Bringing Writers to Readers: A Partnership That Works

The future of bookselling often seems cloudy in this rapidly changing digital world, but the future of reading is clear. As publishers struggle to determine the best way to produce and market books in this new digital era, non-profit organizations whose mission is to encourage reading must continue to find ways to connect writers and readers. As resources shrink, creativity and partnerships become even more vital.

Seismic changes in the commercial book industry led to a thriving partnership between the Nashville Public Library and Humanities Tennessee, who now present a regular author reading series called Salon@615. When the two largest bookstores in Nashville, Davis-Kidd Booksellers and Borders, closed, the two non-profit organizations stepped in to fill part of the void. With support from the Nashville Public Library Foundation and retail partner Parnassus Books, the partnership has ensured that Nashville remains a key stop for authors on literary tours, even in an uncertain climate when many publishers are cutting back on tours or ending them altogether. Each author offers a reading and a question-and-answer period, followed by a book signing. All events are free to the public and include a reception before the reading.

Choosing Partners

Because the Salon@615 attracts authors writing in a variety of genres, audiences for the events are diverse as well. Humanities Tennessee is able to distribute information about Chapter 16 and the Southern Festival of Books via these audiences, and, as a statewide organization headquartered in Nashville, we find it significantly increases public awareness of our work to be part of this ongoing series. Although the Southern Festival of Books is well-established, celebrating its twenty-fourth year in 2012, and widely known within the publishing community, there are nonetheless people in Nashville who come to Salon@615 events and hear about it for the first time. The library’s reach and visibility in the community far exceed ours, and our ability to share our mission with the general reader is the primary benefit to Humanities Tennessee.

What makes a partnership work? For the library and Humanities Tennessee, it’s because they are both non-profit organizations with overlapping missions: to encourage reading for all ages, and to produce events that cement the vital relationship between author and reader. While the library is a part of Metro Nashville government, Humanities Tennessee is a small, 501(c)3 with a statewide mission to support public education in the humanities. The organizations have different internal cultures, but each understands that the other provides a strong and critical element of the series.

As a new business in Nashville, but one that already has a national reputation thanks to the involvement of bestselling writer and part-owner Ann Patchett, Parnassus Books has made a big impact in a short period of time on the literary community here. While certainly our audiences overlap, particularly among readers of serious literary fiction and nonfiction and book club members, our shared reach is much greater as partners on this endeavor than if any of us was producing the series alone.

Defining Roles

When collaborating on a regular series, every partner’s role must be clearly defined so that no detail falls through the cracks. Authors are booked by both Humanities Tennessee staff and Parnassus Books, with communication being vital between these two entities. The person who books the author remains the author liaison throughout the process, communicating all questions and requests through the publicist. Because the Salon@615 series does not have a budget for author honoraria or travel, we book only authors who are touring with new books. Humanities Tennessee’s existing relationships with publishers through its Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word were a key component in the ability to book high-profile authors from the beginning.

The library, as host venue, handles on-site logistics. Tickets are handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis beginning one hour before the event time. Library staff handle the audio-visual and green room needs of the author, and introduce the author at the event. Because the library is open past normal operating hours for Salon@615 events, the support of the Nashville Public Library Foundation is vital, with their funds helping to pay for increased staff and security costs and for the reception that precedes the reading. In return, the library foundation receives 10 percent of proceeds from book sales at the event.

Marketing is a joint effort. Humanities Tennessee staff writes a press release that is shared with all three entities and distributed to local media. Most of the authors are featured at Chapter 16, a literary website produced by Humanities Tennessee that provides content to the Nashville Scene and the City Paper via a creative commons license.

Being Prepared

Inevitably with any major new project, there are occasional complications. While we attempt to estimate correctly the anticipated attendance for each event, it is important that we be prepared in all cases. The audience for Ann Patchett’s Nashville launch for her novel State of Wonder exceeded even our large expectations, with library staff turning a reception room into an overflow room with A/V capacity in a short period of time, and copies of the novel selling out. It was following this event that early ticket distribution was established, allowing library staff to gauge the audience size well before the event’s start time.

Event Impact

At the first Salon@615 event in early 2011, Jean Auel read from and discussed The Land of Painted Caves, the final book in her acclaimed Earth’s Children series that launched thirty years ago. A soft-spoken woman, Auel read from the book and took questions from an audience of more than two hundred people. During the book signing afterward, it was obvious that Auel’s books were treasured by many of those present. Staff members looked on, amazed, as Auel met children who had been named for her characters, laughed over a tattoo of one of the main characters on one woman’s arm, and held the hand of a woman who wept as she told Auel of how the books helped her endure chemotherapy.

Recently, Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, visited Nashville. Once again, the signing line included readers who were clearly deeply affected by the book. Many dressed in black and white and wore red scarves, including a father and his two young sons. A book club wore coordinating outfits and clustered about the author for a photo. A number of teenagers waited in line, several commenting that it was their first time to attend an author reading, and adding that it certainly would not be their last.

Salon@615 has become a regular and vital author reading series on Nashville’s cultural calendar. In 2011, Salon@615 hosted eleven author events between April and August. Authors included Auel, Roy Blount Jr., Meg Cabot, Erik Larson, Ann Patchett, Hampton Sides, and Maggie Stiefvater. In 2012, we hope to host twelve to fifteen events. Thus far in 2012, in addition to Erin Morgenstern, we have hosted Robert Massie and T.C. Boyle, with upcoming events scheduled for Adriana Trigiani, Sissy Spacek, Colin Powell, Ron Rash, Jeff Shaara, and Richard Ford, among others.

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