this happens to you. It happened to me, too. A lot.

You’ll get the best reception if you shop at the store and know the employees. If you aren’t a regular, ask for the contact information for the events coordinator and send off a query giving enticing information about your book and a promise to actively promote to bring in your audience. The hard truth is, the venue will do little promotion besides listing your event in their newsletter, so if you don’t want to show up to an audience of two or three (or none), you need to send out more announcements to your friends, especially those who couldn’t make it to the book launch party, and announce your events on your page at If the bookstore doesn’t automatically list events in the local paper, send off your own announcements to the press.

One way to beef up your drawing power is to read with one or two other authors with a similar theme. Better still, offer your audience extra benefit, like a mini erotica writing class or a panel discussion of sex in contemporary fiction. Also take special note of stores in your area that cultivate a reading program. These are often the most welcoming. Bluestockings in New York’s Lower East Side is a writer-friendly place as is Book Passage in the Bay Area. Some stores will order copies of your book for the reading, but others will ask that you bring your own.

Chances are you won’t sell lots and lots of books, however, so don’t start getting estimates on that pool for your backyard quite yet. On the other hand readings do get your name out there in the local papers and give you the chance to fulfill that fantasy of standing at a podium in a bookstore, reading your deathless prose to a rapt audience!

If you’re part of reading for another anthology, I still recommend bringing along copies of your own book. The standard practice when you bring your own copies is to give 40% of the cover price to the bookstore, while you keep 60%, which generally gives you a 10% profit on each copy. Some stores will agree to carry a few copies on consignment later as well. After the reading, you’ll sell more copies if you stand next to a stack of your own books and make sure to mention it to everyone who approaches you, even if it’s with the featured anthology for you to sign. Describe your book with your most irresistible elevator ten-second pitch and follow up with an engaging question—in my case it was something like “are you interested in Japan?” I found out the hard way that just standing there and smiling will sell zero books. And yes, it was painful at first, but I learned to channel my inner book slut. The outgoing, chatty saleswoman I seemed to be was actually an alien being from the Planet Shameless who had taken over my body. But she did sell me about a dozen copies of my novel.

If you want to set up a reading in another city, as I did in New York, it really helps to have a friend willing to make the contacts and help with recruiting a base audience. In this as in every aspect of promotion, generous friends are crucial to making things happen. So be shameless about asking for favors and repaying them as best you can when the time comes.

Now I’ve never done a book signing myself, but this form of promotion comes highly recommended by veterans, including Stella Price whose interview appears at the ERWA blog this month. A signing does not involve any reading of your work. Instead a bookstore (or in the case of erotica a sex toy store or lingerie store) sets you up at a table with a stack of your books and preferably a larger poster or sign with the title of your book. You may need to provide both, as well as a smile and a willingness to chat with strangers. Veterans recommend making eye contact and handing a copy of the book to curious people who approach. Again have your fascinating pitch ready and a question or two to encourage further discussion. If they seem interested, ask them if they’d like you to sign a book for them and wait for an answer. If they say yes, remind them that they’ll have to buy the book before you can do a personalized signing. If you can, arrange to do signings with another author, so you can keep each other company and provide support. Of course that also leads to some amount of competition for sales, but it can be worth the trade-off.

Donna and Eden The most demanding—but also most fun—in-person event I attended was the West Hollywood Book Fair. I was invited to share expenses for a booth with three other erotica writers, which resulted in some wonderful professional bonding as well. In email planning sessions, we decided on decorations we’d each bring. I provided a kimono and a fan, others brought pillows and draped shawls to give an “exotic bordello” look. You’ll also want some items to display your book. Definitely pick up one of those inexpensive wire upright display stands for one copy of your book at a craft store. A blow-up of your cover on a poster board is a nice touch, although I used a homemade sign saying “Take an exotic, erotic trip to Japan” with Japan-themed stickers.People attending book fairs are expecting swag, so come prepared. If you’re on a budget (who isn’t?) I’d say the only essential giveaway item is a bookmark printed with your book cover, ISBN, website and some blurbs or review excerpts. I used Print Place and was quite happy with the quality and price. You also want to bring your business cards (which I also ordered from Print Place) and any other goodies you’d like to give away. These can be expensive, but at erotic romance fairs they are expected—chocolates, baubles, bath salts, bullet vibrators, and magnets are all popular. I’m told that pens are an excellent choice because everyone uses pens and they’ll be sitting around as a reminder of your book and possibly lifted by another potential reader! I also bought refrigerator magnets and postcards with the cover of my book, which I use to send notes with review copies or those ordered from my website. I’m not sure if I’d order either again, however, but each author has different needs. If my cover is less controversial next time, I could definitely see ordering a book cover T-shirt to wear around as an advertisement. Yes, I’ve become that shameless.

Once the booth was set up, however, I suddenly found myself standing by a stack of books watching the fair-goers pass right on by with hardly a glance. That’s when I thanked the patron gods of writers that I was armed with the most effective giveaway I’ve yet to discover—custom-made fortune cookies stuffed with my own erotic fortunes (I used Good Fortunes, Inc, which made a tasty, fresh, and classic cookie). Instead of standing there with a pathetic grin on my face, I was able to hold out a basket and call out to passersby “would you like a ‘grown up’ fortune cookie?” (Incidentally, I discovered that standing directly in the crowd with my cookie basket turned out to be too threatening and got fewer ‘bites’ than when a table was between us. Shameless self-promotion is rather like getting on-the-job training in human psychology, too).

When a fair-goer took a cookie, he or she instinctively opened it, which led to a discussion of the fortune, and then I had my chance to introduce my book. This resulted in many lively conversations—frankly, working the book fair was a lot like flirting or speed dating. Only a fraction of those conversations led to an immediate sale, but everyone took a bookmark, and by the day’s end I had to admit I’d come a long way since I bombed at selling Girl Scout cookies in my blushing grade school days. (For a more detailed report on my sales’ techniques and the fortunes I wrote, check out my blog).

Most locales have a book fair or two during the year, and the fees are generally fairly reasonable—perhaps $150 to rent a booth, which can be easily divided among several authors. If you write erotic romance or other genres, the annual conventions can be a great way to network and sell some copies, but there will be much more competition for your specific type of book, so you’ll need to make yourself stand out as unique.

Well, I’ve definitely given you a loaded plate of fortune cookies this month, but I do encourage you to explore “in the flesh” ways to share your work with readers. When I look back over all I’ve done for Amorous Woman, without question, the in-person events glimmer the brightest in my memory. I hope you make some sparkling memories of your own!

Shameless Self-Promotion Points for September

ONE: Put at least one “in the flesh” event on your promotional schedule such as a launch party, reading, signing or appearance at a book fair. For extra badge credit, try all four!

TWO: Order your book-related swag from a discount online provider, beginning with a business card and bookmarks, then adding other items that seem to fit with the style of your campaign without busting your budget.

Donna George Storey
September 2009

“Shameless Self-Promotion” © 2009 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written.

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