Sue and I learned something interesting about Author Talks recently: don’t do them – or rather, do them at your peril.

No! I’m only kidding – well – half-kidding if faced with the type of event we recently encountered.

Giving talks, and taking part in Literary Festivals, Meet the Author, and Author Signing events, are a great way of getting to know your readers, and attracting new ones.

Our books are produced by an independent publisher, so we don’t have the full-force marketing and promotion available to authors with the big, well-known names such as Penguin and Pan. Which means that, as well as asking bloggers to review us, and using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get our books ‘out there’, we put ourselves about physically too.

And it’s usually an ideal way to shift a few books.

We’ve given successful talks at a range of events and to a variety of organisations, including festivals, libraries, book clubs, WI meetings, writers’ groups and all manner of other societies.

East Morton WI

Sue and I at East Morton WI where the welcome was warm, the audience was friendly and fun – and they bought books.

Given that our first novel together, A Falling Friend, came out two years ago and we’ve hit the ‘speaking’ circuit many times since then, it might seem unusual that we’ve only encountered one less than welcoming audience. But that one experience taught us a lot.

Ladies and coffee

It was a ladies’ coffee club.

The organiser asked if we charged a fee – and I told her that we don’t normally, but that we would like to bring some books which members could buy. She said that would be fine, and added she was sure the coffee drinkers were keen readers (otherwise, why sign up to come and listen to us?)

As the club was held in the middle of a large city, and Sue and I had to travel by train to get there, I piled copies of both A Falling Friend and its sequel, A Forsaken Friend, into a wheelie suitcase. And boy, that was a heavy pull – even heavier than the holiday wardrobe it usually carries.

Mock covers AFF1 and 2 (3)

Our two novels

The venue was an over-heated room in an old building in need of renovation and re-upholstering (as were the audience, we discovered later).

The lack of atmosphere hit us as soon as we entered; it had been sucked out and pumped goodness knows where else.

The room was soulless.

Women (or should that be ladies as it was a ladies’ coffee club?) arrived in ones and twos, queued for their coffee and a digestive biscuit, and sat in one of the four rows of chairs facing our speakers’ table (where we’d piled our books and bookmarks artistically).

Sue and I are journalists, trained to spot things – and the thing we spotted was that very few of the 25 or so women were speaking to each other.

Unperturbed by the gloomy silence, the organiser bustled up to our table to introduce us, and we launched into our spiel, trying desperately to gauge the audience: what would they find humorous, shocking or delightful? Would they like saucy innuendo or should we keep it serious?

With all our talks we consider the audience first; what do they want to hear; what is their reaction likely to be? How can we best describe our books (women’s literary fiction – or grown up chic lit) in a way that will interest them?

I’m not showing off when I say that Sue and I engage well with audiences, often intriguing and/or amusing them. And we always get questions at the end, and people coming up to talk, an indication of their interest.

And we usually sell – and sign – plenty of books.

Silent treatment

But with this audience, the caffeine hit had clearly failed. It was a good job they were on straight, upright chairs otherwise some of them would have slid off into a visible ennui; one of them actually nodded off – either that, or sitting with her chin on her well-upholstered bosom while snoring gently is her default listening position.

Two others bucked the silent trend and began a whispered chat.

Where there had been laughs and nods of agreement or recognition at previous talks, here there were none.

Sue and I usually read at least two short chapters each to show the contrasting nature of our two heroines, Teri and Lee. On this occasion, I read a short passage and received no response. Sue read another short passage. Still nothing.

We managed to keep going for 45 minutes, and then asked if anyone had any questions, which we hoped would fill the remaining 15 minutes of our hour-long slot. Only one woman was inclined to speak – but instead of asking a question she wanted to talk about some ‘scribbling’ she’d been doing. ‘I’ve written our family history,’ she told us, proudly. ‘And my grandchildren said I should get it published. Would your publisher do it for me?’

How can you resist such an offer?

Only two of the coffee club ladies bought paperback copies of our books – while a third said she’d get hers from Amazon for her Kindle.

Of course, audiences are under no obligation to buy from strolling authors like us; some audiences are genuinely interested in the writing process, but don’t necessarily want to buy a book; others like to have a coffee and listen to a speaker – any speaker – as it passes a comfortable hour. I’m under no illusion that I can force someone to like and buy our books.

But Sue and I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Charge a fee

The lesson it taught us was that we should charge a reasonable fee for Author Talks because you can’t be guaranteed to sell books (and we sell ours at a discounted price anyway, so it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme).

We have now decided that, depending on the organisation, we will either charge a speaker’s fee and/or travel expenses. For instance, a big organisation or commercial/corporate enterprise can afford to pay a fee (and probably expect to). A charity might only offer a smaller sum for travel expenses (and few people would argue with that).

One thing we noticed as the coffee club ladies were leaving was that very few were talking to each other. Sue had a theory that none of them knew each other all that well so there was none of the camaraderie you normally find at book clubs, WIs and groups like that.

My theory is that our audience simply couldn’t wait for us to finish so they could get on with the raffle: first prize was a tin of Yardley talcum powder; second prize, lavender bath salts.

I think that tells you all you need to know.