"Your Job is to Just Try to Act Normal for Couple Hours." A Beginner's Guide to Author Readings
By Tom McAllister
One of the staples of book promotion is to go out and do a as many readings as you can fit into your schedule. It's especially important for lesser-known authors and authors on smaller presses, which don't have the promotional clout to advertise a book through most media. Reading in public does not come naturally to many introverted and socially anxious writers, but it’s one of the only guaranteed ways to expose strangers to your work. If you're really hustling, you might read at ten different locations in two weeks, each stop fraught with anxiety and increasing fatigue, and there’s a chance it’s all going to go very badly.
As the author of two books (my memoir Bury Me in My Jersey was published in 2010, and my novel The Young Widower’s Handbook was recently released by Algonquin) and an editor at Barrelhouse, I’ve been involved in countless readings, as a planner, performer, and (occasionally) unhappy audience member. There's nothing you can do to guarantee a reading will go well; there are too many variables outside your control. But there are some things you can do to improve the odds of having a successful event, and maybe even selling a few books.
BEFORE THE READING
Some writers are lucky to live in areas that have a half-dozen excellent reading series, and others only have access to open mic nights at the coffee house. But if there is one near you that’s even remotely good, you should make an effort to go now and then, not only to learn from the performances of the other readers, but also to be a supportive member of the community. Soon you’re going to be hoping for strangers to show up to your own events. Building up some goodwill helps to keep the whole system alive.
Do your research: not all venues and not all reading series are created equal. Some only draw the same ten people every time; if they’re a very enthusiastic ten, this might not be terrible, but it’s also limited in its potential for sales. Some are in coffee shops where you’ll have to shout over the squealing of the latte machine as the barista steams milk. Some are in bars where they don’t separate you from the general population, and you’ll have to contend with a bunch of drunken strangers angry that your poetry is drowning out their baseball game. Several months in advance, you should be contacting any friends or acquaintances you know in other cities to ask for help in finding event organizers and venues. You should be contacting indie bookstores too. Good stores and good reading series often book their schedules up to six months in advance. It’s not hard to latch on to a reading in most cities, but it’s a little harder to latch on to a good one.
Be honest with yourself about your work. Do you write quiet, contemplative nonfiction about rural life? That may not play as well in a bar setting, where funnier, punchier, more energetic pieces tend to succeed. Do you write profane, weird poetry inspired by internet memes? Maybe skip the event at the local library and get yourself to a bar. Do you write complex narratives with multiple overlapping plot threads that require close attention just to follow? Well, maybe don’t take that to a reading if you can avoid it, but if you must, then you want to find a quieter, less raucous setting, like a bookstore.
Try to be as low maintenance as possible. Email the organizer promptly and clearly, asking any questions you have, but not making unreasonable demands. Make it simple on the organizer, because you want to be invited back, and also because she likely doesn’t have a lot of spare time to be managing a writer’s fragile ego. The organizers of these events, it can’t be stressed enough, are almost exclusively volunteers, and you are not Sammy Hagar.
Promote the hell out of the event. Some writers feel uncomfortable doing this promotion, but, look: you are trying to sell books. Nobody in the world has more invested in the sale of your books than you do. One of the most frustrating aspects of the events I’ve run has been writers flat out refusing to promote in any way, usually because they have some anti-capitalist disdain for the idea of marketing. If this is your attitude, that’s fine for you, but don’t inflict it on other people who are counting on you. Remember, most events have multiple readers on the roster specifically because the organizers are counting on each performer to draw from a different pool of friends and acquaintances, so you’re not just inviting people for you. At the absolute minimum, you should post about the event on your preferred social media platform once. It would be better to do it multiple times, on different days and different times of day to catch a wider range of friends. You can send Facebook event invites, though don’t just blindly send to every single person you know, because your friend in Austin is not going to make the drive to Brooklyn on a Tuesday night to hear you read, no matter how much she loves you.
You don’t need to be a marketing expert to convince friends to come out and see you. Just be straightforward and make them understand a) it’s important to you, and b) it’s going to be interesting and maybe even fun. Non-writer friends may not really understand what “a reading” is, so you may want to clarify: “I’m going to be reading a bit from my book. I’m a little nervous, and it would mean a lot to me to have as many friendly faces in the audience as possible. Plus there will be drinks!” Maybe lead with the drinks.
THE DAY OF THE EVENT:
Don’t be late.
If you’re reading from a new book, be sure to bring copies of the book with you. This seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how many writers forget this. Maybe you’re the sort of writer who feels unclean engaging in the act of commerce, in which case your job is to get over yourself and just sell some books. Also, it makes a difference to the audience; for whatever reason, people are more likely to buy a book from you if they see you reading from the actual book rather than printed pages.
If you’re not reading from a new book, print your piece in a larger font than usual. I typically print in 14 point Arial, which means I waste some paper, but also it means I can actually read the words. Most likely, you’ll be nervous, and also the lighting in reading spaces is almost always bad.
If you’re a drinker, have a couple drinks, but don’t get drunk before you read. It’s not as cute as you think it is. You’re not Ron White. You are here as a professional adult doing a job. You’re someone who needs to be able to stay focused and not slur his speech. Get drunk later if you have to.
Never, under any circumstances, read longer than the time limit. If the organizer doesn’t give you a time limit, ask for one, then plan on going shorter. There is unanimous agreement among writers on this issue: the absolute worst thing any reader can do is drone on past the time limit. It’s rude to the other readers, the audience checks out mentally, and it is, overall, very annoying. People want to hear you read, but they have their limits. Nobody showed up so they could bask in your genius for an hour. If the organizer catches your eye and signals to you to wrap it up, stop after the next sentence. This is non-negotiable. And, sure, it’s a false construct to try to condense your 450-page novel into a twelve-minute snippet. And, yes, the point of novels is that you can immerse yourself in them and learn to appreciate the world the author has created. No, you won’t be able to convey every wonderful thing about your book to the audience. But this is the game you’re playing. These are the rules.
Try to read an excerpt that doesn’t require a lot of context. It’s okay to do a little bit of set-up, but if it’s convoluted and longer than a minute or two, it makes your book sound unnecessarily difficult. You lose people before you’ve even started. I once saw a poet spend about ten minutes lecturing the room on the history of the myth of Ganymede, like we were students in her Classics course, and then she read a one-minute poem. I’ve been angry about this for six years.
If you’re going to read a dialogue-heavy scene, please be good at reading dialogue. This doesn’t mean you have to do wacky voices or put on a one-act play. But understand that it can be disorienting to hear someone drone through two pages of dialogue between two mostly indistinguishable characters. It may work great on the page, but it’s much harder to sell in performance.
Bring some energy to the reading. This does not mean bouncing off the walls and shouting in people’s faces. It just means that you seem interested and engaged by your own work. It means there’s some propulsion to the performance. Humor helps, but only if that’s in your repertoire. Audiences are typically very generous and want to like the thing you’re reading. Don’t force anything unnatural, but look excited to be up there. I once went to an event where a poet ripped off his shirt in the middle of his reading, then started hurling his books around the room and shouting “America!” for some reason. I was hit in the face with a book. For our purposes, let us refer to this kind of energy as bad energy.
Do NOT go over the time limit. Just stop already. Nobody has ever left a reading saying, “Man, I wish that guy had been allowed to just stand up their pontificating for another forty minutes.”
AFTER THE READING:
Thank the organizer. Don’t complain about the number of books sold, or the attendance. It’s hard to get people to come to these things, and even the best series have duds sometimes. Understand that the organizer is as upset as you are; it is heartbreaking to plan an event for a writer you admire and only draw seven people. Having a truly terrible reading is just another miserable rite of passage. When promoting my memoir, I once read to three people: my wife; a former student; and the former student’s mother, who sat in the front row reading a different book the whole time. That bookstore was a 75-minute drive from my house. I thanked the owner, bought a book, and went home.
Remember: you’re likely going to deal with these people, and their acquaintances, in the future. If you don’t make it easy on them, they will remember and they will tell people. Barrelhouse once ran an event where an author sold 28 books, which is a miraculous number. At the bar afterward, he complained about how this was a waste of time for him. A much more famous and more accomplisher author, an author whose name you would definitely recognize, looked up and said, “Man, I would fly across the country just to sell one fucking book.” More important and better writers than you have been here before and will be here in the future. No matter how talented you are, this reading series can survive without you.
A lot of these tips, I admit, come down to issues of personality. Your job is to just try to act normal for a couple hours. This is difficult for some people; if you’re an asshole, you can’t fix it, but you can at least try to hide it for a while. Some days, selling even a single book seems impossible. You need to do everything you can to improve the odds.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novel "The Young Widower's Handbook" and the memoir "Bury Me in My Jersey." He is nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. His shorter work has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Black Warrior Review, Hobart, The Millions, and some other places. Find him on twitter @t_mcallister