Serving the fans, why it’s important, and how to survive it

Being a popular author is a lot of work. There’s all those hotels you have to stay in, and all those bookstore appearances, and all those drooling fans with books they want you to sign. Oh, sure, it sounds glamorous, but you have to smile at a lot of people when you’d rather be watching re-runs of CSI, and your hand gets tired from signing all those books. There’s got to be an easier way.

OK, yeah, I mock the problem. And I do have a faint notion of how stressful and tiring that scene can be; I know I tend to come home from cons and other public events worn out. But while I am learning (slowly) to marshal my resources at public events, I think we forget why we do those events at our peril. They’re not for us; they’re for fans. Yes, we have to take care of ourselves; but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t leave fans feeling unappreciated.

This morning on Facebook, I read this post from my friend Mitch, who graciously agreed to be quoted here:

Unless you’ve been under a rock for a while, you know The Hunger Games is hugely popular right now. I’m sure all the appearances Ms. Collins does are swamped, and the bookstores at which she appears have no reasonable choice but to impose some sort of order on the chaos that her presence creates–not only for their sakes and the health and safety of the author, but also for the fans who come to see her. And when the crowds get huge, inevitably some fans will be disappointed. But in this case both the bookstore and the author seem to have lost sight of the goal, which is to serve the fans. That is a separate issue from selling the book, as you may observe from Mitch’s reaction. While this episode represents a lost sale, it also represents something worse: a fan who feels used and disrespected. In short, a lost fan. And that’s the loss of far more than one sale.

I recognize that this failure is an outgrowth of real problems for the professionals involved. So here’s my question: how should this situation have been handled? How could the interests of the author and the bookstore have been protected without leaving fans feeling used? Please help me troubleshoot this one.

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11 Comments on “Serving the fans, why it’s important, and how to survive it”

  1. zacharysteele Says:

    Given the nature of the signing in question, the set-up, and ultimate fail rests with the publisher/author, who coordinate how these large scale events MUST go. For mid-list (or smaller) authors, it rests in the hands of the bookstore (with the exception of the stamp b.s), who are left to coordinate their effort with the publisher/author within the confines of their ability (read in: cost).

    I don’t know Suzanne Collins, but it’s conceivable that she has physical limitations that prohibit her from signing 200+ copies. That is not unheard of. If, however, she does not, then, sadly, this FAIL is all hers.

  2. When coordinating a massive author event on the scale of something involving Collins, one has to take into account that the author is surrounded by layer upon layer of publicity cellophane. It’s very possible Collins was never given the OPTION of signing of doing any damn thing of her own choosing–scholastic may have simply made the call for her. The thing that the general public doesn’t keep in mind is that there are many pairs of hands in the broth for an author event that they’d attend–if there weren’t, the author would be smaller and most people who take issue with these, well, issues, wouldn’t attend because they wouldn’t care.

    That said, a good author event should be like a meal in a good restaurant–you shouldn’t have to care about the bookstore, the quantity of books, the author, the publicist. Everything should go smoothly and be a shared, enriching experience. When you notice the facets, the threads hanging out, that’s when someone’s messed up and, agreed, the public, the fans, are not being served.

  3. Thanks for this input! I too wondered about the physical-limitations issue, Zach. And I’m glad to learn more about the ways in which really large events are set up, particularly about how one-sided the flow of information and decisions can be when the tour in question is a big one.

    And Russ, this is just one of the many, many things about the publishing industry most people don’t have the opportunity to learn under normal circumstances. As you point out, whatever blame should be leveled for an unsatisfying fan experience shouldn’t necessarily be directed at the author, who may have (as tragically usual) very little to say about how things with her name on them will be handled in public.

    I know both of you have handled many, many events. Any thoughts on how these things can be done *right*?

  4. Stephen J. Simmons Says:

    The biggest single failure here was one of communication. Mitch and Adam didn’t know the details of the event before arriving. Which means the organizers (bookstore, publisher, author/publicist, et alii) may not have gotten the word out to the fans as effectively as they might have. This leads us to:
    FactWeNeedAndDon’tHave #1: How was the event advertised?
    FactWeNeedAndDon’tHave #2: What efforts did the various organizers undertake (if any) to research the fans *in that area* to determine the optimum form(s) of media to communicate this information?

    You don’t promulgate notice of a book-signing in State College, TX through the same media-mix as you would use in the retirement-condo-heavy Orlando suburbs where my in-laws live, for example.

    Cons bring fen in a pre-packaged environment, under conditions in which both artists and fen pretty much already know what to expect. We all knew at MarsCon that the signing for Weber would have a different protocol than the signings for the other guests, without needing to be told that. All we needed to be told was what the details were. Non-Con fen don’t arrive with the same “pre-programming”, so more effort has to go into getting that word out. And it has to go via channels that work fr the intended audience.

  5. Excellent points, Stephen. Naturally once the media are involved in disseminating your info, you run into the problem of the responsible parties in the various outlets making their own judgments about what is/is not important. Ultimately the only thing that’s controllable, and that only by the bookstore (or con), is the information available onsite.

    Which is OK unless/until there are limitations e.g. “you must have gotten a wristband in advance” imposed on the unsuspecting.

  6. Stephen J. Simmons Says:

    That’s what I meant, though. Somewhere the system broke, leaving devoted fen without information they needed. Going on admittedly inadequate information here, it sounds to me like the “channel(s)” used probably didn’t mesh as well with the target demographic as they should have. If the “in advance” information was vital to the fen and their participation, then getting that information to them should have been vital to the author, the way I see it.

    Granted, unless you have an overwhelming budget, you’re going to miss some of your audience no matter what choices you make. Look at all of us that love Leona’s book, and try to devise an *affordable* advertising campaign that would reach all of us. Take me, for example: I watch about two hours of TV a week, get my news online, and I only reliably listen to the radio (mostly talk-stations) while I’m in my car. Getting ads in front of me isn’t exactly the easiest Quest your Hero can undertake …

  7. Jef Says:

    The author is the name/face/brand, so regardless of how fair or unfair it may seem, most dissatisfied fans will probably remember the experience whenever they see the author’s name or books.

    Book signings are networking opportunities for authors to connect with their fans and encourage them to continue to buy future books as the relationship grows.

    If an author is not satisfied with how her readers are being treated, it’s up to her to speak up, or else she shares the blame for any negative experience the reader might have.

  8. I wonder whether the author always knows, Jef. I’m not taking anybody’s side here; I honestly wonder. I know that when I am a participant, even a featured participant, in a public event, I don’t have all the details on what’s happening: not least because I’m enmeshed in playing my assigned role. To this geek the experience of on-the-ground warfare as opposed to the general’s view of things comes to mind. If her fans are outspoken, she may get the word; but research tells us that for every dissatisfied customer who complains, there are a hundred who just go away disgruntled.

    Naturally we need to keep our ears open in every channel we have the capacity to address. Which again brings us around to the topic of communication.

    That’s starting to look like what it all boils down to. Hmmm.

  9. Allen Wold Says:

    More than twenty years ago, at a World Fantasy Con, Stephen King was signing. His regular “hours” lasted about four hours, and he was cornered everywhere else. He signed everything, begging time off once so his wrist could heal. He had no entourage.

    When Christopher Paolini’s “Eregon” came out, we stumbled upon him signing in a local indie bookstore. According to the staff, he spent about five hours in public, and then signed a couple thousand more in a back room after the event was over.

    One big, one little, but both with considerable respect for their fans.

    • Those are two amazing stories. HUGE props to both of them.

      How do you give at that level to your fans–sustainably? There’s a mystery…

      • Allen Wold Says:

        In King’s case, he was GoH, and I believe he went in prepared to make sure his fans got as much as they wanted of him. I don’t know how many cons he attended at that time. Manley Wade Wellman introduced me to him, he said “Hi,” and that was it, but he was friendly, as if I were a person. And of course, there was the motorcycle tour he did of the US, going to independent bookstores, holding autographing parties. He was a special person.

        Paolini’s parents were both published authors, and self-published his first book, and sent him on tour, so that he would gain experience and know what it was like. When one of his customers sent a copy to his father, who was an Editor at Knopf, they took the book despite it having been self-published, and ran with it, with the results anyone can see. When we saw him, he was I believe just seventeen. Whether he ever let himself in for that kind of experience again, I don’t know.

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