Perhaps there is an alternate universe, imagined in a lost story by Jorge Luis Borges, where author events are never constricted by time--a land where readings stretch to infinity, no books need be sold and no one in the audience ever, ever gets restless or leaves early.
Unfortunately, for booksellers hosting author events, infinity isn't an option. It takes delicate choreography to get people into their seats at a reasonable time (the five-minute rule), introduce the author, listen to the reading while watching the clock, spark a Q&A session if necessary, escort the author to a signing table and, ideally, sell some books.
Last week, Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., asked an interesting question: "Do any booksellers have a polite way to wrap up/cut off an author who could go on talking all night? I loathe this (cutting people off) and more often than not let people ramble far to long."
An early warning system helps, suggested Mandy King of Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colo. "We always tell our publicists and authors in the confirmation e-mail that the event should last no longer than 45 minutes, including Q&A. Then, when the author arrives at our store, our event host gently reminds them of this policy. We tell the author that there is a direct correlation between low book sales and events that last longer than 45 minutes. The nudge about book sales usually is enough to make sure the author keeps their presentation within the time limit. It's not a foolproof method, but it works 99% of the time. The other 1%, we jump in with an extra mic during the Q&A and announce that we only have time for one more question."
Cheryl McKeon, formerly of Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash., agreed: "When I hosted, we tried to outline the format to each author before the event, and I'd explain that events 'usually last about an hour, because if people have to leave we don't want them to go before they get to buy a book.' Then, I'd give the 'one more question' signal where the author and the audience could see me--playing the bad cop. If the author was long-winded, he thought the store needed the space, the audience thought the author had a deadline, and nobody was offended. Probably most hosts have some variation on this plan."
Describing himself as "the designated schlepper for off-site events" at the Bookshelf, Cincinnati, Ohio, Charlie Boswell--whose wife, Cary, is one of the bookshop's co-owners--said a "practical suggestion is to remind the authors beforehand that the object is to sell their book, so the Q&A and talk must end at ____, and that you will give them an enormous hint that that time is approaching. If necessary, have a staff person knock over a paperback display to create a noisy diversion, or pinch a baby..."
Shortly before the start of events hosted by the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo., Besse Lynch explains the 30-15-20 format to authors. This includes "30 minutes for the talk including any reading of short passages, 15 minutes of Q&A and 20 minutes of signing. I always point out the clock on the wall in front of the author so that they can pace themselves.
"Of course it never fails that some authors will take the ratio into their own hands. No matter how hard you try to explain that we set the structure for a reason--to entertain our guests and sell books--the author will ultimately do whatever they want, sometimes reading straight from the book for the entire 30 minutes and other times forgoing any sort of presentation at all and heading straight to Q&A. Sometimes I daydream about setting up an author event training course where the author would have to pass a series of practicums and tests before they are sent out on tour... Though ultimately, we never cut off the author; they are the reason we are here."
Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz and Associates said her overall strategy evolved from her experience as a bookseller: "At Davis-Kidd Booksellers and especially in the training field where I often have a tight schedule of guest speakers, I can't let people go on and on. Here's what I've learned from bookstore events and from training mentors:
- Tell them in advance how much time they have and let them know you'll give them a five minute warning.
- Stand up when it's time for them to wrap-up.
- If necessary, begin walking closer to them if they keep going at an uncomfortable and inappropriate length of time.
- If they simply don't stop even when they see your cues, keep walking closer and then jump in at the first chance to politely say a kind word about the presentation and say you're sorry you've run out of time. Then you can open things up for questions or invite customers to get their books signed.
"You'll know when to allow an engaging author to go on a little longer," she observed. "You'll also know when customers are getting fidgety. In both cases, you're in charge and others are looking to you to intervene (or not)."
Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., "used to be a booking agent for comedians and the perfect show always leaves the audience a little bit hungry. If an author hits a home run during Q&A, saying something funny, poignant... the perfect ending, whatever, I won't let him ruin it by having the poor schlep answer the same old 'So, what are you reading now?' or 'Are you working on anything new?' or (god help me) 'What is your process?' Bleah!
"I just get up off my stool at the back of the room (or wherever I'm standing) and just walk straight for them clapping and saying 'That was amazing! Thank you so much! If you have any more questions for the author, I'm sure he'd be happy to answer them for you as he signs your book.' That rewards the people who bought a book and shuts down the ones who just came to the event because they love to hear the music of their own voice. You know who I'm talking about. I admit I did actually turn the lights off once. Sometimes you just have to tell people the old saw: 'You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!' "--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1283.