Chairing literary events sounds like a good way for authors to earn while waiting for those royalty payments to trickle in, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Here are some top tips from expert chair Sarah Broadley.
Authors spend years fine-tuning their magnificent words and illustrations to ensure readers are captivated with every turn of the page. To me, a chair’s job is to generate enthusiasm for the author in the same way: in the run up to the event, during it and once books have been signed and everyone has gone home. Chairing can be facinating. Not only does it offer an insight into the author’s work, but also their world – from their writing process to their publishing adventure so far - so it's important to prepare, to facilitate the best possible discussion. It's also important to remember that you are engaging with a professional and their working family of publisher, agent, bookshop, marketing team and more.
A few things to consider before saying yes:
- Can I make the date?
- Have they offered a fee? It is very important everyone should be paid.
- How many books are involved?
- Do I have the time to read the book/books?
- Where will it be held?
How do I prepare?
I come from a finance background, so every event I chair, every book I write, every online review I do has a spreadsheet or a list linked to it. It is NOT the way everyone does it or indeed should do it, but it works for me. Find what keeps the stress at bay for you and use that method. As chair, you need to plan everything that needs to happen in the sixty minutes or so you are on stage with your author, so treat every event as if it were your own book launch – give it the respect it deserves.
- Read the book – so important. Even if you’ve been asked to chair an event the night before. Your brain will thank you for the knowledge, as will the author when you ask relevant questions.
- Do your research on them – first or tenth novel, interests, preferred pronouns?
- Share your questions ahead of time so they can prepare if they wish.
- Work out a timeline from first introductions to the audience, giving yourself enough time for each question and their answer, up until the Q & A or end of the event. Festival slots are stricter, whereas in-person launches are a little more relaxed.
- Who is involved, who would the author like you to thank on their behalf? Is there a statement you need to make at the beginning? Are sponsors involved?
- Is there a theme? Some children’s books lend well to this, so ask the author if there is a dress code (e.g. pirate-themed children’s book) and make the effort if you can.
- Contact the author as soon as you can - either directly, or at least touch base with their agent/publicist - to introduce yourself, say how excited you are about the event AND their book.
- Know where to direct the audience to buy the book - whether publisher’s website, affiliated local indie bookshop, etc.
- Contact the venue to check tech availability for the night – handheld mic, pinned mic, staff to help with a roaming mic for the Q&A, small or large room, traffic noise, etc. Is there a green room/somewhere to meet beforehand? Possible fire drill?
- What accessibility needs do they or their immediate family have? No stairs, certain lighting, a quiet space, additional toilet facilities? Have that conversation as soon as you can so that the venue can be checked well before, as these can be many. A fantastic new inclusion guide created by SCBWI member Julie Farrell and author Ever Dundas has everything a chair/bookshop/festival needs to know to ensure accessibility for all. Please read https://www.inklusionguide.org/
What can a chair do to help an author?
- Be prepared. Smile. Calming vibes.
- Events can be overwhelming. If the author is nervous, engage with the audience until they’re ready. If you don’t know what to say, stick to the basics – weather, thanks for coming out, have you travelled far, I love your hat, etc. If you’re nervous, use a folder to stop your hands shaking (that’s what I do).
- Questions – there’s nothing worse than a quiet Q&A, so if hands aren’t raised, be prepared to step in. Ask about comparative titles, their writing day, are they a planner or panster...
- Readings really help engage the audience. Some might not want to, so do ask beforehand.
- Social media is your friend. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – embrace technology and promote the event by posting periodically. Make sure you have the right Twitter handles, or confirm if the author is on social media and is happy for you to link them in a post.
- Cover artist/illustrator should ALWAYS be mentioned. #PicturesMeanBusiness
- Check time difference if doing an online event abroad. And then check it again. And AGAIN.
What can an author do to help a chair?
- Confirm with the chair that they know where event is being held, date, time and when to meet.
- Answer initial contact e-mails/calls/texts and engage in dialogue beforehand if possible, so format can be agreed.
- Turn up on time/sober (I kid you not)/happy/nervous/delighted to be published at last.
The big day has arrived! Some final tips for the chair:
- Breathe, you’ve got this.
- Be on time – whether online or in person.
- If you’re a published author, and unless you’ve agreed with them beforehand, avoid introducing your book in a five minute monologue BEFORE you introduce the author you’re chairing. It’s about them, not you.
- Stage fright – if the author is struggling, make it fun, relaxed and keep them focused on you until they’re happy. Perhaps set the chairs up so they’re angled more towards you than the audience.
- Smile, a lot.
- Water – ask for glasses of water before it starts. Keep hydrated.
- Keep the conversation flowing even if the author is replying with one-word answers.
- Wear layers – event rooms can be cool to start with but can increase in temperature.
- THANK EVERYONE – the author, the illustrator, the audience, the location staff, the festival/publisher you’re involved with, any sponsors you need to endorse and any unsung heroes. Once you’re home, do the same online too. It shows your commitment to the event.
- Congratulate yourself on a job well done. If it didn’t go as well as expected, then consider changes for the next time. Don’t dwell on it - learn and move on.
- It’s done. Have a wee cry or a nap. Or both.
Sarah Broadley writes for children of all ages. She is a member of the Society of Authors (SOA) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). She is a trustee on the board of Cymera: Scotland’s Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writing. Sarah regularly interviews industry professionals for her online SCBWI feature 'Writers' Minds' and is a children's book reviewer for online resource ‘My Book Corner’. She chairs local in-person and online book launches, and panel events for publishers and international book festivals. Sarah provides critique services for new and established children’s writers, and co-ordinates in-person book signing tours of Edinburgh’s bookshops (and surrounding area) for children’s book writers and illustrators.
Twitter: @sarahpbroadley | Website: www.sarahbroadley.com | Instagram: @greatbigjar