By Judy Penz Sheluk
When my debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in 2015, one of the first things I did was set up a bookstore event at my local Chapters. Visions of eager customers lining up outside the door danced through my head.
The reality was considerably different. Surrounded by books, many marked down as much as 80% off, instead of lining up, shoppers avoided my gaze or politely declined offers of free bookmarks. That day exactly two people spoke to me. The first was an elderly woman who pointed to a picture of an English-Chinese dictionary on her phone and said, “Where find?” I walked her over to the appropriate section, hoping karma would kick in.
It didn’t. The next woman, carrying the latest Louise Penny novel under her arm, picked up my book and read the back cover.
“Oh, this book takes place in a small town in Ontario,” she said, dismissively. “The author must be Canadian.”
Before I could explain that I was the author, she set Noose back on the table. “I’m afraid I don’t read books by Canadian authors, especially books set in small towns in Canada.”
“But you read Louise Penny,” I wanted to say, but she was already gone.
Did I give up on bookstore events? Of course not. I’m a writer, I’m used to rejection. But after a half dozen other “appearances,” I knew there had to be a better way. Even my most successful events felt lonely with a sniff of desperation.
In 2017, I was elected to the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) Board of Directors, representing Toronto/Southwestern Ontario. It was the 35th Anniversary of CWC and we were brainstorming ways to promote the association and our members at the grass roots level, especially our lesser-known members. Authors like Linwood Barclay, Maureen Jennings, and Louise Penny might not need CWC’s promotional efforts, but for every Barclay, Jennings or Penny, there were dozens of members who did. That’s when the idea hit me.
“What about multi-author bookstore events?” I asked. “We could contact bookstores and sell the idea of five authors representing different sub-genres of mystery, all under the CWC’s 35th Anniversary banner.”
As soon as I said the words, I knew I was in trouble. How could I possibly organize several bookstore events for multiple authors? Especially when the Toronto/SO region was so geographically sprawling, and I lived in a small town ninety minutes north of Toronto. In good traffic.
The answer? Teamwork.
The first step was to send a callout to members explaining the concept, and asking them to recommend a bookstore in their neighbourhood that might be up for the challenge. This resulted in a dozen suggestions, which, after follow up, was whittled down to six willing locations. With dates and times confirmed, I sent out another callout with these specific requirements:
- Authors could list their sub-genre, along with their top two picks, with the understanding that they would only be given one spot. With six stores, this would provide an opportunity for 30 authors.
- Each author had to be willing to work as a team, with one author assuming the role of Team Leader.
- All authors had to have an active social media presence.
The available spots were filled within two days, validating the need for such events. The event I attended (the same bookstore where I had my initial disheartening experience) represented historical and cozy mysteries, true crime, thrillers, and police procedurals. Each author sold at least one book; most sold more than five. We all handed out a ton of bookmarks. Here’s how we did it:
- One team member contacted the local newspaper. While they weren’t willing to send someone to cover it, they were willing to include a small press release in advance of the date.
- Each team member promoted the event on social media, and we liked, commented on, and shared each other’s posts.
- One team member was in charge of taking photos and posting them on Instagram and Facebook on the day of the event.
- Also on the day of the event, each author provided a brief rundown of his or her book(s). This allowed us to engage potential customers. For example, if someone told me that they didn’t read cozy mysteries, but did enjoy true crime, I could direct them to the true crime author, and sound knowledgeable (and enthusiastic) about it.
Now, you might be thinking, one book, five books, some bookmarks? I’m still not seeing the value, and if selling books is your only goal for the day, you’d probably be right. But never underestimate the power of networking with other authors, of listening to their bookstore horror stories, of hearing about their marketing efforts that paid dividends, and of those that didn’t.
Perhaps the biggest payback was the number of authors who have since taken on the task of setting up their own multi-author bookstore events. I’ve personally taken the concept and approached local libraries, almost always with a positive response. Of course, with a library, it’s a mystery panel/Q&A approach, with book sales at the end, but the same principles apply.
Can you hold a successful bookstore event on your own? Yes, especially if you’re a “name” or have three or more books. But it’s a whole lot more fun to do it with like-minded folks, especially if you’re planning to be there for a few hours. After all, we’re writers. We spend enough time alone in our rooms with our imaginary friends.
Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of the Glass Dolphin Mysteries (The Hanged Man’s Noose; A Hole in One) and the Marketville Mysteries (Skeletons in the Attic; Past & Present). Her short stories appear in several collections.
Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors, representing Toronto/Southwestern Ontario. Find her at www.judypenzsheluk.com.