Oh, I can read like a champ. I mean, I can get all snuggled up in a corner of the couch with my favorite Navajo blanket and a glass of ice water, a black ball-point pen and a Burt’s Bees chapstick and read for hours. And I cover some ground, man! I can read fiction and non-fiction, from children’s to literary, from poetry to plays. I even take my skills with me on the road, reading cereal boxes and road signs like a pro!
But when it comes to reading, I’m still a little bit out of my depth.
Why-oh-why is the English language so confusing? Why do we constantly use one word to mean two or three or even ten different things? I believe we are in the way of a misunderstanding here. Yes, “reading” means deciphering symbols to understand meaning and it also means–just a variation, really–doing this with a whole lot of symbols, at once, to understand an entire story. “Reading” can be done silently or audibly.
“Reading” is also when an author appears in front of an audience and speaks out loud some of the contents of their work. It can also refer, more generally, to the event at which the author does the “reading,” which can include an introduction, speaking, book sales, a display, information, Q&A, and a book signing.
This second “reading” is where I am out of my depth.
I had my second formal reading for the release of a novel, a couple weeks ago. After my two years as a published author, you may be surprised it is only my second, but let me explain. On-the-ground book tours are a dying breed. For one, small bookstores are a dying (or at least waning) breed. For two, they cost a lot of money and don’t tend to generate a ton of it back. (For an exception, look into the life and times of Christopher Paolini.) For three, the cost is often on the author, and most the time that author doesn’t have money to throw around, let alone two nickles to rub together. For four, it is very, very difficult to get people to come out to a book reading. There are just too many darned entertainment and community options for people, now, like every single night of their lives. It’s super-stiff competition. And for five, many modern book “tours” are done online. They often call this a Blog Tour. I call it that, and also head it under “Virtual Launch.”
Oh yeah, and for six, authors generally dislike doing them. We tend (strongly) to be an introverted lot and we spend most of our time all alone. It can be very daunting for many of us to get in front of an audience of any size, especially to air our work and bare our souls.
But I have had an actual brick-and-mortar (The Regulator Bookshop in Durham) host a reading and signing for my book launch, both times. Both events sold around ten books and were mostly populated by friends and family. So why did I do them at all? Really, I see this launch signing as an opportunity to celebrate and to throw a stake down into the ground. Published! Book done! Let’s party! (and wait with bated breath for the real milestone–the people-are-actually-buying-it-and-reading-it milestone). It helps that I am actually comparatively comfortable in front of a crowd, because I have spent a lifetime in front of one as a singer, actor, instrumentalist, and even teacher and speaker. I still find doing a reading one of the most nerve-wracking things I do, but it’s not terrible. And I “read” well. Meaning, I read out loud well, especially my own stuff. (Not to the level on those Spoken Word people, mind you, but better than the average high school Romeo and Juliet.)
As this past reading at The Regulator approached, I found myself really wanting to give it some pizazz; to make it worth coming out for. So what did I do? Googled ideas. And guess what. There were none. There were several articles on how to behave at a reading, though. So I am going to combine this reading etiquette stuff with some more anecdotal ideas of my own, in hopes that it helps liven up the world of “readings.”
- Say thank you. Do not forget this! It is basically the only universal tip out there. Thank the person who introduced you, the place that is hosting you, and your audience for coming.
- Dress nicely, but make sure that you are comfortable. Look clean and tidy. Ball gown not necessary, nor is business attire if that is not your style. Throw on some earrings and brush your cowlick flat, you know.
- Think outside the box to make it a little lively. Make the reading a journey, a story, or a game. I made my last reading a revelation of how the new novel had come to be: out of the legends of my last novel. I also revealed how it would be continuing in the future. You could also make it interactive (besides the Q&A) or take it to the next level with technology. (Make sure, though, that you are keeping the basics. You need to read excerpts from your highlighted work, have a question time, and tell the audience about yourself and your current project.)
- Learn how to speak publicly. You may want to take a class, but you could also troll YouTube (in the metaphorical fishing sense) or read a book about it. You are going to want to learn to project your voice, speak slowly when nervous, enunciate, modulate your voice (and even act a little), smile, look at people, keep your face clear of objects (like books), etc.
- Practice! Practice speaking in general, but also practice for this reading. Time your pieces and mark them so that you can roll with the punches. Know what you are going to say before the reading, during the transitions, and at the end. Know how you are going to sign your name, on what page, and with what little saying. Then practice again. Only recently–after thirty years of performances–have I learned the value of muscle memory, including your brain-the-muscle. The more times you go over everything, the more your body will just do it without your conscious interference and this makes for a much smoother performance.
- Bring what you need. Even bring what you might-possibly need. This includes: pens (like many of them), a Sharpie, water (for yourself), layered clothes (to deal with temperature variances), a snack (to deal with tanking blood sugar), and your reading material with the marked passages. The bookstore or other location will let you know if you should bring copies of your books. Also, a signed picture of yourself would be appropriate for many venues. In the event that you are hosting this alone, you will also need signage, lots of change, and a way of taking credit cards (like Square). I would also recommend a helper/wing-man.
- Be on time. In fact, be fifteen or more minutes early. Familiarize yourself with the place and the host. Nuff said.
- Be open and flexible and thankful and nice and above all, likeable and interesting. That’s a pretty tall order, but really concentrate on each of these things. Open to ideas and changes. Flexible when the plans change or something goes wrong (which it will). Thankful for the opportunity and venue and anyone who shows up. Nice to every single person involved in the whole evening. Likeable (as in not sarcastic or self-deprecating or snobby or rude or too shy). As interesting as you can manage to be, which is going to largely come from practicing and from being confident (or at least projecting confidence), highlighting your incredible work and underlining your interesting life and personality. Remain calm.
- Know thy audience. Kids? SF/F buffs? The regulars? Your audience will determine how you behave and present, obviously. Don’t swear at kids (and speak more animated and have visuals). Don’t hate on The Game of Thrones to the SF/F crowd (and wear your best X-Files shirt and use ten-dollar science words).
- Understand marketing. This is a long goal, of sorts, but these days all us writers (and especially indie pubbers) need to understand marketing to a point. When we get really comphy with how to best market–and not market–our product (which is us, incidentally, and our books), we will have much more fulfilling and productive interactions with our readers. Use the internet and/or books for this one, too, as well as trade magazines. And keep at it, updating your knowledge over time.
- Ask people to spell names. Do not, under any circumstances, sign a book with a name without verifying the spelling! Even for Jim! Or Bob! I am so not kidding.
Now get on the phone or your e-mail and get yourself out there. It is likely there are local bookstores and libraries that would be happy to have you come in for a book reading or another author event, even if you have not recently published. It’s nothing to be afraid of, especially with these awesome tips.