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Mastering Online Author Events, With Cody Sisco — Self-Publishing Conference Highlight

Mastering Online Author Events, With Cody Sisco — Self-Publishing Conference Highlight

Online author events are here to stay. By going online, authors can reach beyond their physical location, find an audience primed to enjoy their stories, and raise their public profiles. Whether you’re shy or gregarious, a hermit or a socialite, indie author and entrepreneur Cody Sisco will share strategies and tips for mastering online author events.

This is a post from SelfPubCon (The Self-Publishing Advice Conference), an online author event, run free twice-yearly, in association with the Alliance of Independent Authors.

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Listen to Online Author Events with Cody Sisco

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In this Self-Publishing Advice Conference highlight, author @CodySisco reveals the secrets behind mastering successful online author events. Click To Tweet

Read the Transcripts: Online Author Events with Cody Sisco

Cody Sisco: Hello, I'm Cody Sisco, indie author, publisher, and literary community organizer. Welcome to the Self-Publishing Advice Conference.

This session is about mastering online author events. In it, I'm going to share some of my experiences producing online author events, as well as strategies and practical tips for organizing your own events.

To start, I want to acknowledge that we're in the midst of a pandemic crisis. With public health guidelines requiring social distancing, that's reason enough to be organizing online events as opposed to in-person events. However, I want to encourage you to think about organizing online author events as a key part of your indie author strategy for marketing and for increasing your public profile, both now and beyond the crisis.

We live in a blended reality, for better or worse, with virtual life and the real-world intermingling. Authors that are able to take advantage of that and interweave their experiences both online and offline are the ones that are going to reach their audiences more effectively.

During today's presentation, I'll go through a few reasons why you might want to organize online author events, and then I'll cover practical strategies and tips about four key areas of event organizing, which are: audience, format, platform, and communications.

I'll also walk you through specifics around running the event itself and a timeline for how you might want to plan your events. Let's get started.

Like many authors, I grew up reading loads of books, and I spent a lot of time in the library. It's where I discovered new books, and it's where my first impressions of literary culture took root. Although my local library had some events targeted at younger readers, there wasn't a packed schedule of events for teenagers and adults. As a result, my first impressions of literary culture were that literature was a very solitary experience. It wasn't till later, until after I published my first book, Broken Mirror, that I realized that there are other ways of going about it.

I learned how important it was for authors to consider their roles as public figures, public commentators, and shapers of literary culture. This is especially true for indie authors who don't have access to all the resources that traditional publishers control and influence. Events enable you to speak out and share your stories with the world, unfiltered.

I would encourage each of you to think about your own career, what kind of public profile you want to have, and how you can use online author events to achieve that.

Events also create opportunities for collaboration. Writing itself can be a very solitary affair and collaborating with other authors can be transformational both personally, intellectually and professionally. I'll tell you a short story about collaboration that demonstrates this point.

Back in 2016, I had just published Broken Mirror when I had the opportunity to join an indie author day celebration. I set up a table with my books and bookmarks and posters and got to talking to library members. I was also part of a panel discussion about the writing process.

It really opened my eyes to the importance of interacting with, and developing relations with other authors, as a way to reach a larger audience. As a result of the connections I made that day, I co-founded with them the Made in LA, indie author cooperative. We support each other's careers, collaborate on events and jointly publish an annual fiction anthology series.

Last year, we had a local indie bookstore book tour and organized events at six of our local bookstores. These were live, in-person events, but we were well aware that each event created an opportunity to be more visible online. We would post flyers online in advance. We would record the events, capturing photos and video, and we would share all of it afterward. We started to see that our audience really wanted to have that way of keeping in touch. If they couldn't make the event in person, they could see what it was like online and catch up on the recordings.

When the coronavirus swelled in March, we were in the planning stages for our third annual anthology. We'd been planning a party to bring together all of the collaborators and contributors, as we usually do, but, of course, we couldn't all be in the same room. So, we decided to have an online event. We held a zoom party where we got to hear from each of the authors, we got to learn about their stories, and we got to know each other better. Our readers got to listen and ask questions during the discussion. Those conversations that started during the event are continuing now that volume three is on its way to be published on October 30th.

In addition, I know when those authors have a story coming out, they know when I'm planning events, we remain in close, almost daily, contact, even though we haven't been physically together in all that time. I'd say never underestimate the power of doing an online event together to solidify and maintain relationships.

I'll wrap up the discussion of why you might consider doing online events as an important part of your career with the example of BookSwell, which is a literary media and events company I started a few years ago. From the beginning, the purpose of BookSwell has been to bring readers and writers together, and to interweave real and virtual literary experiences. We amplify marginalized voices and create platforms where writers can be heard. The initial project under BookSwell was an events navigator that remains the most comprehensive list of literary events in Los Angeles.

Over time, we've begun to create more original content. The BookSwell Intersections podcast debuted in 2018, and it's focused on book recommendations, author interviews, as well as events. Last year, we organized our first in-person event, which gathered queer writers of color for the Lambda Lit Fest, where they read excerpts of their work and discuss challenges of equity and representation inside of the publishing and literary spheres.

When bookstores and libraries canceled their events earlier this year, I realized that we were going to lose a staggering portion of LA literary culture. I was immediately motivated to figure out what BookSwell could do in this space. We began the read and relate series, which is a monthly video chat literary salon. I'll be sharing some examples from this series throughout the presentation.

My main point here is that events are an important means of building and fostering literary communities.

Now, we're going to get a bit more into the specifics. I'll say one important caveat. These four areas I'm covering; audience, format, platform, and communications, are not necessarily sequential. They're overlapping areas of effort.

Reaching a Target Audience for Online Author Events

First, let's focus on defining and reaching a target audience. The key questions to ask yourself are, who am I trying to reach? Where will I find them? What will attract them to my event?

As indie authors, we are tasked with doing a lot of the marketing and promotions ourselves. Some people thrive doing that. Others see it as a kind of chore. If you've already done some work to identify your target audience, then you're ahead of the curve when it comes to planning events.

I would advise you to think about both demographics and desires. For demographics, you can look at age, gender, location, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, family status, religion, and on and on. Demographics are important considerations. They'll shape who you reach out to and how.

Also very important is desire. And by that, I mean, understanding the psychological motivations of audiences to attend your book events online. Why spend the time? What's in it for them? Whether we're talking about demographics or desires, events can be a way of reaching an audience that is fun and fulfilling.

How do you do it? I'll offer you four starting points.

Number one, I think it's good to take stock of yourself, do a little psychological inventory and maybe some free writing exercises about online events and your attitudes toward them. Think about all of the events that you may have attended and what you liked about them and what you didn't like about them.

What is it that gets to you? When you see a listing for an event and you say, Oh, yes, I'm going to that one. What is it? Is it a big-name author who you really respect that you want to hear from? Is it the subject matter that you find attractive?

Understanding what your own motivations are, will help you think about what your audience's motivations are. It'll help you tap into those and get them to click that RSVP button.

Number two, do your research to discover where your audience hangs out online and how to reach them. Do they subscribe to library, bookstore, or publisher's email newsletters? Do they participate in groups on Facebook? Are they part of any discussion boards or lifts serves? Pay attention, both to where they are and how they engage. What topics generate the most interaction? What are people passionate about? Think of yourself as an amateur sleuth and keep a record of your observations.

Number three, attend events, and pay attention to every aspect from the promotion of the event, to the event itself, to what comes after. What tools are the organizers using? How was the event run? What works well and what doesn't work so well? Again, take notes if you like.

Number four, and the final thing I'll say here is that you can put your writer's brain to work and think about your audience as a character or characters. If you create a character profile and really narrow down the specifics on who you're trying to reach, it makes every decision in organizing the event easier to make.

I'll share an example for how this works. The most recent event I produced for BookSwell came from a hypothesis that people were growing fatigued at social distancing, especially as it related to sex. I thought maybe an event featuring erotic literature might have an audience. I reached out to a few author friends to see what they thought, and one replied immediately with constructive suggestions. We also knew that AIDS Walk LA was coming up, that it was a virtual event this year, and that we could get creative in our outreach. So, we started to shape a fundraising event to try to get a strong response. And thus it was conceived, Times of Thirst and Desire.

I have one very important pro tip to share about audiences.

Authors and literary organizations have been doing the work to build their audiences over many years. One of the best ways to reach an audience is to partner with them. If you're planning an event that would be of interest to their audience, that is a great reason to reach out.

Moving on, let's say you have a rough idea of your audience and what they might be interested in. It's time to determine the format.

Here's how I would approach it, you want to design an experience, start to finish, that fulfills the need that you identified in terms of your target audience. Let's break this down in terms of four decisions you'll need to make.

First is purpose, a poetry reading has a different impact than an intellectual discussion. A reading of someone's work lands differently than a one-on-one interview. And a Q&A with an audience also feels different from an interview.

One of the purposes that's always on the table for an online author event is to introduce a book to the world. That is great and, of course, I see a lot of that. That purpose lends itself to the author, possibly with another person in conversation, discussing the book and maybe reading an excerpt or two. If you're going to read an excerpt, think about the excerpt as the meat in the story sandwich. Think about giving it some meaning and context, if necessary, before and after. And remember that people always like a peek behind the curtain. If the purpose is to explore a topic or idea, that lends itself more to multiple perspectives, and so you might think about having a panel discussion. Figuring out your purpose can clarify the right format.

Duration of Online Author Events

Second, let's talk about duration. I will be brief in talking about duration. People have short attention spans these days, especially online when they can leave your event with a click or a swipe. I'm very careful not to plan an event that goes longer than one hour. Short can be just as impactful. I'm a fan of five-minute live interviews on Instagram, for example, because you jump right away to what's interesting, and when it's done, it's done.

Third, we'll talk about hosts and presenters. Probably the most important decision you'll make in planning an event is who will host and who will present. Your presenters bring energy and ideas. They bring their own audience to your event. They are the heart of your event. All of the interpersonal opportunities and challenges of in-person events are present, and layered on top of that is the mediation of technology.

It helps to invite writers who you have some experience with, either personally or you've seen them present at events in the past. And, of course, they should have a strong background in the topics, themes, or genres to be addressed during your event.

Fourth and finally, for our discussion of purpose, I always make a plan with regards to audience engagement and decide in advance whether the event will be interactive and how so, acknowledging that people come to these events for different reasons. Some want to come and talk and interact, some want to sit back and be entertained. It helps too to be as clear as you possibly can about what type of interaction you're promising to your audience. Here's an example, I was invited to one of Tori Eldredge’s events recently. She is a crime writer who was promoting her new book, The Ninja's Blade. I arrived and there were maybe 12 people on a zoom meeting, and most of them she had gone to college with or had been friends with for a long time. So, it was a very cozy event. I've been to other events where she attracts a large crowd and it's more of a one-way presentation, but at this one it had a real intimate vibe, and I'd say she's brilliant at figuring out exactly what each event should be and how to interact with the audience.

That event with Tori was high interaction. All of us on camera and on mic chatting. In contrast, there are many online events where you might have an interviewer engaging an author in discussion, where the audience has very limited interaction. They may be able to submit questions via the chat function or via a Q&A function, but they're not on screen. They're viewing, not participating. So, think about what experience you want the audience to have and make a plan for it.

I'm going to talk now about platform, and specifically I'm referring to the technological tools you rely on throughout the course of planning and running your event.

And a few things to say about this upfront. First, there are many options, and each has its own advantages, disadvantages, and quirks. All of these options can be overwhelming to navigate. My recommendation is that you do research into the options, identify one that looks like a good fit for your needs, and then become proficient at it through practice.

Here are a few things to keep in mind. Some platforms come with a large audience you can easily tap into. I'm referring specifically to social media behemoths like Facebook and YouTube. You can go live on each of those platforms, and on others as well, and your event will be broadcast throughout your social network online, and beyond.

Facebook has the advantage of there are more ways to promote your event in advance. YouTube has an archival advantage in that it's easier for people to find your event video after the fact. The drawback with both of these is that you're essentially creating content to feed their advertising aims. Both of these platforms allow you to schedule your event in advance or start your event in real time with a few clicks. Again, it's worth reading the detailed instructions and testing each system.

There are also other platforms that are more focused on hosting online events as their main thing.

Zoom is one we've all become familiar with lately, if not before. Crowdcast is another popular option, especially for author events. You also might check out, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts. All of these that I've just mentioned allow for varying degrees of interactivity and controls over who gets seen and heard during the meeting.

I prefer solutions that offer you easy ways to control the focus of the event by, for example, showcasing a single author among a group for a period of time.

I'll talk more about this later, but it's also important to think about where to post your event information so your potential audience can see it. Eventbrite is one solution for that. All that said there's a lot to learn and there's no better teacher than experience when it comes to technology. Also, read the f-ing manual, as they say.

I'll share one example from this summer. Following the uprising for racial justice. After galvanizing instances of police brutality, I reached out to black writers I knew and asked them if they'd like to be center stage at an online event fundraiser for Black Lives Matter LA. In partnership with a librarian who was collaborating with me on our Read and Relate reading series, we began to plan a Juneteenth event. Because the purpose was to create the space for black writers, I decided to invest in Zoom's webinars subscription, which has advantages over the basic plan, including a Q&A function, as well as distinguishing between panelists and the audience. I also used Eventbrite as a ticketing solution, because it allowed me to offer both free tickets, which is important for a social justice focus reading, as well as pay what you will donation tickets which was our primary fundraising mechanism. Through a bit of technical wizardry, I was able to live stream to both YouTube and Facebook simultaneously from Zoom, when usually the platform only allows live streaming to one or the other. So, you can see how several different technologies created the solution for that specific event.

With regard to platform, I'm going to reiterate a few key messages. You should always conduct a practice session with a new platform, and you may want to include your participants in that practice session. You should test your ticketing process to make sure it works smoothly and provides correct information to registrants. You should familiarize yourself with all the documentation, and you should be ready to troubleshoot any problems along the way.

Now, here's the fun part. For every event, as the organizer, you're engaged in bringing a concept to life. Much like a book there's the thing itself, the text, if you will, and then there's everything else around it that aids in its success. For a book, that would be the cover, the blurb, the marketing plan, et cetera. For an event, here are some pieces of content around the event that I always create that helps it to be a success.

First, there's a title and description that clearly describe what the event is all about, and key information about accessing the event. So, date, time, platform, how to RSVP. With regards to title, I sometimes create one long title and one short title, because there are limitations for some places where you post the information, and they want a short title versus a long title. So, that's easy enough to do.

Second, I'll create a flyer that communicates a mood and, again, has the most vital bits of information. In fact, I create two versions of every flyer, one with square dimensions and one with wide dimensions for posting in different places online.

Third, I provide a prompt to the participants well in advance so they know what type of event it is, and they can start preparing their thoughts. And if they're going to be reading, I give them a length of time so they can start to select the right excerpt to read. I write down a list of discussion questions. Sometimes I need them, sometimes if there's a good flowing discussion and plenty of audience questions, I don't have to use them. I also prepare a rough agenda sometimes noting the time periods involved to help me keep the event running on track. And, as I mentioned previously, I create a plan for audience engagement.

I'll walk through now the example of an event I did in May, with regard to creating content. The writer, Kate Maruyama contacted me and said that she'd like to partner in organizing an event about writing better futures in times of crisis. This was back in April when things were looking pretty grim and so, of course, I recognize the need for an event like this. She came up with the title and the description, I designed the flyer, and she assembled this fantastic group of authors to come together and have this discussion.

I'll talk a little bit more about this event in a minute.

Rounding out the discussion of practical areas for organizing an event, we'll focus on communication. I could do a whole hour on communication, but I'll try and keep this brief.

It's been helpful for me to think about every event as a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. As the producer and organizer, it's my job to narrate that entire arc. Initially, I'm introducing a story to the potential audience, to get them interested and excited and to want to attend the event. During the event itself, I'm letting it build to a climax, and afterward, I'm a steward of the story's {inaudible}.

Some important things to keep in mind, as you narrate the cycle of your event. Repetition is vitally important, especially as it concerns basic information about topics, participants, platform, date and time. Up the link to where people can register often. Encourage them to add the event to their calendars and schedules. When you're sharing information about the event, text is fine, but photos and videos are even better in terms of making an impression. You can mine the content that you've already created to share on social media. You can find all those places you identified where your audience hangs out and let them know about the event.

Spreading the Word About Your Online Author Events

I encourage you to recruit your participants, your author colleagues, and confirmed attendees to help spread information about the event. You can use appropriate hashtags and mentions to extend your reach, and if there are media entertainment or literary organizations that have overlapping audiences, you can reach out and let them know about your event.

In terms of timing, I would think about your communications as a small light that builds to an enticing light show. Over time.

I'll talk about the timeline for planning an event a little bit later, but I'd say it that one to two months is a good time to start communicating. You could put up the event listings. You can announce a save the date. You can announce the participants. I usually begin to seriously focus on an event about three weeks in advance, reaching a crescendo the week before.

The week of an event, I'll send out lots of reminders and make sure that everyone knows exactly where they can find the event.

During the event, if you have a team, or if you have a very engaged audience, you can share screen caps and photos, and you'll see people reacting in real time on social media, which is always great.

After an event, you can share excerpts of the recording or quotes from some of the speakers, and you can share the link to the replay. I think of my communications after an event as attempting to extend the impact of the event and keep it alive as long as possible.

So now, let's move on to running the event and some things to keep in mind. I'll use the Writing Better Futures event, again, as an example. I usually ask panelists to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early, so we can diagnose and fix any problems with audio and video and catch them up on any last-minute developments.

Every event should begin with a welcome that touches on the purpose and sets the mood. It's also important to provide clarity to the audience in terms of if and how they can pose questions or comments.

Another facet to consider is how the participant authors will be introduced. In more literary events, it's common to read the authors file. Other options are to ask them to introduce themselves.

Consider also how you're going to handle transitions and timekeeping, which is typically the role of the host or organizer. Authors should be given crystal clear parameters, if they are reading their work, about how much time they'll have allotted, and what will happen if they go over. We've all been in this situation where it's time to move on and everyone knows it, except for the person speaking. It's more difficult with online events to make that transition happens seamlessly. So, have a plan and expectations set around that.

Also have a plan for how you're going to shift the camera view if you're doing a series of readings, to spotlight the person speaking. In the Writing Better Futures event, the authors were all fascinating and engaged in discussion. So, Kate Maruyama used a very light touch in moderating the discussion.

In relation to audience engagement, this was also a very interesting event. Because we had attendees in Zoom and also watching via Facebook live, I was toggling back and forth to check for questions in the Q&A function and in the chat, and to confer with Kate on queuing them up. It was a bit like spinning plates though it all worked out in the end.

I'll also share one example from a poetry event back in April. We had so many appreciative and supportive comments coming through the chat that I paused after each poet's reading to share those comments and give the poets the feedback. It made for a series of lovely life and art affirming moments, and so I encourage you to find ways to celebrate the engagement that happens.

In terms of troubleshooting, during an event so many things can go wrong with technology. Be prepared to handle any hiccups with grace. Remain calm is my advice. For example, in a recent event, using the same settings as always, I could not get the live stream to Facebook to initiate from Zoom. The error message was completely unhelpful and not descriptive, so I quickly decided to live stream to YouTube instead and sent out a message across all of BookSwell's social media channels, letting people know the new link they needed to access the live stream.

You might have to handle spotty internet connections for the panelists, or sound issues, or disruptive audience members.

Often, the problems that you notice won't be immediately apparent to the rest of the audience. Don't hesitate to take action and, above all, seek to keep the event moving forward.

We're nearing the end of my presentation, and I thought I should share what a typical event planning timeline looks like. What you see here is a bit compressed to what I prefer, but it's representative of all the things to keep track of and the rough sequence.

I'll use the AIDS Walk LA fundraiser I mentioned earlier, to illustrate the timeline. In this case, I partnered with Sequoia Manning, who is an author friend and literary organizer. We came up with the concept and discussed who we wanted to invite about a month before the date of the event. By about two weeks prior, we had everything in ship-shape, including the roster, the format and platform, the graphics, and the event listings online.

During the week prior to the event, I focused on reaching out to other literary organizations in the area who might be interested in promoting our event to their audience. I got a good response from Lambda Literary because of our overlapping LGBTQ+ audience and allies, and the AIDS Walk LA team helped spread the news about our event as well.

In addition, I reached out individually to authors I knew and asked them to post about it to social media. There was a really nice buzz leading up to the event.

The week of the event itself, I sent out reminders, the participants with all the information, just so they had it in front of them, even though they had seen it before. And in this case, Sequoia and I coordinated a last-minute wardrobe change so that we both wore our AIDS Walk LA 2020 t-shirts.

We also advise the poets, hey, think about what kind of environment for this erotic reading you want to have. Ty Farmsworth, in particular, got all glittered up and have really good mood lighting and the reading itself was great, I'd recommend you check it out. It's on the BookSwell YouTube channel.

It was a fun event too, that ran smoothly. Afterwards. I sent a thank you note to the participants and audience. I also shared the replay link as a way of helping people who couldn't attend the event at the time to enjoy the show.

And that's a very important advantage to doing these online events compared to live in-person events, is that you have that extended reach, both in time and in space.

And so, those are just some strategies and tips for organizing and mastering online events.

I've created a simple checklist distilling a lot of this advice that is available for download.

I'm very happy to engage with all of you online, you can find me on social media or via my website, www.codysisco.com. That's Sisco with an ‘S'. I'm also happy to respond to emails and you can see my email there in the presentation.

My final message today is that you can do this. As you go on your self-publishing journey, think about how you can incorporate events into your overall marketing promotions and communications. Events can be a powerful way to introduce yourself and your work to readers, as well as to collaborate with others in the publishing sector. And it's an important aspect of your role as an author.

Thank you for your time today. I hope this was informational and helpful. I will see you online at the conference. Stay safe.


Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an author, book editor, and journalist. He is also the Content and Communications Manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, where he hosts and produces podcasts and keeps the blog updated. You can find more of his work at https://howardlovy.com/


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