How To Bring Your Favorite Big Name Author To Your Tiny Town

New startup Togather offers lit fans a way to summon authors with promises to buy books.

Brooklyn writer Andrew Kessler had lived the stuff of nerd dreams. He was with NASA mission control during the 2008 Mars rover expedition, and he captured that experience in a book, Martian Summer.

He took a leave of absence from his gig as creative director at marketing firm Huge Inc. to promote the book. He got featured on Weekend Edition. He got 4.5 stars on Amazon. He even opened his own "monobookist bookstore" to stoke interest.

"But it didn’t work," he says, "and that wasn’t a surprise to anyone."

Kessler's biggest problem was that he couldn't connect directly with his would-be readers. He needed a successful roadshow to follow up on the media buzz he'd generated. If he could connect with the hundreds of astronomy clubs around the country and get commitments to buy his books in exchange for seeing him speak, he would be "happy, oh so happy, to speak to any one of them." But he occasionally he showed up at speaking dates and not only sold zero books, rooms would be empty—an experience that he says was "soul-crushing and terrible."

He realized that this problem was not his alone.

Back at Huge, CEO Aaron Shapiro (full disclosure: an expert contributor to Co.Lead) had released his own book Users, Not Customers and was running into the same speaking-tour problem. They put their heads together and zeroed in on a question: Could you get people to commit in advance to buying your books if in advance you agreed to go talk to them?

Their solution, Togather, launches today. The event-planning, book-selling service uses Kickstarter-style group buy to bring authors to their audiences and base speaking gigs on promised sales.

The site’s got the consumable hallmarks of the social web: clean design, sans serif fonts, get-in-and-get-out functionality. An author’s page has a bio, calendar of events, present location, tweets, and fan feedback. The key is the big blue "Create an Event!" button in the middle.

Those clicks begin proposals. When authors sign in, they'll see notifications, and they can decide on thresholds of books bought to tip events. So, say, rover enthusiasts can tell astronomy friends that they brought their favorite Mars writer to Albuquerque or Annapolis—places not normally served by touring authors like Kessler. If the author's far away, there might be a travel stipend tacked on.

It's an idea that's been tried in reverse by the likes of Gigfunder, a bring-a-musician-to-your-town site that has not found much traction. The difference, Kessler says, is that while Gigfunder was trying to build a market, Togather catalyzes a relationship between writers and readers. After all, the job of the author doesn’t end with writing a book but also connecting with—and marketing to—readership. Take the case of Bad Mother author Ayelet Waldman, who organized nonstandard tours through social media, with her Twitter followers and Facebook fans bringing her to places like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Winnetka, Illinois.

But Togather pushes past merely putting bodies in a room. No Cheating, No Dying author Elizabeth Weil, one of Togather’s early adopters, says that while Twitter and Facebook are good for broadcasting, Togather does a better job guaranteeing events will get attended and books will be bought—something that will take away the terror associated with author tours.

Everyone along the event chain—the writer, the publisher, the publicist, and the audience—is linked more definitively with Togather, Kessler says. And crucially, the very nature of the service converts would-be audiences into a book-buying fans.

"What we do is close the loop," Kessler says.

Already, the response from authors has been high, as Togather’s team of seven is ingesting authors as quickly as possible.

Cara Hoffman is another early adopter. The author of So Much Pretty sees Togather as part of the evolution of book culture, an online service that helps to create a shared offline experience, one that directly supports writers—clearly "a good thing all around for brainy folk."

Follow Drake Baer on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Mikel]

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