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Friday Feature: With A Little Help From Our Friends

Authors Katharine Johnson (Katy), G D Harper (Glyn) and Helen Matthews talk to Write On! about ways authors can find more readers by supporting each other, and how they came together to form the ‘Noir Collective’. (Authors pictured in featured image)

Imagine it’s publication day. Perhaps for your debut novel. You want to see it scale the bestseller rankings on Amazon, or spot it on the shelves in your local bookshop. Now your book is out in the world, you can sit back and wait for readers to find it.


Here’s the bad news – unless you’re an established author, or backed by a big marketing budget, your book might languish undiscovered. Otherwise, publication day is far from the end of the journey. It’s only the end of the beginning.

Is it worth holding a book launch?

Helen: Yes. Before my first novel After Leaving The Village was published in 2017, I approached two nearby branches of Waterstones. The Basingstoke store set a limit of 70 guests but, because it was my debut novel, friends from far afield wanted to attend, as well as local friends, so I arranged a second launch for 40 more guests in the smaller Farnham store. Both shops ran out of the stock they’d pre-ordered, but luckily, I’d brought extra copies with me. It’s a simple formula: prosecco, cake, a short talk and reading to create a buzz, followed by a book signing.

Katy: Anything you can do to raise awareness of your book is worthwhile. Writing’s a lonely business, so it’s lovely to have some face-to-face contact with readers. Holding a joint launch can take the pressure off and keep costs down. I organised a book launch with other authors in our village hall with prosecco, cakes and book chat. We got lots of support from local businesses and the press, and afterwards, a gift shop owner agreed to stock our books.

Tip: Get flyers printed and distributed well in advance.

Glyn: I divide my book activities into ‘soft’ activities, that I do for fun and ‘hard’ activities which are the real sales drivers, such as Facebook and Amazon advertising and book signing events. For me, the book launch was more about rewarding myself for finally finishing my first novel. I found a cool venue (the Champagne Charlie room at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London) and invited friends and writing colleagues for a party. It was nice to see friends from different facets of my life in one room.

But what happens if your book comes out in lockdown?

Helen: My third book Façade came out in September 2020. I collaborated with two authors whose books were published close to mine, for a Zoom launch including short readings, Q&A, and quizzes with Amazon vouchers as prizes. Most importantly, we rehearsed so it didn’t drag on. Also, I live on a small road with just 12 houses, so I do a book signing for neighbours. This year, because of COVID, I set up a pop-up signing (with wine) on the green.

Katy: I do online launches for all my books because I enjoy them and they’ve helped me find more readers. I use a drop-in format with readings, fun facts, discussions, and competitions with a prize draw. I keep the event page open for 24 hours, so people can take part from anywhere in the world, or catch up later. I also invite other authors to make guest appearances and offer their books as prizes.

Tip: Schedule some posts in advance, or time can run away with you.

Glyn: Not a problem I hope to have, as my next book comes out in 2022 – but maybe I’m being overly optimistic! After my debut novel real-life book launch, I did blog tours supported by Amazon and Facebook advertising for my subsequent launches, so I’d already moved to an on-line launch model before the pandemic.

What experience have you had of bookshop signings?

Glyn: One of my major sales drivers is bookshop signings. When you sell a book to someone face-to-face, you make a better connection and they’re more likely to recommend it to friends and say good things in reviews. WHSmith gave me a book tour across 12 of their biggest stores in London and the South East. I sold over 800 books this way in the lead-up to last Christmas. This year, I planned a national tour to coincide with our ‘Noir Collective’ festival appearances, but these have sadly been cancelled due to COVID. I’ve found the secret of success is to be proactive and engage with people without being pushy.

Tip: Have bookmarks printed with your book covers on to offer customers as an icebreaker. Everybody likes something for nothing!

Katy: If you don’t have a local bookshop, you could set up a pop-up shop. When signing books in WHSmith, I met another author whose friend’s shop was empty between leases, so we hired it for a weekend.

People ask if I sell fewer books when I’m with other authors, but I’ve found the reverse is true. I don’t see it as competition, but being able to offer a wider choice. You introduce new readers to each other’s books.

Helen: My first publisher had a sales rep but that’s no guarantee your books will get into shops, so I visited indie bookshops within a 50-mile radius of my home. Many agreed to stock my book, and some invited me to do a signing.

The owner of one legendary bookshop in Surrey (now sadly closed), championed my first novel and offered me several events, including a book club event in Denbies Vineyard (wine was served).

Tip: Don’t leave it too late to approach bookshops as they’re more likely to say ‘yes’ when your book is new.

What do you think of book fairs and Christmas fairs?

Glyn: For me, these are more about meeting other authors and exchanging ideas and information, but I don’t sell as many books as at a bookstore. I met Katy and Helen at a book fair in Worthing and we developed the idea of working together to produce book talks for festivals.

I also run workshops, detailing how new authors can get their books published, looking as professional as possible, and how to maximise sales. I get a buzz from engaging with authors at the start of their journey and I’d like to think my experiences have been useful for them.

Helen: I met Katy at the Hastings Literary Festival in 2018. We discovered we live near one another, so started planning collaborations. The book fair format involves renting a table to sell your books, so sharing with other authors saves money, and is more fun.

Katy: Books make great gifts, so sharing a stall at craft events and Christmas fairs can work well. Again, the key is plenty of advance publicity and splitting the cost.

Tip: Bring sweets and Christmas decorations to draw attention to the stand.

Do you do author talks?

Katy: I put together a media pack for each launch, including some talk topics, so event organisers have all the info they need in one place. I follow local organisations on social media and check out their event programmes. When I saw Berkshire libraries were planning a crime writing month, I suggested a ‘Noir Collective’ suspense workshop, providing visitors with better value for money.

Helen: My first novel is about human trafficking, so when doing my research, I became involved with a charity called ‘Unseen’ which supports survivors of modern slavery. They have since appointed me as an Ambassador, so I give talks to groups and libraries to raise awareness of this hidden crime and how I learnt about it on my author journey.

Glyn: I have a checklist for book club organisers who want to do an author Q&A with me. It’s important they make their members aware of the author chat in advance and ask them to have their questions ready. People need to come prepared to get the best out of the meeting. They also need to pick a discussion leader to act as a facilitator, so the chat doesn’t turn into a free-for-all.

Back in the pre-internet days, writing a book was a one-way process. Unless you were really, really famous, you never heard from readers about what they thought of your book. Today, direct interaction can occasionally be overwhelming for an author, but it can also be motivating and informative, providing useful feedback. It helps make you understand your books better and become a better writer.

As Edmund Wilson once said, “No two people ever read the same book.”

What’s next for the ‘Noir Collective’?

Expanding the ‘Noir Collective’ isn’t practical at the moment, due to the lack of literary festivals and live events but some festival organisers have started booking us for events in the second half of 2021. We hope to keep going. After all, every author needs more help – and more friends!

Read the latest issue of Write On! magazine online.

Direct interaction can occasionally be overwhelming for an author, but it can also be motivating and informative, providing useful feedback. It helps make you understand your books better and become a better writer.