My Book Launch Disaster
Becoming an author involves a lot of hard work and rejection, during which time the would-be writer dreams of the day when their first book will be published. However, when that day arrives, things don’t always go quite as well as the writer hoped.
I write science fiction. After many years of selling short stories to magazines and anthologies, self-publishing two collections along the way, I finally landed a book deal with a traditional publisher, NewCon Press. It took twenty years from the sale of my first story to the publication of my first trad-pubbed book, The Shapes of Strangers, so it was a big deal for me.
The book came out in April 2019, with a launch event held at a convention on 19 April. The launch was a big disappointment. I’m writing this account mostly to salvage a little something from the wreckage, but I figure it might also be helpful — or at least amusing — for other new authors to hear about what can go wrong.
Anything is only a triumph or disaster relative to expectations. To explain why this event went badly, I’ll begin by describing a previous event that went well. Let’s rewind the calendar back a year, to April 2018.
Eastercon is the biggest annual science-fiction convention in Britain, taking place over the four-day Easter weekend. I don’t usually go to conventions, but I went to the 2018 Eastercon to meet the proprietor of NewCon Press, Ian Whates, who’d recently offered to publish a collection of my stories.
NewCon Press was founded in 2006 and has published more than a hundred books. Every year they have a big launch event at Eastercon, which is well attended because they have built up a significant following. At the 2018 convention they launched several books including the anthology Best of British Science Fiction 2017, in which I had a story. Ian Whates invited me to sit with the authors and sign books.
I’d never been to a book launch before. My first thought was, Wow, this is a huge room! At the front there was a raised stage with a long table where the authors sat, each with their own microphone. I took one of these seats — Wow, I’m an author now! — and looked out into the enormous room as the audience arrived. To my amazement, so many people came that all the seating soon filled up, with crowds standing at the back and along each side. I estimated the size of the audience at well over 150 people, probably closer to 200.
Ian Whates stood beside the stage with boxes of books for sale. Via a microphone connected to a PA system, he delivered a practised, amusing spiel that described the various books being launched. After all the authors had been introduced, the signing session began. Members of the audience purchased books from Ian Whates, then took them to the signing table.
Not everyone who comes to such an event buys a book; some of them just come for a free drink and to see the writers. However, plenty of people do buy books. Naturally the more famous authors sell more, but even the Best of British SF anthology — containing less heralded people like myself — sold a decent number. I can’t offer any guess at the total sales, as the event seemed to pass in a blur of people clutching books. I can only say that my overall impression was of a huge success.
Later in 2018, my story collection The Shapes of Strangers went through all the stages of editing and proofreading. Ian Whates told me it would be launched at the 2019 Eastercon. I don’t normally attend conventions, but I eagerly signed up for this one. I wasn’t going to miss my own book launch!
I expected an event similar to the 2018 launch. It turned out I was wrong. Very wrong.
Although there is an Eastercon every year, it’s not really the same convention because each event occurs in a different location, and is run by a different committee. The 2018 Eastercon was called Follycon and happened in Harrogate. The 2019 Eastercon was called Ytterbium and took place at Heathrow, near London.
At this point I should acknowledge that all conventions are run by volunteers, who are doing the best they can. I should also say that I’m not criticising the entire convention, most of which went quite well: I had a slot to deliver a reading, which I appreciated, and I attended some interesting panels. I could have called this piece “How I Attended a Convention that Mostly Went Quite Well, Apart From Some Problems at my Book Launch”, but clearly “My Book Launch Disaster” is more succinct and clickworthy.
The first hint of a problem came about a week before the convention, when the programme of events was published. There was no mention of a NewCon Press book launch, despite this being a tradition of Eastercons for the last decade.
Ian Whates had words with the organisers, and subsequently sent an email to his customer mailing list: “Some of you may have seen that the Eastercon programme was published yesterday, with no NewCon Press book launch appearing. This came as a considerable surprise to me. Contrary to that listing, I can confirm that there will be a NewCon launch and the programme is being amended to reflect this. Evidently my early requests for a launch were made to committee members who have since stepped down without passing on the request to their successors, my ‘participation form’, which reiterated the request for a launch, was made some weeks before the forms went live (at the Chair’s request) and appears to have been treated as a ‘test’ rather than an actual form, with no information retained, and various conversations and emails I’ve had with committee members (including requests for wine prices for the launch) were not sufficient to alert folk that something had gone awry. Anyway, all sorted now….”
I arrived at the convention in good time for the launch, listed as being in “Tereshkova”. (The hotel had two conference wings, called Orbiter and Aviator, with the individual spaces having appropriately thematic names.) I scrutinised the map in search of Tereshkova, and eventually found it in an obscure corner. I decided I’d better go down there in advance, just to make sure I knew the way.
When I got there, I thought, This can’t be it. Tereshkova wasn’t even a room. It was a wedge-shaped space at the end of a corridor. It seemed barely larger than the Vostok 6 capsule in which Valentina Tereshkova orbited the Earth.
I went to the dealers’ room to ask Ian Whates what was happening. He had the jovial yet resigned expression of someone who’s spent a decade in publishing and endured many glitches along the way. “That was the only space the convention could give me,” he said. “We’ll have to make the best of it.” (There were other rooms, some of them much larger, but those already had programme items booked in. Later in the weekend, when I attended events that had a small audience in a huge room, I felt rather bitter as I reflected that some reorganisation might have been beneficial.)
The Tereshkova space had not been laid out in a useful way: there was nowhere for the authors to sit down and sign books. I set off on a mission to scrounge some chairs from other rooms. Other authors assisted this foraging expedition. We set up a cramped table on the sloping side of the wedge-shaped space. I sat between David Gullen (Shopocalypse) and Andrew Wallace (Celebrity Werewolf). Other writers at the launch included Ian Watson, Simon Morden, and Philip Palmer.
The small area for the audience soon filled up with a crowd who chattered as they consumed the free drinks on offer.
Ian Whates stood in the far corner, with boxes of the books being launched. He began the event by introducing the authors and describing the books. There was no microphone or PA system, so he had to shout above the crowd, many of whom — rather rudely — just kept talking. Also, there was no stage for him to stand on, so he wasn’t very visible. The net effect was of a muffled, disembodied voice emerging from within a crowd of bodies, with random words such as “novella” and “masterpiece” occasionally audible above the hubbub.
More people kept coming, but the room was already full. I saw a friend arrive, but failed to catch her eye. She stood on the outer edge of the crowd, struggling to work out what was happening. After a couple of minutes, she left. She later told me that she hadn’t been able to hear or see anything, so there didn’t seem any point in waiting around. The swirl of people eddying around the entrance suggested that many arrivals had a similar reaction.
Soon Ian Whates finished his spiel. He invited purchasers to buy books, and gestured to the table where the authors sat. I laid my pen in front of me, ready for action. This is it!
The first arrival at the signing table made a beeline for Ian Watson and proffered a book for him to sign. But it wasn’t a new book: it was one of Watson’s older novels. It turned out that the fan had brought a giant bag of Watson’s books, all wrapped in plastic protectors. Slowly, very slowly, he extricated each book from its plastic wrapping, got a signature, then carefully, very carefully, wrapped it back inside its plastic cocoon. The bag seemed to contain Watson’s entire oeuvre. It certainly occupied most of the signing table.
For what felt like forever, nothing else happened. The whole table of authors sat and watched Ian Watson signing his back catalogue. When this sight grew painful, we gazed in Ian Whates’ direction, trying to work out what was going on. Was anyone buying books, or were the only people who’d managed to squeeze into the room those who’d come early to get first crack at the free drinks?
I later heard from Ian Whates that his card-reading machine had broken down. This forced him to rely on the old-fashioned technology of cash, but lots of people don’t carry cash these days.
Eventually a few customers managed to buy books. Beside me, David Gullen and Andrew Wallace merrily signed copies. I twiddled my pen, feeling like a wallflower at the dance. I hadn’t expected a horde of fans: I’m not a famous writer, and I didn’t have many friends at the convention because I don’t normally go to conventions. But it’s easy to harbour a secret hope that maybe you’re more popular than you realise. Well, it’s easy for a little while, until the evidence conclusively proves otherwise.
Just as I was contemplating the possibility of a complete washout, with my pen having to retire unused, a customer finally approached me with a copy of my book. I asked if he wanted a dedication, and he didn’t express any preference. So I scribbled a comment, “Thanks for buying the first signed copy,” and added my signature. (Thank you, whoever you are!)
David Gullen signed several copies of Shopocalypse, and I think he felt a little sorry for me, because he left the table to go and buy my book, which was very noble of him. Also, someone asked me to sign a copy of Best of British Science Fiction 2017 from last year, which made me feel like Ian Watson but with a lot less back catalogue.
And that was it. My pen had been called upon three times, and I’d sold two copies of my own book. I didn’t see exactly how many the other authors sold; I got the impression it was more than me, but it didn’t feel like anyone had shifted a big stack. There just weren’t very many attendees at the event, because not many people could get into the room.
Beforehand, I hadn’t put a number on how many copies I hoped to sell, except to tell myself that I’d be happy as long as it was greater than zero. It turned out that wasn’t true, because I felt disappointed.
In my mind, the sales were low because the launch event was a disaster. A tiny room that only accommodated a fraction of the potential customers! No stage, and no microphone/PA system! A card-reading machine that broke down! It felt like the very opposite of the 2018 event, which in my memory had become a golden procession of endless customers buying enormous piles of books.
Of course, it’s possible that even if this year’s launch had run as smoothly as last year’s, then my sales outcome would still have been the same. But we’ll never know.
I should say that I’m well aware there’s no entitlement to sell any books. I can feel the permanently outraged Twitter mob hovering over my online shoulder, ready to exclaim, How dare this privileged white guy think he’s entitled to sell books! I don’t think that I’m entitled to sell copies of my book. However, I do think I’m entitled to feel disappointed that the event had so many problems. You only launch your first book once, and I’d been waiting twenty years for this. (If I’m not even allowed to feel disappointed, then perhaps the Commissars of Correctness could issue a list of permitted emotions.)
The following day, my friend — the one who’d left the launch event because she couldn’t see or hear anything — bought a copy of my book from the dealers’ room and asked me to sign it. This cheered me up, as I was very grateful she’d gone the extra mile in this manner. And it increased my sales by 50%!
I did my best to put the event out of my mind, and enjoy the rest of the convention. Ultimately, if I want another chance at a book launch, then I need to write another book. I’m working on that.
In the meantime, The Shapes of Strangers is available from NewCon Press and online retailers. For more details, please visit my website.