Why eating books is good
for you

By Anne Sebba, The Author, Autumn 2009

Ladies who lunch have a bad reputation. But when the ladies who lunch are also ladies who buy books they should be cherished. For the last 10 or so years I have hosted a literary lunch for charity here at home. It started as an idea for the mothers at the school gate; initially, my way of raising money for the PTA and then keeping well away from all those ghastly coffee mornings.

But, no sooner were the plates in the dishwasher, when I was slyly cornered and asked… surely I had another author friend with a new book who would like to come and speak over another lunch in my basement?

So, like all habits, this too became hard to break. Although I have refined the original idea, not least by dumping the PTA and letting the author choose her own charity.

Mavis Cheek was the first I approached. Bless her. I cringe when I remember the audacity of asking her since she lives in the country to give up a whole day. But in return several who came to that lunch have said to me in the intervening years that subsequently they bought each of Mavis’ books “now that I know her.” Having spent an hour or two in the same room, they considered her a friend and therefore duty bound to support her every new novel.

Here’s how it works – a DIY kit for anyone who thinks authors have to do everything possible to help shift books. I cook the lunch – a cold buffet – and invite about 30 locals. The lunch is free – my gift to the charity – and in return they pay £30 (but could be less depending on cost of book) which entitles them to a copy of one signed book, lunch and a short talk. Good value or what? Depending on what rate the publisher supplies author’s copies, the donation to charity is usually about £10-15 per person which means that the overall charitable donation is about £400. Not huge, I know, and I have contemplated charging more. But keeping the price low means I don’t have to chase acceptances, far too time consuming and embarrassing. Why don’t I include men? I’d like to and have tried to invite a few self employed, stay at home males but they’ve never accepted. It’s not just that ladies like lunch but they certainly like meeting authors. They like the informality of being able to have “a proper conversation” with an author. Feedback centres entirely on this; at a literary festival they have to join a long queue to talk to an author and then feel inhibited at being overheard so all they do is shake the hand and pay. What they really want to say is, “you know that character in your last novel, well …..”

Most publishers will let you have a couple of boxes of books at cost, as well as delivering them on a sale or return basis, once they know the event is in aid of charity – otherwise they may make you choose one or the other. And most authors will be only too happy to have a guaranteed sale of thirty or so books if they are helping a favourite charity at the same time.

Noble authors who have followed Mavis to my basement include Deborah Moggach, Lee Langley, Eleanor Updale, Alison Baverstock and Hilary Wilce, both offering books of educational advice, who did a double act. The downside? The guest author has to commit to a longer slot than simply one hour at a festival and may get monopolised by the local bore. I have to make sure there is an escape route. As Eleanor Updale, author of the award-winning Montmorency series, put it – but only when I asked. She was very gracious about accepting at the time: “With royalties so low, there’s no way you can justify taking part in these events in term of cash (a day’s work is lost, and you’ll be lucky if sales cover your bus fare). Even the most delicious lunch is hard to enjoy if you are waiting to speak. So why go? The only professional reasons are the chance to spread the word about your books, and the hope that you might hear a phrase or observe some behaviour that sparks something in your writing. In my view, the only way to stay sane is to regard this sort of thing as a purely charitable work. If your presence is helping to raise money for the charity, then that’s your good deed for the day.”

Eleanor’s charity, of which she is a trustee, was Listening Books, which provides audio books to people who find it difficult or impossible to read due to illness or disability.

Thirty women becoming fans for life may not seem like much of a reward for all that effort. But it’s about the maximum my house (and I) can cope with. There’s no reason not to have an outside event and invite more, or share the lunch with a friend and hire a church hall. But people-watching is an attraction for most writers, who are voyeurs at heart. Observing how thirty women – fans – behave en masse offers some interesting insights. The lunches have made me much more respectful of those who invite me to speak at events. I realize the importance of confirming all the details long in advance, what a catastrophe it is if I don’t fill the room, get enough laughs or ultimately tell a good enough story to sell loads of books. And most important of all – to smile graciously if I don’t!

Usually, when I’m clearing up or have got the sums wrong to pay the charity and the publisher, I wonder why I do it. It is a lot of work for those of us who live in servantless households. And this is, after all, not the day job. The author has to be booked months in advance, the letters sent out, (although the names are all on my data base and most now can be emailed) the food bought and cooked. On the day itself someone (me) runs to open the door (at least in summer there are no coats to be hung up) someone (me) has to give people a drink and most important of all, make sure everyone has a chance to meet the star guest. And every year I threaten never to do this again. I had rather hoped that once my daughter left her primary school I would quietly drop the lunches – but I kept being asked: “when’s the next one?”

As I write this, I am planning the menu for yet another one. These days I am oversubscribed and have to turn down late acceptances. This time the star attraction is a first-time author – Clare Mulley, biographer of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children – so I know it’s not fame but the event, her excellent reviews and the charity that has brought the ladies rushing. In my corner of South West London we’re as much a part of the season as Wimbledon and Ascot but you don’t have to wear hats and you don’t even have to be a lady.

Anne Sebba’s latest book is Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. She is writing a biography of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.