Wednesday 21 February 2018

Reader, meet author: Inside Nigella Lawson's book signing in Dublin

In the run up to the festive season, bookshops count on high-profile author events to boost sales

Star struck: Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and Meadhbh McGrath. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Star struck: Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and Meadhbh McGrath. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Fans wait to see Liverpool legend, Steven Gerrard at Eason to sign copies of his autobiography, 'My Story'. Photo: Arthur Carron
Rachel Allen

Meadhbh McGrath

The room is buzzing with excitement. A lively hum radiates from the crowd, and an electric anticipation hangs in the air. It's not yet 11am on a cold, rainy Saturday morning, and hundreds of people, men and women of all ages, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Nigella Lawson in Grafton Street's Dubray Books.

I join the queue an hour before she is due to appear, and it soon swells in size, snaking down the three floors of the bookshop. It's rare to see people so excited about books, and it's not just anyone who can get hordes of people to abandon the comfort of their beds on a Saturday morning.

"I drove straight here from Tipperary at 7am this morning, and I'm only up for this," says mum-of-three Denise Dwyer from Roscrea. "I've always said if she came to town, I'd absolutely love to meet her."

They say you should never meet your heroes, but the crowd assembled here - teenagers, elderly people, young mums with toddlers - are keyed up about their chance to meet the beloved TV chef and nab a signed copy of her latest book, Simply Nigella.

Behind me is 24-year-old Amelia Brown, who has come equipped with cookies baked from one of Nigella's recipes.

"I don't know if she'll accept them, we'll see! This is the biggest moment for me - I've been watching her shows since I was a young teenager. I can basically say she is my idol."

Kevin Whelan and Bernard Higgins, from Dublin, tell me Nigella is their favourite chef, and there's no other writer they would wait so long to meet. "Neither of us ever queued for a signing like this before, and I would say she's the only one who could get us to queue," says Kevin.

For others, Nigella's appeal has less to do with her cooking than her lavish verbosity. "Forget the recipes!" says Michele McEntee, a glamorous older woman. "I love her use of the English language."

Suddenly, the murmur of conversation subsides as Nigella makes her entrance. She takes her seat at the table, and the queue shuffles forward. When I come face-to-face with her, I find myself lost for words.

"Hello Meadhbh - see, I knew how to say it!" I don't know what I'm more impressed by, the fact that she pronounces my name correctly on the first go, or that she is utterly flawless looking. We chat about sweet potatoes, take a picture, and she thanks me as I walk away in a star-struck daze.

After they've had their moment with Nigella, I ask Michele and her friend Ava Stewart what it was like. "She's so lovely and so friendly. She makes time for everybody, and she is stunningly beautiful," says Michele.

"The look on the men's faces - that's the best bit," Ava adds. "I just leaned over and whispered to her, 'you're very beautiful'!"

The team at Dubray are equally thrilled with the event. Susan Walsh, the shop's marketing manager, tells me afterwards: "There was a huge turnout despite the horrendous rain - some people had even come up from Waterford and beyond - but everyone was in a great mood and patiently waited their turn. There was a fantastic atmosphere, and they all left with smiles!"

Pinched by competition from internet behemoths like Amazon, bookshops have had to focus their efforts on finding creative ways to get customers through the door. Author events are one of the few things traditional bookshops offer that online retailers cannot - there's no digital substitute for a book signed by your favourite author.

"Author signings are absolutely essential for us," says Susan. "A celebrity like Nigella has that pulling power that will get a lot of people in that might not otherwise be aware of our shop. It's great for publicity, especially when you're an independent chain of shops, you don't have any marketing budget to do big advertising campaigns."

Unsurprisingly, the most popular events are the ones with celebrity guests, like Brian O'Driscoll, Michael Palin, Rick Stein or Marty Whelan. "The celebrity factor helps," Susan says. "It has a huge impact on sales."

Her most memorable signing was Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher thriller series. "That was just great fun. Everybody that came along was an obsessive fan, and I was a bit obsessive too, so there's a great bit of banter."

This sense of community as people gather together around books can only happen at a bookshop, and you could feel it in the air as Nigella's fans exchanged stories of seeking out Maldon salt in rural towns or surprising family members with her signature ham in Coca-Cola.

As the population of readers is dwindling, celebrity meet-and-greets offer a chance to reach people who rarely buy books and draw them to a store. It doesn't hurt that the queues provide customers with ample opportunity to browse the bookshelves while they wait.

Shops try to organise major author visits close to Christmas - if customers have an opportunity to meet an author, particularly a celebrity, they are usually more inclined to buy extra copies as gifts. I paid ¤90 for three copies of Nigella's latest, while some members of the queue had as many as six.

"In a lot of instances, people coming to a signing will buy the other books in that author's back catalogue," says Brendan Corbett, head of marketing for Eason's chain of stores.

"But it's not just that they're important to us, they're important to everyone in the industry. For the authors, it's an opportunity to meet their fans and raise the profile of their new books. For the customers, it's an opportunity to meet the author, and around Christmas, to get a gift that's personalised with a dedication. There's a real feel-good factor for everyone involved."

In November and December, Eason holds up to a dozen signings a week, spread across their 64 stores in the Republic and Northern Ireland. The more popular events, like Steven Gerrard, are ticketed.

The super-fan book club isn't just a young person's game either; when the former Liverpool captain visited the O'Connell Street shop last week, 500 people packed in to see him, ranging from newborns in jersey rompers to fans in their 70s.

"It's a broad mix of cookery, fiction, entertainment and sports biographies," Brendan explains. "The Irish fiction authors have a very loyal fan base; Cecelia Ahern and Paul Howard are always a big draw. When Chris Hadfield came to Galway, there were queues all the way down Shop Street!"

Their most popular events have been with internet vloggers. "The likes of (British YouTube stars) Alfie Deyes and Marcus Butler attract a huge number of very energetic fans who will come early, queue to meet them and stay until the person leaves. It's like Beatlemania."

Author events are equally important for bookshops outside of Dublin. John Cotter, books manager for The Book Centre in Waterford, says during the holiday season, they arrange events once or twice a week, with a mix of local and national authors.

"They are particularly important around Christmas - it boosts the profile of the shop, you get the crowd on the day and sales afterwards of signed copies. In terms of local books, it's very important for liaising with the local community and promoting local interest books."

Karen Powers, a romance novelist based in Waterford, recently launched her second book, On Butterfly Wings, in the shop. After the launch, her book shot up The Book Centre's bestseller list.

Their most popular events tend to be sports personalities, like Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins and Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, who both visited the shop this year.

"With the likes of a big GAA player, you'd definitely have people getting up to five or six copies signed. A dedication adds value to a book. You tend to find that signed copies really boost sales, particularly coming up to Christmas. People think that they've gone the extra mile to get a book signed for a gift.

"A meet-and-greet with somebody well-known gives us a real advantage over internet booksellers. You can't get that experience online."

Star signings: the writers who really draw the crowds

Henry Shefflin: Autobiographies by GAA players are always popular at The Book Centre, and the legendary Kilkenny hurler's long-awaited memoir was no exception. His appearances at their Kilkenny and Waterford stores proved to be the biggest events of the year.

Alfie Deyes: When the 22-year-old British YouTube vlogging sensation visited Dublin to promote The Pointless Book 2, fears of hordes of fans descending on the O'Connell Street shop were so strong that Eason didn't reveal the location of the signing until the day before.

Rachel Allen: The celebrity chef took viewers on a tour of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way on her RTE series Coastal Cooking, and it's no surprise that her companion book of recipes became a best-seller. Fans flocked to her signings at Dubray Books and Eason.

David Walliams: The best-selling author of children's favourites Gangsta Granny and Demon Dentist drew a huge crowd to his event at Eason's O'Connell Street store. Demand was so high that signings were limited to one book per person.

Steven Gerrard: The former captain of the Liverpool and England teams received a warm welcome from fans at Eason's on O'Connell Street. Gerrard signed copies of his autobiography My Story for 500 lucky readers, including one tiny super-fan in a Liverpool jersey romper.

Cecelia Ahern: The 34-year-old's book signings never fail to bring in a sizeable crowd of loyal readers. Now onto her 12th novel, The Marble Collector, her appearance in Eason's Belfast shop next week is set to be one of their busiest events of the year.

Irish Independent

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