An author visit can be a lovely change of pace from the usual meeting, and I would encourage most book groups to try one some time. However, all author visits are not created equal. A bad visit can be a face-to-face infomercial for a product that nobody is buying, or worse, awkwardly quiet, damned by obviously faint praise, or even confrontational. Here are guidelines to consider before you invite an author:
- Did your group pursue the author or did the author come to you? If it’s the latter, look more carefully at the author’s credentials before you say yes.
- Is the author a member of your group? If so, consider whether discussing her or his work will be comfortable. Would negative feedback be acceptable? If not, you might give the author time for a short presentation but not make the book part of shared reading.
- Are you willing to extend the same talking rights to any member of the group who is also a writer? One group that I coordinate has four published writers and others who dabble. We happily announce new works and publications at the start of meetings, but otherwise, we’re not a writing group and don’t have time to discuss everyone’s work.
- If you’re not familiar with a writer (even if the writer is a friend of a member), do some research before saying yes. Talk to the writer directly for long enough to get a sense of how well spoken he or she is. Was the book self published, brought out by a small press, or part of a major imprint? Does the author have experience with how book groups work and in discussing his or her work? Is this the kind of book that your group would normally choose or appreciate, or is it likely to be received awkwardly?
- Will the entire meeting be devoted to the author? If not, set clear time limits and expectations with the speaker in advance. Don’t be afraid to be specific about what your group would and would not like. Ask questions about what kind of presentation the writer would like to give.
- If author visits have been problematic for your group in the past, consider drafting some guidelines which you can use to screen presenters when confronted with further requests.
For best results, pursue your own authors. Look for writers who can talk gracefully about their work and process, but who aren’t thin-skinned. New writers who are still trying to find an audience will be more likely to give their time. Famous writers may charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for appearances of any kind. Writers who have done the work: found an agent, submitted to publishers, been accepted, and experienced the publicity cycle are likely to be better speakers with more ability to talk about the process.