You’ve written your book, gotten it published, and now you’re ready to show up at the bookstore, library, museum, cafe, or whichever venue will be your first one along the book tour.
Reading to an audience is something you learn how to do well over time, through experience and mistakes, as the poet Kelli Russell Agodon says so well in this blog post. One of the most surprising things for me, when I first began doing readings for Forgetting English, was that I found myself wishing I’d read each and every story aloud one more time before seeing it into print — because once I began reading these stories aloud, I realized that I’d have changed certain words here and there so that they’d flow as well off the tongue as they seemed to on the page. So this leads to my first of many tips for having a successful public reading:
– Think ahead — way ahead. When you’re in the process of publication, think ahead to how your work will sound when you read it aloud, and make the changes you need to make. That way, when you’re ready to plan what to read, you’ll know that it will sound good, and all you’ll need to do is practice. Which brings me to my next tip…
– Practice. You may think you know your work inside and out, but reading is so different from writing. And you’ll also need to choose what to read, often from several hundred pages (see below for how to choose). Practice reading your selection aloud as many times as you need to. Read aloud in front of a few trusted people to get feedback on your pacing, emphasis, and delivery. Some writers use audio or video to gauge how they’re doing — also a great way to practice. And if you live in a city that offers open-mic events, go to them and read — and do this as often as you can. The very best way to get comfortable in front of an audience is to practice in front of an audience. Finally, click here for a few more tips from such professionals as Jack Straw Productions‘ Moe Provencher and poet and performer Elizabeth Austen.
– When choosing what to read, less is more. When Forgetting English first came out and I was doing a lot of readings, I experimented: Once, I read an entire story (about 40 minutes of reading); other times, I’d read for ten to twenty minutes from one story; and still other times, I’d read from three different stories for five minutes each. Sometimes the best way to learn what works is to give it a try — and, having done all that, I can definitely recommend reading less and chatting with readers more. While my 40-minute reading was, fortunately, well received (if you do read for that long, be sure you do it in front of a friendly crowd who’ll happily sit through it and not throw things at you, and give them a head’s-up about the duration of the reading so they won’t get restless), I’ve done this sort of long reading only once, and I’m not inspired to read for that long again. For one, it’s easier to read shorter passages; two, it doesn’t risk tiring an audience; and three, it offers more time to chat about the book and to take questions. Remember that readers are there to get a taste of the book, but they’re also there to get what they can’t get from the book itself: a glimpse of who you are as a writer.
– Support the venue. If you’re reading in an indie bookstore, support it with a purchase, whether it’s a book or a few greeting cards or a bar of Theo Chocolate. If you’re in a library, ask if you can donate a copy of your book for their collection. Always find a way to give back. And don’t forget to send thank-you notes.
– Offer something extra to readers. Bring bookmarks or postcards, buttons or pens — any little something to offer guests at your event. If the venue allows, refreshments such as wine or cookies can offer a nice touch (I have unscientific proof that serving wine does improve book sales). It’s nice to offer little extras as thanks for supporting your book — and even if participants don’t purchase the book but leave with a bookmark, they’ll be reminded of it and might be inspired to buy it later.
– Bring everything you might need. From water to reading glasses to tissues to cough drops — whatever you might need, bring it. Keep a list of things, just in case. It’s amazing what you forget … I’ve read without water (challenging) and without reading glasses (doubly challenging), and I once forgot to bring a copy of my own book, so I had to borrow one from the bookstore (embarrassing). There is no such thing as being too well prepared.
– Bring extra books. If you’re reading at a venue other than a bookstore, you’ll likely bring your own books; always bring more than you think you’ll need. I bring 5-10 extra copies of Forgetting English along even to a bookstore reading — while this may seem redundant, it’s far better to lug them along than to lose these extra sales and readers if the bookstore runs out. Bookstores often under-order, and having been at bookstores that have sold out and needed my copies, I’m always glad to have them available. Granted, my book is slender and in paperback, so this is easy … but even if your book is a heavy hardcover, it’s a good idea to have at least a couple of extras. If you do find yourself in a situation in which you leave readers without books, get their emails and follow up yourself with a signed copy, which they’ll appreciate.
– Speaking of getting emails…develop a mailing list. Pass around a sign-up sheet for email updates for anyone who wants to know where you’ll be next or to hear about your next project.
– Be ready for anything. I keep my events low-key on purpose — no PowerPoint, nothing even remotely high-tech — so I never worry about the inevitable broken projectors or other possible malfunctions. But if you do need to bring or use equipment other than yourself and your book, always have fallback solutions, just in case.
– Talk to readers. Don’t simply read but engage. Open your reading by thanking everyone for being there; say something nice about the city you’re visiting. Tell them what you’re about to read, why you chose it. Then, after your reading, invite questions. If no one asks anything at first (don’t worry — they all have questions; they’re just shy), simply jump right in yourself by saying, “One question I get a lot is…” and answer it. This will open up the dialogue.
– Learn from — and celebrate — your experience. On her blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, poet Susan Rich writes about the aftermath of the author reading: how to know whether you’ve succeeded, taking a look at what’s important to remember, and what’s important to let go. If you’re a multi-genre writer, you’ll also enjoy her post on reading poetry v. reading prose.