Book Launches – beware, I’m biting back!

This is Clotilde Desoulier, blogger and author of Chocolate & Zucchini, at her London book launch at the French Institute. I have been reading her excellent blog of the same name as the book for a couple of years, partly because I love to cook, and partly out of a nostalgia for France that is only assuaged by visited the country virtually, whenever I can. But the transition from blogger to cookbook author isn’t an obvious one, especially if you started out as a software engineer, so I was interested to find out how Clotilde’s journey had begun.

Let’s start at the start – there are some things about book launches that annoy me; one of which is the tendency to treat people who turn up for them like second-class citizens. There’s often a time of milling and hanging around, especially if, like me, you’ve travelled some distance for the event and have to arrive either early or late – having opted for the politer option: early, I found it frustrating to be assiduously ignored by everybody involved in the organisation of the launch. A suggestion – why don’t book launch organisers put together a couple of sheets of information about the book, it’s author and the venue, run it through a photocopier and leave a pile on the table so that folk have something to pick up and read – it would cost almost nothing and relieve the awful embarrassment of attenders feeling (forgive my vulgarity) like a spare prick at a wedding.

The appetisers, made from recipes contained in the book, were on two tables with the wine – and they were very good indeed. Clotilde’s book was piled on a coffee table with four chairs round it. By this time there were twenty people in the room. One of the organisers commented that he’d never seen such a crowd (and yes, I felt like saying better organisation would probably help you get bigger crowds still!)

We, the audience, had a dilemma – were we to pick up the books, or not? Were they on sale, or not? We didn’t know. Finally a woman told us they were, “Nine pounds ninety-nine, cash or cheque only,” she said. Yup, exactly that, like talking to the speaking clock. I gave her my tenner, was not offered a penny back (okay, it’s a small thing but hey, it’s my penny!) and was given a sticky note to write my name on, for Clotilde to sign the book.

And where was Clotilde? Round the corner of the L-shaped room, hidden behind a harpsichord. Don’t ask why, it seemed utterly bizarre to me, and by now I’d almost lost the will to live. And this is where the evening suddenly got better, because she was charming, friendly and personable, apologising to every purchaser for the need for the sticky note but explaining “I can’t talk and write at the same time, and it’s impossible for me not to talk to you all, so I look at the name you’ve written so I don’t make mistakes.” A nice personal touch that, and completely professional.

Once the signing was over and we all sat down – by now there were around fifty of us – Clotilde gave us a short talk about how a software engineer gets to write cookbooks. The salient facts were that the book contains all new recipes because she didn’t want loyal readers to be disappointed by finding she’d re-hashed material they’d already seen, and that when she’s cooking she’s always thinking ‘will this work for the blog’ which is how she builds material – she also said that it’s great that culinary failures can be turned into blogs by describing what went wrong!

She was fluent, interesting and enthusiastic, repeated questions back to the audience during the Q and A and generally revealed herself to be a consummate professional as a communicator and a passionate foodie. About halfway through the session we began to smell wonderful chocolaty aromas and when the talk was over, we were treated to two different chocolate desserts, a cake and a cookie, both of which were superb and which had been prepared by her Mum!

Summary – fifty plus people attended, most of whom bought a book, at least three of whom bought three books or more, the mathematics adds up to around £500 to £600. Not a bad return on the launch, I would have thought. The food was excellent, Clotilde herself charming and knowledgeable, and generally I was pleased with my evening, but the whole event was marred, for me, by a kind of disdain for the audience from the French Institute that I find far too often – does nobody step into our shoes and try to guess what we will experience? Or does nobody care?


  1. Martin Heavisides
    24th June 2007

    The old ‘hide the author behind the harpsichord’ trick. Haven’t seen anyone pull that in a while. As soon as I get something of mine to the booklaunch stage, I’ll mention all these concerns to the organizers. Authors should certainly do what they can to help make a launch a memorable experience for their readers.

  2. Kay Sexton
    24th June 2007

    Hi Martin, I’m glad you agree – it can be difficult to point out the flaws in organisation to somebody else, but if we don’t share our own experience, people go along thinking everything’s fine. It’s tough enough to be an author without ANYTHING being stacked against you by accident. Clotilde’s book is amazing by the way – I cooked a recipe last night and it was superb.

  3. Charles Lambert
    3rd July 2007

    This is typically a pleasure to read and very useful, Kay, so thanks. I’ll be bearing it all in mind, particularly the bit about whether you have to pay for the book and, if so, how much. I say this because I went to the launch of a book written by a very old friend of mine from university, who has since become fabulously wealthy and successful and so much of a household name that I won’t say any more. The book is a memoir of his childhood and time at university and I’m in it, not extensively, but still.

    So what happened? I went across to pick a copy up from a pile in the corner of the room and a woman immediately told me, rather sniffily, that retail was £20 but that she supposed I could pay less for it if I couldn’t afford the full price.

    At this point, I was joined by another old friend of us both, who also appears in the book, who negotiated two copies for £30. Apart from the fact that the author (who wasn’t there at the table and may have behaved differently if he had been) could comfortably have given away a thousand copies of the thing without blinking, it was the idea that the amount we gave was somehow discretionary, like a tip, that set my teeth on edge.

    So, yes, make it clear that the book costs whatever it costs. Have it written somewhere, large and clear.

    One other thing, I’ve recently blogged about the New Writing 15 launch so I won’t go into the details of that here, but make sure the room has decent acoustics and a microphone – if one’s needed – that actually works!

  4. Kay Sexton
    3rd July 2007

    Mmm hmm, I’ve blogged on your blog over at – fascinating stuff, and yes, the British Council do cater well, in the culinary sense, don’t they? Many congrats on that sterling NW15 pub, btw.

  5. Charles Lambert
    3rd July 2007

    Thanks! The story is so old it should be actually be liable under the Trade Descriptions Act, but it’s nice to see it finally off the shelf…


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