The Facebook Author Chat: Using Social Media and Literature to Make New Connections

By Amy Billings, events and outreach manager, Gwinnett County Public Library

For many libraries, connecting readers and authors is nothing new — but what about facilitating connections to the characters and places inside the novel?

By using social media and forging unique partnerships, Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library recently found a new way to host author chats that can bring people together from across the country and add a new perspective to books, all while keeping costs and labor requirements low.

Why Go Virtual?

Gwinnett citizens love books and they love to meet authors. The library system — served by a robust 15-branch library system just outside Atlanta — hosts several “Meet the Author” events each year with participants like Pulitzer Prize-winners Rick Bragg, Tony Horowitz, Siddhartha Mukerjee and Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. The library has also had the privilege of hosting best-selling authors Charles Frazier, Lisa Scottline, Karin Slaughter, Stuart Woods and Michael Connelly, just to name a few.

While a live “Meet the Author” program is always a special event, it can be quite expensive and labor-intensive. It requires customers to travel to a specific location at a specific time, which can be a limiting factor for some, especially given the traffic in metro Atlanta! As such, programming staff at Gwinnett County Public Library have been on the lookout for new and innovative ways to bring author experiences to customers. We discussed how Facebook and other social media could allow customers to interact with an author right from their own homes or mobile devices. With the economy continuing to negatively impact library budgets, publishers’ promotional budgets and household budgets, everyone was on board with this low-cost alternative. The result was Gwinnett County Public Library’s first live Facebook chat.

Planning

In case you have never hosted a Facebook chat, here is how it works: At a predetermined time, special guests and attendees log in to their individual Facebook accounts from wherever they are located and navigate to the library’s page. The moderator creates a post on the library page — such as a photo of the author — and participants simply type their questions in the comment field. Then the author responds in the same thread.

Working with Random House publishing, we invited author April Smith to chat about her new novel, “A Star for Mrs. Blake.” Set in the 1930s, this historical fiction novel features a group of mothers who have lost their sons in World War I. Taking advantage of a special government program, these “Gold Star Mothers” travel together to France in order to visit their sons’ graves. The women are strangers to each other and all have led very different lives. The plot also involves a scandal and a secret. It raises questions about war and peace and sacrifice. The fact that there were so many different directions for a discussion to go was part of the appeal of this particular book.

We scheduled the chat for Tuesday, February 25 at 7 p.m. and started promoting it. Local marketing involved publicizing on the library’s website, displaying posters in the branch, and reminder notices on the public computer terminals. A note was added to the book entry in the library’s catalog. We emailed customers who had previously indicated interest in author events, and of course, Facebook and Twitter were utilized.

But what really made this process unique is that we experimented with bringing in participants beyond our local community. Because the first few chapters of the book take place on Deer Isle, Maine, and the protagonist, Cora Blake, is a librarian, we invited the librarian and residents of this tiny island to join us for the author chat. Gwinnett also reached out to national and local chapters of the Gold Star Mothers and invited them to join the discussion that night. (This is still an active organization with chapters that support the families and moms who have lost children in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Inviting these groups expanded the circle of potential participants beyond traditional library users. It also opened up a way for all the chat participants to learn more about the Gold Star Mothers and become involved with this organization on a different level. As an added bonus, the library offered signed bookplates to all participants.

Hosting the Event

View the library's Facebook author chat with April Smith

The night of the event, Emerson Chase Memorial Public Library Director Heather Dunham opened their library, which is housed in a small saltshaker house, and invited the island residents to brave the 10-degree weather and join her in participating in the discussion. Smith logged in from sunny Santa Monica, Calif. Meanwhile, in Lawrenceville, Ga., the Friends of Library gathered for a pre-event potluck supper before they participated in the chat in the library’s computer lab. Approximately 40 other participants signed on from their own locations.

Gwinnett library staff began the chat by posting a welcome. We asked the participants to “like” the post in order to help us determine how many people might be reading along, and we encouraged them to add their questions in the comment field.

We were ready to get the ball rolling by posting previously prepared questions, but the conversation began to flow fairly quickly. There was a bit of a delay as people posted comments and waited for answers, but it was fascinating to see all the different types of questions that were posed. Participants asked about various plot points or characters, Smith’s writing style and methods, and commented on each other’s posts. There was even some virtual socializing going back and forth as folks introduced themselves and commented on their locations or situations. One participant even mentioned that she was enjoying a nice glass of French wine in honor of the novel’s setting.

By the end of the hour-long session, 57 people had “liked” the event and there were 47 total comments. After the event, author Smith said, “I thought it was very creative of the large Gwinnett Library to reach out to the tiny Deer Isle Public Library in Maine. It was thrilling to be speaking to folks from the hometown of my main character, Cora Blake.”

From Deer Isle, Maine, to Santa Monica, Calif., to Lawrenceville, Ga., and many points in between, this event demonstrates the new power that our libraries have to bring people together in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Hosting the event on Facebook allowed the library to bring this group together without prohibitive costs, travel constraints or large staffing demands.

Holding Your Own Facebook Author Chat

So how can your library host a similar event? First, do your homework. Get an idea of the type of author who is likely to appeal to your customer base. Develop a marketing plan for the event and be ready to sell yourself and your library. If your library is a large system, get in touch with any contacts you may have at publishing companies. Another approach is to “friend” authors on Facebook. Contact them to let them know that you are a fan of their work and would love to promote their new book by facilitating a Facebook author chat with your library customers. Letting them know that you have a marketing plan ready reassures the other parties that you are professional and committed to making it worth their time and effort.

Once the program is scheduled, make sure you have sufficient copies of the book and give yourself enough time to get the books ordered, processed and out in the community well before the event. Social media is the logical place to promote the event and a handy way to send out a reminder on the day of the event.

When the chat begins, be sure to act as a virtual host, much as you would host an in-person event: introduce the author, get the conversation going, and comment on other people’s posts. Invite people to “like” the page so you can count those who may not comment themselves but are reading along. It’s always a good idea to have some questions prepared in order to get the conversation rolling; asking about the author’s writing habits or inquiring about her research is a great way to start a thread. Be sure to thank the author for her time and promote her work.

Intrigued? Take a chance and reach out. Hosting a Facebook author chat is a fun new spin on the traditional “Meet the Author” event and a great way to bring people together. It is cost-effective and less labor-intensive than a traditional event with the added advantage of appealing to people who like to participate from home or mobile device rather than travel. What’s not to “like” about that?

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