If you’re a soon-to-be published author, you’re probably a little nervous about presentations and book clubs. Okay, maybe you’re terrified. (I was!) Among a million other things, you might be wondering…
Do real authors worry that someone will ask a question they can’t answer? Do real authors make sure they're wearing socks with no holes in them in case they’re asked to take off their shoes in someone’s home? Do real authors worry their mind will go blank in the middle of a sentence? Do they worry they’ll be compared to other novelists? Do they spill their wine and talk with spinach in their teeth?
I’m here to tell you that, yes. Yes, they do.
Before my debut novel, THE PLUM TREE was released last year, my stomach churned when I thought about book clubs and presentations. Although I was excited about meeting readers, I wondered what would be expected of me and worried that people would change their mind about my work after meeting me in person. After all, how could an overweight grandmother with anxiety-flushed cheeks and trembling knees have anything important to say? And her book? It must have been a fluke.
Then I read an interview featuring Jenna Blum, author of THOSE WHO SAVE US, where she said books clubs helped dispel her fear of talking about her novel in front of strangers. What? Über-talented Jenna Blum, one of Oprah’s Top Women Authors, was nervous too? That was when I began to think maybe I’d be all right after all.
Now, eight months after the release of THE PLUM TREE and a dozen or so book clubs later, I’m here to tell you Jenna Blum was right. Books clubs are a wonderful way to ease into the new and often-scary “public” world of debut authorhood. After all, what could be better than having excited readers ply you with delicious food and wine while they chat and ask you questions about your novel? Trust me when I say it gives you a much-needed boost and is a great reminder of why you spent all those lonely months and years staring at your computer and talking to the dogs. And yet, like every author, you’ll eventually learn that not every book club experience is the same. To give you a heads up, here’s a list of a few things my fellow debut authors and I have learned while navigating the weird and wonderful world of book clubs.
1) Book clubs are not always about books. Although it might seem a bit strange, some book clubs don’t read the books they’ve chosen. For them, it’s a reason to get together with friends—for food, wine and conversation. While that’s all well and good, and people are certainly free to do as they please, it can be a bit awkward for an author who expects to talk about her novel. The good news is, you’ll make new friends and, hopefully, because they met you in person, some of them WILL read your book. If you’re worried about what to do in a case like this, remember that nearly everyone is interested in the process of becoming a published author. You can always talk about getting your agent, copy edits, revisions, rejection letters, word count, publishing houses, and the first time you saw your novel on bookstore shelves!
2) Sometimes the conversation goes in one direction and stays there. I know of one book club meeting where the members were so certain the book was going to be made into a movie, they spent the evening talking about auditioning for their favorite parts. While I’m sure the discussion wasn’t what the author expected, I’ll bet it was fun! If this happens to you, go with the flow and enjoy the enthusiasm!
3) Every book club needs a leader and sometimes it has to be you. One of my author friends stood by the kitchen door holding her purse while the book club fired questions at her before she even had a chance to take off her coat! Although I’d like to think that the excitement of meeting a published author caused the members to forget their manners, I’m sure it was a little awkward for all involved. Eventually, the author said, “Let’s grab our snacks and take a seat!” From there, things went well. It’s important to remember that there will be times when you have to take charge. Don’t worry, everyone will be glad you did!
4) Sometimes you’ll feel intimidated. No matter who you are or where you came from, there will come a time when it feels as though everyone in the room, and I mean everyone, is better educated and more successful than you. You might feel silly talking about your little book. But guess what? When it comes to being a published author, (unless, by chance, one of the members is also published) YOU are the most successful person in the room. The book club members, whether they’re heart surgeons, college professors or political analysts, are in awe of your accomplishment. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have invited you! Try to remember how you looked at published authors before you became one. That’s how most book club members look at you. Smile and be proud!
5) People will think that because they read your book, they know who you are. Every now and then, some questions and comments will surprise (or shock) you. Just like in the real world, people will say what’s on their minds before thinking. And sometimes, just like in the real world, they’re only being nosy. Smile, do your best to answer politely, ( or even better, with a dash of humor!) then change the subject.
6) If you’re feeling particularly nervous, it’s okay to bring backup. One author friend sometimes takes his wife to book clubs and she’s always a big hit. I’m sure partly because the book club members want to know what it’s like to be married to a published author! I’ve taken my mother a few times because THE PLUM TREE is loosely based on her experiences growing up in Germany during WWII. People love asking her questions. I always say the more the merrier, and I imagine most book clubs feel the same way. But remember, every situation is different. If there is a formal dinner being served or restaurant reservations are being made, it’s best to ask first. Most book clubs offer to pay for the visiting author’s meal, but you can't expect them to pay for your guest. As a side note, if the meeting is being held in a restaurant, order something easy to eat (unless you don’t mind slurping spaghetti while fifteen people watch) and be prepared to take most of your meal home. You’ll be talking too much to put food in your mouth!
7) Every book club is different. And that’s what makes them so interesting and fun! Here I quote an author friend: “Each one has its own flavor unique to the members attending. I love the challenge and surprise those unique differences present. It's a little bit like improv theater. At one meeting, to my amazement, the conversation became so animated between the readers it was as if I was no longer in the room but watching behind one of those two-way mirrors they use in police stations or child psychologist clinics. Finally, one of the members turned to me and asked—how does it feel to have a bunch of strangers talking about you and your book as if you’re not here? I was speechless. It took me a few seconds to finally nod and smile and say, "Oh, it's great, carry on." I was in author heaven.
8) Some book clubs start with wine, continue to more wine, and finish with wine. This can be loads of fun or extremely awkward, depending on your temperament. In the case of one woman becoming so intoxicated she insisted the author examine her teeth, it was probably crossing the line a wee bit. But hey, to each their own. Everyone has their own version of entertainment! It’s best to laugh and chalk it up to experience. (and help with character building for your next book)
9) The best book clubs are those where the members are willing to share their personal stories. Here I quote another author friend—“Sometimes it can almost turn into a group therapy session. But it's interesting to hear how your book connects to their experiences, sometimes in very unexpected ways. In a book club, you get a chance to go beyond "I get it" and really get to know your readers.” For me, this is the most rewarding thing about book clubs!
10) Always be prepared to do a presentation. One book club I visited had rented a room in a historic downtown club. I was familiar with the building and assumed they would be gathered in one of the small side rooms. Imagine my surprise when I saw a sign that said the book club meeting was in the BALLROOM. When I walked in and saw the linen-covered tables, a buffet, and crystal chandeliers, I was certain there had been a mistake. Clearly, the ballroom had been set up for a formal party or wedding reception. Even the chairs were covered with white linen. As it turned out, FIVE local book clubs had gotten together to rent the ballroom, all to meet little old me. Imagine that. I quickly realized they were expecting a presentation and said a silent thank you to the author Gods that I had my notes and props with me.
11) No matter what happens, remember that book clubs are supposed to be FUN!!