9 tips for successful author readings

Readers are fans. They love author appearances!

What’s more, a successful author reading can spark sales and help build a following for a new book.

Publishers know this, but unfortunately, the days of big budgets for glamorous book tours and star-spangled author events are now largely behind us.

Author readings still a hot ticket

Established and emerging authors, nevertheless, are still actively engaged in promoting and selling their work by reading, signing, and speaking at bookstores, libraries, seminars, and all manner of creative locations, like theaters, clubs, restaurants, retail shops, and private homes.

Even though bookstores these days are stressed and preoccupied with the problems of competing with internet discounting, retailers we surveyed remain enthusiastic about author events.

In the SF Bay Area, where I live, the enterprising retailer Book Passages produces a whopping 500 author readings and workshops every year, devoting two rooms exclusively to these events.  My own neighborhood bookstore, the lovely Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley, schedules about four author appearances weekly. And venerable Kepler’s Books near Stanford University maintains a packed calendar of author events.

Author appearances are hot in venues across the country.  A quick search online for readings and signings coming up this week brings up big names like Andre Agassi and Hendrick Hertzberg in Los Angeles, Isabella Rossellini in Seattle, David Plouffe in Boston, Mary Gordon in New York and countless other authors appearing at bookstores and locations large and small.

Charging for admission

We’re noticing more author readings charging admission – and filling every seat – a concept that seems to work especially well when the author has built a local reputation and niche following.

I attended a couple of these events recently, and came away impressed by the organizers’ ingenuity and the positive audience response.

The first, in Seattle, WA, was held at Richard Hugo House, the center for literary arts — and featured three local writers, all talented presenters with fascinating stories. Despite the stiff admission of $25, the 148-seat theater was sold out.

The next event, back in my hometown, was sponsored by Berkeley Arts & Letters, and held at the city’s cozy Hillside Club. Fans paid $15 to hear author and anthropologist Liza Dalby read from her new novel Hidden Buddhas, a story taking place in Japan about “bad girls with cell phones, murder by blowfish, and the Buddhist apocalypse.”  Wow, now that’s intriguing.

In each case, back-of-the-room book sales were brisk.

Tips for successful author appearances

1.  Rehearse

Consider your appearance to be a dramatic performance from the moment you walk through the door. No matter the size of the audience, you have to be on.

That means preparing on every level. Choose four or five short passages from your book, though you may ultimately read only a couple. Read these selections out loud at home, while facing a mirror. Then recruit a family member or friend with a video camera to preserve your delivery so you can watch yourself in action and make any necessary corrections.

If you intend to talk about the book and how you came to write it, prepare an outline with key talking points.  Practice the material without reading from a script until it becomes familiar and comfortable.

2.  Read just enough, not too much

Pay close attention to your audience response.  You can usually tell if people are restless. Novelist Joyce Maynard (Labor Day; To Die For, Internal Combustion) says she reads for 12 minutes max, then talks and asks for questions.

Readers who come to events featuring authors who write novels, memoir or narrative non-fiction, history and biography, often want to know about the deeper meaning, choice of symbolic action, characters, and relationships in the work. They’re hoping for a personal connection when the author is someone they admire and appreciate. They want to find out what’s behind the story, why it was written and how – the artistic, creative, psychological process.

At events featuring the authors of how-to books, readers are more apt to ask questions related to the writer’s expertise, like “What’s the best time to sell my house?” or “How can I get my baby to stop crying and sleep through the night?”

Based on her decades of experience producing author events, Melissa Mytinger, now with Berkeley Arts & Letters, offers this advice to authors:  “Don’t read! Just relax, look up, and talk.”

3.  Look your audience in the eye

That advice goes for everyone except Joan Didion, who once arrived at a packed reading in San Francisco, stood at the podium and promptly buried her head in a copy of her best-seller Year of Magical Thinking. Without taking off her oversized coat, and without looking up, she began to read in a monotone so soft she could barely be heard.  Hard core fans were enthralled anyway, and leaned forward on the edges of their seats, mouthing the familiar words they had read so closely.

But we are not all Joan Didion, who is extraordinary and exceptional.

Veteran authors always recommend making eye contact with their audience, and to be sensitive and respectful to their needs and responses.

And some authors get a real dividend from events where they take the time to look at and listen to readers face-to-face. Like Po Bronson (What Should I Do With My Life; Why Do I Love These People) who says he gets good stories and ideas for his work when appearing before an audience of readers at lectures and workshops.

4.  Work with your publisher

Even if there’s no travel budget, your publisher may be able to help  book a local event in your neighborhood or the general region.

Their key concern will be whether you guarantee a crowd large enough to justify the store ordering enough copies to make it worth their effort. If you can’t really deliver a critical mass of eager buyers, don’t pursue this route, since it’ll wind up being frustrating for all involved.

5.  Work with your local book sellers

Cultivate a relationship that will interest them in you and your work. Take the time to see who’s coming into the store and find a connection between their demographics and your work.

Authors who do well at Mrs. Dalloway’s, for example, have a personal connection to literary fiction, gardening, poetry, and architecture.  Smaller independent book sellers want to establish good community relationships and increase traffic with potential readers for any book in their inventory.

6.  Go beyond bookstores

Some titles might lend themselves to appearances in settings other than bookstores and libraries. Identify your potential readers and ask yourself where they meet to discuss or shop for their interests. Possibilities could be as varied as a baby shop, the local botanical garden, or a professional conference.

If you’re writing fiction, find an element or location in your story that connects with a local organization or meeting. The mystery writer Rosemary Harris, for example, has a heroine sleuth who’s a master gardener (Pushing Up Daisies, The Big Dirt Nap). Consequently, she’s been able to have readings at garden clubs and shows around the country.

You can be creative with this.  In my neighborhood, I noticed that the author of a picture book of French postcards is doing a signing at a popular chocolate shop and cafe, where he’ll also be speaking about his favorite Parisian artisan chocolatiers.

Garth Stein says he makes it a rule to attend as many reader’s groups as possible. He enjoys going to community centers and people’s homes to sit down and talk about his books, answering questions, telling personal stories about how he works.  And his readers eat it up.

7.  Publicize your event

Put an announcement on your website. Mention it in your blog and twitter repeatedly leading up to the event. Send out a press release to local print media like shopping guides with calendars of community events.

Think of special personal touches that are uniquely yours. For example, Emma Straub, author of the novella Fly-Over State sent a love letter to each of the 400 people who purchased the hand-numbered first edition of her book. A second edition will be available soon from Flatmancrooked. Talk about building relationships and community outreach!

8.  Learn how to promote your book to niche markets

“Promoting a book is a significant and necessary part of the writing process” says Stein, who appeared at hundreds of independent stores, and reader’s living rooms to build a market for The Art of Racing in the Rain. Then he went beyond that to attend NASCAR racing events, where he handed out a self-produced pamphlet featuring appropriate highlights of the book. Stein attributes a good deal of the book’s word-of-mouth and eventual major sales to these kinds of efforts.

Not everyone has Stein’s charm and moxie, but his approach demonstrates that no one cares about a book more or can sell it better than the author.  For more on his methods, check out this earlier post and interview, How a best-selling author builds his market.

It takes persistence and hard work to arrange and deliver successful author events . Whether you have a publisher or are self-published, you need to connect with sympathetic local people who are busy but can be persuaded to see the potential your book has for them.

9. Make sure your books are stocked for the event: here’s how

One retailer recommends that authors maintain their own inventory of books, purchased from their publisher at favorable author discounts based on how many they order. That way, if the local shop can’t get them in time, they’ll buy them from the author to insure they have enough available.

That single piece of advice could save the day.  So many writers have had the awful experience of showing up for the reading, and you guessed it — for whatever reason, the books didn’t arrive on time.

Authors are also advised to sign all copies regardless of how many are sold on the spot, since stores will often keep an autographed  book on the front table long after your appearance  for book collectors and gift-givers.

Tell us about your author appearances

We want to hear about your experiences with your own author readings and signings: the great and the not-so-terrific.  What worked?  What went wrong?  Who’s had success with developing niche markets through readings?  Have you discovered any interesting off-the-track venues?

And we’d love to hear about memorable readings you’ve attended.  Did anyone else catch Joan Didion?

For those who are just learning the ropes, maybe struggling with some of this, take a look at this funny first-person account, Lessons learned from a book signing disaster by guest contributor Lisa Haneberg.  You’ll feel much better.

21 Responses to 9 tips for successful author readings

  1. Ro

    I was always a lousy public speaker and a bit afraid of crowds so the propsect of doing book signings and readings is almost enough to scare me off publishing. Still, I guess with enough practice and a go-get-em attitude I can manage to not look like a complete fool :)

  2. Laura

    I went to a reading with James McBride for his latest work, Song Yet Sung. He read and took questions, was kind and engaging. Afterwards, he signed three books for me (I was giving them as gifts) with a smile and a thank you. He also asked if I was a student, and when he found out I was in my 30′s said he could not believe it.

    I’m a fan for life, haha.

  3. Meghan Ward

    I went to a reading at Booksmith in San Francisco at which the author did a slide show. The place was so crowded, I didn’t get to see the slide show, but I thought it was a great idea to add visuals to the reading.

  4. Rachel J. Fenton

    I love reading out loud to people. Alas, sadly, I am not a published author (yet)!

    I went to very fascinating reading about Robin Hyde. The promotional blurb said she was a feminist ahead of her time and was an inspirational figure. I was expecting to be interested in the subject matter but I had no idea who was doing the reading, or as it turned out, readings. Robin’s son read details from personal letters. People who knew Robin or knew her work intimately spoke of their memories and read work of theirs which had been prompted by Robin’s. Michele Leggott (former NZ poet laureate) gave two readings and was amazing. She is going blind and read from enlarged text – word by word – on an e-reader of sorts. Between Robin’s son reading the last letter he received from his mother, addressed “my dearest little Derek”, and Leggott’s fantastic readings I had tears in my eyes and was blown away.

    Great post. Now, who wants to hear me read?

  5. Alan Rinzler

    Hi Ro-

    Even authors who’ve done a lot of readings and public events get the jitters before appearing before an audience. It’s a normal survival mechanism, a “flight or fight” neurological instinct that gets the adrenaline going so you can rise to the occasion.

    One way to be prepared for this is to take small steps at first, like recording a short passage from your book, then playing it back, first just for yourself, then for a friend or family member. Try it a few times until you’re satisfied that it’s good enough, that your voice is clear and understandable.

    If you have a website or blog, try posting the audio, and see what kind of feedback you get.

    You might also try rehearsing a comment to make at some local public forum like a PTA, neighborhood council meeting, or a reader’s club. The point is to start small and build step by step until you’re more comfortable reading from or talking about your work in public.

    -Alan

  6. Phyllis K Twombly

    A manager from a local department store where I had once worked learned about my upcoming science fiction novel. She insisted I do my first book signing in her store. There were several Scifi fans on staff so the first several sales were built in. Local media were very enthusiastic (the TV interview was rebroadcast in their end of year recap) and seemed thrilled to have had advance copies. However, it was the sign in the mall parking lot, next to the city’s main street that really brought people in. It created additional sales for weeks afterwards as people who weren’t able to come in stopped me in public.

    The important thing during the signing was to either engage potential buyers in conversation or to ‘look interesting.’ I accomplished that by writing with my handheld computer and folding keyboard. Its small size and my typing speed created curiosity.

  7. Kirk Bartha

    Thanks so much. Excellent advice for new authors like me. I actually wrote Clairvaux Manifesto to be read out loud. Oral traditions are full of linguistic urgency. I think I need to do more public readings…

  8. Sierra Godfrey

    If it’s a nonfiction book, consider tying in audience participation. A nutritionist I once helped organize a store reading for had Hershey’s kisses that she passed to the audience to teach them about how to enjoy food via sense and smell first. It worked well and the audience liked getting chocolate.

    Heck–give chocolate at ANY kind of reading and you’re probably gold.

  9. Susan Wiggs

    My book tour low point ended with me holding a live 16-foot snake. Worst. Booksigning. Ever. The story (with photos) is posted here. http://freshfiction.com/page.php?id=2001

  10. Linda Adams

    A little different experience on the reading side. I have a friend who is a well-known actor. He was starring in Love Letters, in a theather in Boston. The play consists basically of two actors reading letters back and forth–an emoetional affair through the mail for decades. The actress he was with had memorized enough of the text that she didn’t need to read it consistently and could make eye contact with the audience. He’d just come off another play and hadn’t had time to memorize his lines, so he literally read. He had a lot of problems with eye contact–I mean the whole play, for two hours, was reading. Afterwards, the director told him to work on the eye contact–though he really just needed to familiarize himself more with the material so he didn’t have to read it!

    Funny story–not an author reading, but an unintentionl cure for a fear of public speaking. I was in Toastmasters for a while and was passable as a speaker. But I was always really nervous in front of the crowd, and no amount of practice got me over that. Eventually I left because I had gone as far as I could go. A few years later, I was doing the audio visual at a conference. The participants were in a U, and I was seated at the center of the U, flipping charts. The senior manager comes out to give awards, so I book off the floor–and promply fall down when my ankle turns. In front of 100 people. A collective gasp went up. I bounced back up and went to sit down–wasn’t hurt (I have a bad ankle and am subject to taking falls). After that, I haven’t had any trouble in front of crowds!

  11. Eileen Flanagan

    I’m just back from touring for my new book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go. It was great fun, and I find I like public speaking more and more. After the second one, I wrote a blog post on what I had learned so far: http://www.eileenflanagan.com/blog/2009/10/2/8-things-ive-learned-so-far-about-giving-a-book-talk.html

    To that (and your fine list) I would add one more: Use your event to pitch local radio stations, especially in the “B” and “C” cities. I got on two NPR affiliates in the Midwest because I was coming to their towns.

  12. bc

    Memorable author readings I attended included Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard (standing room only),Terry Pratchett (really, really funny man), and Tom Robbins.
    The worst was Tom Robbins because, after he spoke, we waited for HOURS in line to shake his hand, have our minute with him, get his autograph on our copy… and the bookseller shut the line down.
    Don’t ever let your fan base go home like that.

  13. lynn

    I recently wrote a book about pets. My publisher arranged for a signing/reading at a terrific local independent bookstore (my personal favorite place to shop too!). My friends and family networked with animal welfare groups, veterinarians and so on. We also heavily encouraged folks to support the local independent bookstore by purchasing multiple copies (as Christmas gifts).

    As the event date drew closer, it looked like we were going to get at least 50 people to attend. Four people told us they planned to buy multiple copies. My publisher was worried there wouldn’t be enough books, based on the store’s original order. They suggested I talk with the bookstore and maybe bring some copies of my own.

    I left voice mails and emails with the event coordinator at the store — and also dropped by the store and spoke with his assistant. I never heard back – so I decided to bring books of my own (just in case).

    The event was even bigger than we thought! 70+ people came and the store sold out 5 minutes before the reading started. The events coordinator wasn’t present – instead a new employee (very cool gal) was assigned to help with our event. She made sure my books got entered into inventory – but it took a good 20 minutes to enter one box (20 books). We sold all of those, then I opened a second box – took another 20 minutes to enter those into inventory. Same thing happened with a third box. Over 60 books were sold in total, but several people left without books because of the admin process delays.

    After the event, the store asked me to take back the few unsold books – they said it was too awkward to keep those in inventory. Ten days after the event, they still hadn’t restocked – even though we were sending people to the store to purchase copies (again, as a way to support the indie bookstore we love so much). To date, I still have never heard from the event coordinator for the store either.

    It was a great event for me and the store – but I was struck by how unprepared for success the store appeared to be. We’ve stopped referring people there to buy the book, because of the inventory delays – much to our regret. Amazon always has the book in stock and people can get it quickly too.

    By contrast, we’ve had excellent experience with non-bookstore events (such as pet stores) — for whatever reason, the selling process is quick, efficient and unhampered by inventory conflicts.

    It’s been a very educational experience for me – I love the local indie bookstore, but also need to sell my book via outlets that can meet demand more efficiently.

  14. Oh, The Publishing Links I’ve Seen « Leith Literary

    [...] with the theme of advice for authors, editor Alan Rinzler offers up 9 tips for successful author readings, but his best tip is probably this: well done author readings can boost a publishing career, which [...]

  15. Sandra Beasley

    Great advice all around, but the author should always check with the host of the reading before signing unsold copies. A signed book can’t be returned to the distributor, and a lot of bookstores work on very slim margins of profit nowadays. They might be game to stock a few signed copies on their shelves, but the rest are probably scheduled for return. Speaking as someone who hosts an offsite reading series, and works with DC bookstore Politics & Prose to secure stock, if an author signed the books while they were under my care, I would then have to buy them all!

  16. Alan Rinzler

    Hi Sandra-

    It’s true that signed books can’t be returned and I agree that an author should always check with the host before signing more copies after the audience has gone home. But stores have different policies about this and some are happy to have a few months supply if they think they can eventually sell all of them. This is the general attitude, for example, at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books here in Berkeley, but only when they feel confident about a title’s long-term prognosis.

    -Alan

  17. Andrew Markle

    One of the best author readings I attended was when Ibi Kaslik, a Canadian author, came through my city. She didn’t read from her book, but played the electric guitar and did her reading more as a spoken word song. Then she just told a few stories about her work and took questions from the crowd. The whole event wasn’t in a bookstore, but a wine bar, small and intimate. Almost everyone who attended bought her book.

  18. LaTonya Branham

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing. Going beyond bookstores has certainly worked for me.

  19. Suzanne Arruda

    I don’t enjoy “reading” from my book. Instead, I now engage the audience in a game show about my character (where correct answer doesn’t matter) with prizes. I don’t get out as much do to the economy, but I still do my best for my readers.

  20. Jai Jai Noire

    Great advice, Mr Rinzler! Every point that you outline is valuable to a wonderful live reading experience for both the author and the audience. Might I add that lighting is critical — not just from a dramatic, flattering-to-human-skin-tones point of view, but from a practical see-what-you’re-reading point of view. I have filmed live readings with authors (particularly over-40 authors) who had their reading performance marred by simply not being able to see the page well. It spoils the mood for a tough-guy author, reading a portion of his gritty crime novel, when he ends up having to hold the book three inches from his nose to read. Book store lighting (surprisingly) isn’t always ideal for reading, particularly in the corners used for live events in some stores. It’s possible to coordinate in advance with the book store manager to “set dress” your reading space with a table, chair, lamp — something perhaps evocative of what you are reading, similar to what you suggest with “Pushing Up Daisies” read at gardening events, etc..

    Jai Jai Noire
    http://www.mightysmallfilms.com
    Berkeley, CA

  21. Hilfe, ich hab’ ne Lesung! « Carola Wolff

    [...] 9 tips for successful author readings Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 at 6:56 pm and tagged with Angst, Autor, Lampenfieber, Lesung, schreiben, Schriftsteller and posted in Schreiben, Schriftsteller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Störfall Leben [...]

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