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The Author Reading, or, How to Avoid the Super Monkey Death Car
Ah, the author reading.
It has destroyed more than one well-meaning writer. The reading, the public performance, is a cause of much angst for many. Which part should I read? Am I expected to answer questions? What if no one asks questions? What if no one shows up? And most often: Why is all this even necessary?
Valid questions. Many authors have carved out careers without public appearances, at least later on in life (I'm sure even Thomas Pynchon did a few in his youth). But when you are starting out, the reading can be an invaluable tool to link your face and voice to your product. Sorry to be so unromantic about it, but there it is. You are selling yourself as well as your book, and although you may hate it, in this age of twit-feeds and facebooking, getting a favourable response to a reading can really help spread your novel about.
From the point of view of an author, I'm of the mind that there is no such thing as a truly bad reading, as even ones that go careening off the rails can offer you some valuable insights. My first reading, my book launch, I read to seventy people, and I thought, "Well, this ain't half-bad." At the last reading I did a few years ago, there was one person in the audience besides my parents, who luckily were in town that week. But you give it your all, you soldier through, because that one person may purchase a book, and tell their friends. I once went to another reading, of an author I particularly admire, that was sparsely attended, so sparsely that after his reading, he invited the two of us for some drinks. Expecting a simple signing, I got instead an in-depth one-on-one discussion with him on literature and writing, and we still keep in touch (Hi, Eric!).
From the POV of a publicist, I die a little when an author is presented with a less-than-impressive number of listeners. You want your author to feel like the world is at their feet, that they are the next incarnation of Shakespeare, but all the flattery in the world can't disguise the fact that the only people in the audience are an elderly woman crocheting a scarf, a bookstore employee, and a bored reporter from the local student paper. And they're all in the back row. But you cannot prepare for every contingency; even the best publicists have been waylaid by weather, or influenza outbreaks, or competing events.
But you can't quit, so here are some hints to make the best of it:
- Be lively. I don't mean flail about like a cartoon Tasmanian devil, but try to avoid reading down into your manuscript in a dull monotone. Look up, let them see your pretty face. Make eye contact. And choose a reading that accents your strengths as a performer. It really is acting, and while you don't need to become a clown up there, the more relaxed the better.
- Practice. Use friends and spouses to rehearse with. Try to get your readings sounding as natural as possible. Not everyone can do it, but even minimal preparation on your part will go a long way toward keeping your audence's interest level up.
- Read your audience. If they are bored, or distracted, you might want to cut the reading short and start up a Q&A, or move on to another, more exciting scene to read. One of the worst readings I have ever attended was by a national award-winning author whose book won just about every award we have. He stood, and droned, and droned, and droned, and by the ten-minute mark people were fidgetting, by the twenty-minute they were looking at the exits, and by the forty-minute mark they were all silently screaming "STOP! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S HOLY, STOP AND TAKE A QUESTION!"
- Be friendly. You aren't just reading, you are connecting to potential fans. I once read a lengthy blog post about a reading by an author whom I admire, and the blogger was far less than adoring. The author was described as surly, and resentful to his audience, and clearly did not want to be there. As a result, he gets trashed online, and believe me, those things do get out. Even if you are in an absolutely foul mood, if your audience gets a whiff of it, you're in trouble. They came out to see you, and maybe buy a book, why risk alienating them? A reputation as approachable and friendly is always preferable to surly. If you must, at least wait until you're so famous your books sell on your name alone. Then you can play up the role of the frustrated and misunderstood artiste to your heart's content.
- Be prepared. To end on a fun note, know that your reading will never be as bad as this one, a reading from Newsradio, wherein insane billionaire Jimmy James had his book translated to Japanese and back, and never read the result.
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