Some of my writing friends and I, at a recent function, were talking about giving talks. More specifically, we were talking about the humiliation of giving talks when hardly anyone - or even no-one at all - turns up. It was a hilarious conversation, and afterwards I found myself thinking how nice it is that with fellow authors, we're able to laugh off these humiliations and not feel shamed or depressed about them. And then I thought: what if it happened the very first time you did an author event? Would you realise it's actually something that most of us experience, and accept it as just another disappointment along the road of disappointments that often make up much of a writing career - or would you be devastated and feel like giving up?
With this in mind, I decided to write this little warning as an 'open letter' to new writers or newly published authors who may be considering starting to give talks and author events. Not to put them off, but on the contrary to welcome them to our world: the world of the survivors of public humiliation!
A few years ago I was given a book as a present which opened my eyes to this phenomenon and at the same time, reassured me. It's called 'Mortification', edited by Robin Robertson, and the sub-title is: 'Writers' Stories of their Public Shame'. It's full of very funny anecdotes by writers about events where they faced empty auditoriums, indifferent organisers, bored audiences and badly advertised events. It was reassuring because it made me realise it happens to far better-known authors than me, and if they can laugh about it, so can I.
At a signing of my first published novel, 2003. I sold one or two books!
Don't get me wrong: I've had very successful author events - fortunately, far more of these than the other type! And I love giving talks. I hasten to add that I didn't at first. We writers tend to be better at expressing ourselves in the written word than the spoken word - that's fairly obvious - and like many of us, I found my first few public engagements terrifying. Fortunately the memories of these have dimmed, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't very good. Probably my voice shook, and I mumbled and stumbled and spoke a lot of rubbish. I think the audiences were predictably small, probably boosted by my family, and I'm sure it's a good thing these were library talks so I wasn't charging a fee. But I'd been firmly advised that it was A Good Thing for a new author to Give Talks, so I soldiered on, and I got better at it.
As my career progressed I had more to talk about, more experience to call upon, and got to know what people liked to hear about. I realised one day that I was actually being paid to chat to people about what I love doing best - can't be bad - and I started to relax and enjoy it. We don't get out a lot, do we, glue to our computers as we tend to be - and it's nice to meet people who are interested in writing and in books and might even want a signed copy at the end of the meeting!
I don't do as many talks or events as some of my writing friends, but I have sometimes spoken to halls so full of people that some were standing at the back. Now, I don't kid myself that I'm that popular - those were meetings of very popular clubs, where the same number of people probably turned up to every meeting! And that's the key, if you don't want the humiliation of empty rows of chairs - offer yourself as guest speaker to clubs and organisations where you have a 'captive audience'. Then you'll only get an empty room if all the members are on holiday or if they all, to a man or woman, genuinely hate books, or talks by authors. Even then, you shouldn't take it personally. The speaker secretary shouldn't book something that their members aren't going to want!
On the other hand, giving a talk in a public venue such as a library, or doing a book signing in a bookshop, for instance, is asking for trouble if you're not very well known. In these circumstances, if you don't fancy humiliation I can only suggest renting your own crowd. Bribe a few friends and relatives to come along and behave enthusiastically, then there's just a chance their presence might attract a few more curious passers-by to hang around. But don't count on it. At a book signing a few years ago I behaved exactly like a stall-holder at Romford market (my native town) - bellowing out in my best barrow-boy tone: 'Come and meet your local author! Get your signed copies here!' One person wandered over, but only to ask where the toilet was. One of my trusty friends stood outside the shop, trying to encourage people in, without a lot of success, and I think I sold a total of three books - one to the friend, and the other two probably to staff of the shop. But I was pathetically grateful that I'd finally got a branch of the major bookseller to let me have a signing. I'd been asking for years. Oh no, I don't mind how long I humiliate myself for!
At 'that' bookshop signing.
But people won't be persuaded into things if they're not interested. We wouldn't, so why should they? It hurts, when you put yourself out there and try your best - but that's life. Worse things happen. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the ... bookshop! Or the library, as I did recently after waiting 20 minutes in front of the rows of empty chairs arranged there, more in hope than realistic confidence, by the librarian who had already admitted it didn't look like anybody would turn up. I'm past being mortified. It's just sometimes the way it is. It can be just as crushing if someone in the audience falls asleep during your talk - even if they're very elderly, in a warm room, and don't look in the best of health. You could choose to be offended, I suppose - but I prefer to think of it as another little anecdote to laugh about with my writing friends.
At a library Panel Event with fellow authors and good friends Maureen Lee, Fenella Miller
and Jean Fullerton. Panel events are a good way to share the humiliation!
It might feel good to be able to show off about the big audiences - the applause, the requests to come back, the compliments and sales of books at the end - of course that's what we all want, and it's lovely when it happens. But it's the funny stories about the times you persuade the two or three people who turn up to move forward from the back row so that you can have an informal chat instead of a talk, or when half the elderly audience get up and leave before the end because their bus is due - they're the stories that will make people warm to you, to laugh with you (not at you) - and will allow other writers to welcome you into the charmed circle of the humiliated. Because we've all been there, learned to shrug it off - and lived to tell the tale.