Written by Rob Keeley, writer of the Spirits series
I’ll start with the truth: I was nervous about doing events. Picture me in 2012, one book independently published (The Alien in the Garage), another in press (The (Fairly) Magic Show) and my author profile giving a whole new meaning to the word “unknown”. I’d never done a signing and my last storytelling had been as a volunteer classroom assistant over a decade earlier. I had well-meaning friends who didn’t want me getting hurt.
'Rob, there’ll be no one there. I’ve seen authors in bookshops. Sitting at tables all on their own, with a pile of books and everyone walking past. Unless you’re a name you’ve got no chance.”
So The Alien in the Garage had no launch (ironically, considering it drives a spaceship). By the time of The (Fairly) Magic Show I had about two reviews online and my website had entertained less than a thousand visitors. I felt it was time to raise the profile a bit, and I got in touch with our local independent bookstore about giving the book a proper premiere, complete with signing.
But would anyone come?
It’s 9am on Tuesday 27th September 2016 and I’m heading for our town’s central library. I have three classes of Year Sixes coming today. In my backpack are a hundred promotional leaflets about my new ghostly novel for children, The Sword of the Spirit. In my pocket is a memory stick containing a flying alien, some silly trumpets and all my cover designs. In other words, The Making of a Book, a PowerPoint presentation I created, which I’ve now used with several different classes. I then hold a question and answer session and turn the discussion around to my latest epic, at which point the leaflets come out. I’ve now done lots of workshops with kids, and you’re never quite sure how they’re going to react. The author nerves never quite go away. But it’s the enthusiasm, the gazing at the book covers with “That looks really cool”, the interesting and insightful questions which spur you on.
So. I enter their fantastic children’s library, watched over by a Dalek from their Doctor Who day. I help set up the laptop and projector. And five minutes later, the children arrive...
I still remember that first day at the bookstore. They had arranged my table beautifully, had notices in the window and I couldn’t quite believe the author’s name on the blackboard outside was mine. I sat for ten or fifteen minutes, no one came, and I began to think the naysayers had been right.
And then came a lady buying books for her grandchildren.
“He loves magic... is that what it’s all about?” I explained that only the first story in the book was about magic. “He likes stories at bedtime... the younger one’s not so keen...” I explained bite-size short tales like this were ideal for reluctant readers.
'OK, I’ll have one.”
Sale. I sign a copy (I’m so on edge my name looks like Boob Kiwi) and she takes it off to the till. I’m stunned, but don’t have time to be, because two other customers have already appeared, and one is translating the book’s title into Spanish for the other.
Maybe the day will be a success, after all.
2.30pm at the library and I’m onto my third workshop of the day. Things are going well. My audience is a group of highly intelligent ten- and eleven-year-olds who join with enthusiasm in a Creative Writing game allowing them to create a story of their own. The PowerPoint was successful, despite my accidentally creating two new blank slides halfway through, and now we’re onto Q&A. I always involve a young audience as much as possible, both during the presentation and in the questions after it.
I find out what they like to read. They mention everything from Enid Blyton to Lemony Snicket. I’m hoping no one uses that old chestnut about “Where do you get your ideas from?” because I haven’t a clue. They ask my favourite authors, how long it takes to write a book, and even my motto (I think it’s “Keep trying”).
They don’t know I’m an indie author. And neither would they care. All the literary barriers are put up by adults, making decisions on readers’ behalf. At this age, all I see are optimism, openness and a willingness to read.
I think we adults may lose something along the way.
Back in 2012 at the bookstore, it’s lunchtime and I’ve sold ten of our twenty-five copies. They kindly bring me tea and a toastie from the coffee shop, so I can carry on. Hunger, thirst and the rain bring more people in and more books are being sold. Everyone seems incredibly impressed to get an author-signed copy. I’m gaining in confidence and am now able to engage in lengthy conversation about the book. We head towards twenty copies and I pre-sign the remainder, so the store will have something to sell to any latecomers.
At the end of the day I’m invited back.
The final workshop is over. As the class leaves, I’m positively mobbed. There’s a queue to borrow my books from the library so I donate more copies. I give the leaflets out. One young reader wants his leaflet signed, then so does everyone.
The lovely librarian thanks me for coming. I tell her – as I told the kids – that I’m hosting my latest book launch at the bookstore this Saturday, 1 October, on the first day of the Wirral Arts Festival. I have now had this slot for four years and my sales have grown year on year, with the store’s most successful ever signings. I have another library booking coming up and we’re going to invite the kids for creative writing and a quiz. I leave the library, well satisfied.
Then I get home and find yet another literary agent has turned me down.
I read their standard rejection email, and find myself wondering whether I’m really the same author who’s just spent the day talking to ninety kids who loved my work. One hour ago I was signing autographs.
Is anyone in the literary world watching?
Is there anybody there?
Fast-forward to mid-October 2016. I’m back home, updating my website and my CV. My options for personal appearances now include author workshops, writing activities, storytelling, live interviews or just an informal chat about books and authoring. I’ve been long listed for two awards, highly commended for a third and nominated for the People’s Book Prize. I’ve learned a lot since 2012.
Mainly, about the author’s need to be seen. Promoting your work deserves at least as much of your time as writing it. The only way we indie authors can keep the flame alive is to do the school visits, the book clubs, the library talks, the lit fests – showing the agents and the publishers there is a market for our work. And when we’re not there in person we need to be on the forums, the social media, our websites and our blogs. It’s a multimedia age that attaches great importance to image. We not only have to do, but be seen to do.
See you there.
Rob’s books for children are published by Troubador Publishing. For more information, visit www.robkeeley.co.uk or follow Rob on Twitter @RobKeeleyAuthor.