There are many ways.
I like the way the word ‘launch’ suggests champagne and an ocean liner. And recently I did attend a poetry reading in the sea. It was almost certainly the first ever event of its kind and it was during Poetry in Aldeburgh in early November.
Poets are tough people. They can do almost anything. Including taking off their clothes and immersing themselves in bitterly cold sea water while declaiming verse. The four fearless poets involved in this reading were each other’s audience because the spectators (I was one of these) were too far away to hear the words – and comfortably dry.
Poetry in the Sea was an unforgettable and stunningly beautiful event. But it wouldn’t do for a launch, despite the possibility of boats, because the books would get wet. And at a launch, there are books.
However, there was also a dry HappenStance launch at Aldeburgh, when we booked a beautiful room (with a sea view and amazing stripes wallpaper) in the Brudenell Hotel to launch Charlotte Gann’s Noir. It’s a dark and shadowy book, elliptical in its suggestion and grace – but there was much laughter on the day, as you can see from the photograph, and many HappenStance subscribers and poets came along.
But what are the essential ingredients for launching books?
Well, you do need an audience. There must be books to sell (this sounds simple but printers go bust every year). There needs to be a signing table. There needs to be an author to read (even this can go wrong and I have known launches where the author was elsewhere). The poet/reader needs to perform well and not for too long. Someone needs to make a little speech, introducing the poet and probably proposing a toast. You need glasses, or at least paper cups, and something with which to toast the success of the publication – anything from purest tap water to champagne.
You need something to put the money in. You need change. You need paper to note down sales etc. You need pens for signing the books. You need a clear head. You need a budget.
Because all this almost certainly costs a bob or two. You may or may not have to hire a room (you could use a free back room in a local pub; you could use your back garden; you could assemble in a park). But there is a cost factor.
If you’re selling the books yourself, you may pull in enough cash from the event to cover the cost. But the launch could be at a festival – like Paul Stephenson’s first reading from The Days That Followed Paris – which was also at Poetry in Aldeburgh. At a public event of this kind, you don’t have to fork out for the venue (and if you’re lucky you may even receive a performer’s fee), but the official bookseller will handle sales.
You can have more than one launch, of course, and bigger publishers do organise these for popular titles at bookshops across the nation. But most poetry titles have just one, and occasionally two.
It all sounds a bit scary if you’re a new poet and contemplating organising such a thing – because often it is the poet who organises the launch – not the wonderful publisher, who is already working on the next three titles and anyway is on holiday in the Seychelles.
I have known poets who got a friend to do the organisation: an unofficial publicity person or secret agent. That works well, and the friend can also do the introductory speech. It’s also often a good idea to launch with at least one other writer: more variety during the reading and someone else to bolster the confidence and share costs.
But there are many models and ways of doing it. The most important single thing is that the audience – and the poet herself, if possible – has fun. It’s a sort of party: a birthday party for the book and a well-wishing. So once you think of this, nothing else matters but a spirit of celebration.
Last weekend I was in Taunton for Annie Fisher’s launch of Infinite in All Perfections. If you give a collection a title like this, you’re asking for trouble. However, it was a fabulous launch with a style of its own.
It was an afternoon launch with glasses of Prosecco, Victorian china, floral decoration on all the tea tables, acres of glorious cake and tea. It was a launch in a terrific hall with microphones and comfy seating. There was a band playing before and after the poetry. It was a launch at which the poet not only read but sang. Such a voice! Such a lyric performance!
If a publication would make a suitable Christmas gift (this is certainly true of Annie’s pamphlet), it’s no bad idea to launch in November or December, so timing's worth consideration.
I’ve always wanted to do a launch at which copies of the publication were given away free to everyone who came. I’ve never done it but I love the idea; and it could be possible, if it were a launch with a paid entry. Or if the poet (or publisher) was singularly well-heeled.
What’s the purpose of a launch again? It’s to celebrate the arrival of a new piece of making, to send it out into the world, and to find it some good readers. It’s only the beginning, but a good beginning helps.
(One thing to bear in mind: the launch of your first publication is the easiest. Launching subsequent books is much harder. By now, your family and friends have got used to the idea you do this kind of thing. So you may need to think hard about how to do it in a different way with different attractions. A magician. Games. A celebrity guest. Rabbits.)