The Keys to a Great Reading

By E.A. Aymar

It’s not unusual for writers to dread giving readings.

Often introverts, writers walk onto a stage in front of their friends, family, and strangers, and publicly share something that comes from somewhere personal. While other artists–like musicians and actors–prepare to perform in front of people, writers plan for their work to be read in private.

No wonder, then, that readings and other events aren’t always as successful as we’d like. And given that debut writers are likely in the midst of planning their first events and/or tours, we at The Thrill Begins thought it made sense to talk to three pros intimately acquainted with readings. As you’ll see from the interview below, there’s no one right way to conduct a reading, but there are definite things you can do to make your event enjoyable for yourself, your hosts, and your audience.

No one tours more than author Jenny Milchman. The acclaimed author of COVER OF SNOW, RUIN FALLS and AS NIGHT FALLS has spent so much time traveling that Shelf Awareness called her first tour, “the world’s longest book tour.”

New York’s Mysterious Bookshop is beloved by crime fiction writers and readers for its extensive collection of mysteries and its outstanding events. Ian Kern, as manager and event coordinator at the bookshop for over a decade, has seen his share of successful author events firsthand.

The founder of JKS Communications, Julie Schoerke has spent over thirty years in public relations. In addition to her experience with book bloggers, trailers, and bestselling authors, she has also reinvented the book tour to make it more author friendly.

Some authors choose not to read from their work at events, and instead hold Q&As or talk about the book. Is there an approach that usually yields the best results, in regards to the audience’s enjoyment?

Jenny Milchman

I’ve done close to five hundred events in the last three years, and I’ve read at maybe fifty of them. In other words, fewer than ten percent. One thing I’ve heard over and over again doing all those events is that a lot of people don’t enjoy author readings, even if they’re too polite to say so. So I basically only read if asked, or if the format requires it. There are so many other fun things to do. Attendees always seem interested in publishing sagas–and every writer has one. I’ve seen authors teach a skill that pertains to their book–genealogy, cooking, history, craft. Exploring why readers like what they do, for instance the popularity of crime fiction, or why we enjoy scaring ourselves, fictionally speaking, can also be fun. And yes, if all else fails, I’ve never seen a Q&A not go into overtime.

Ian Kern

Generally, we find that events work best when the author discusses their impetus for writing and the origin of the plot instead of reading directly from the book. This leads to a more engaging discussion with the audience when it comes to Q&A. In many cases (but not all) reading from the text can become tedious. If an author does want to read, we recommend doing a very short section or even a section from their next novel. 

Julie Schoerke

I believe that if an author can find a “stand alone” piece from their book that doesn’t need a whole bunch of set-up and is quite entertaining for no more than 5 minutes, it can be a real plus. I’ve heard industry insiders say that they don’t like to hear readings. But, readers come out to learn about the author and the book…so they want a flavor.

Having said that, it’s much more interesting and entertaining if there is a conversation between two authors – perhaps the visiting author and a local author; or a local blogger or literary taste-maker asking questions of the author. At one of the most successful events we had, we hired a local pop-culture radio personality to interview the author of YA fantasy at a book signing. People came to meet the local celebrity as well as our author, and it was chosen as the literary event of the week by The Chicago Tribune (which boosted on-line sales, we learned after).

It’s the death of everyone when an author reads a passage they are not completely comfortable reading aloud (having practiced) or that they read ad nauseam.

What do you recommend an author does when he/she has an event and only a couple of people show up?

Jenny Milchman

The great mystery writer Louise Penny says, “The only thing worse than an event where nobody shows is up is one where one person comes.” I love and admire Louise, but I actually feel differently about low-attendance events. In Goshen, IN, there was one person at my event, and he didn’t buy a book. This always troubles me on behalf of the bookseller who has gone to the trouble of setting up an event. (I mean, let’s be honest—one book is not going to cover the cost of my going to Goshen, IN). But this gentleman agreed to buy a book that I recommended, which meant the register rang once that night due to my coming, and salved my conscious. And here’s what happened next. The man explained to me why he wasn’t buying my novel. It was because he already owned three copies. One to read, one to loan, and one to “keep pristine.” And he had to hurry then—because he had a three hour drive home. Low attendance events can tweak a writer’s ego, of course, but if you can get past that, they’re also a chance for something amazing to happen. Look at it this way: you can get to know readers more intimately than you’ll be able to when you’re famous and hordes of people always come.

Ian Kern

This is a tough one. It’s always uncomfortable when this happens, but the author should realize it happens to the best of them. If the store, author, and publicist did everything possible to bring in a crowd and it didn’t work we will certainly understand. We recommend that the author conduct a brief conversation with those who have arrived and offer to sign copies for them, as well as for the shop. Please, please, do not continue as if it’s a normal event and offer to read or discuss in depth. Keeping staff late for the possibility of one or two sales is not fun. If the guests are friends with the author, they may suggest going to a nearby bar or restaurant to continue discussing the book. 

Julie Schoerke

Pull your chair in close, lean forward and have an intimate discussion – making it interactive. Occasionally a visitor will try to “hijack” the conversation, but in general those can prove to be among the most successful events. One author went on a national book tour. He had twenty-five in the audience, sometimes fifty. One night it was raining and it was just one person who showed up, along with the bookseller…so they had a good conversation and he put as much energy into it as he would have with a big group. Later, he learned that one of those two people was the best friend of a member of the Pulitzer committee. The person loved the author and book, handed it to the friend. The friend read it, nominated the book and the book won that year! Which event do you think created more sales? The one with fifty people or two in the audience?! Never miss an opportunity to be as enthusiastic as possible. I say that authors are a combination between politicians and small business owners. Politicians win people over one by one and authors who are successful often do as well. Studies have shown that when young people are asked who their favorite author is, almost consistently they will name the author that they recently met in person.

How far in advance would you recommend an author schedule a bookstore event?

Jenny Milchman

Some of the best-known bookstores with huge event calendars open up their books a year in advance, especially for high-profile authors. If you’re not one yet, and you want to get into one of these uber posh venues, I recommend reaching out as soon as you know you have a book coming out, at least to say ‘hello’ and express the desire to appear one day. In general, though, three to five months should suffice. If it’s a bookstore within driving distance, I recommend going in, patronizing the store as a customer, dropping off a small, book-related gift (think mug with your book cover on it and a pouch of hot cocoa for a novel set in winter), and asking if you can meet the events coordinator or thriller-loving bookseller. If you don’t live close enough, a call can work, or even a nice mailing. One idea to consider is working with an independent publicity firm. My publicists were able to get me into bookstores as a debut where normally only the biggest blockbuster authors appear–before audiences of one hundred and more attendees.

Ian Kern

At least two to three months. Also, we like to host events within the first month of publication or thereabouts. While an author still may be able to draw a crowd months after the book is released, in many cases the audience will already have purchased the book elsewhere making it a wash from the bookseller’s point of view. 

Julie Schoerke

There are some very well-known bookstores in the United States that require booking six months in advance (although, obviously there are plenty of barriers of entry if that is one of them, so it’s still not guaranteed). The bookstore wants to promote your event through their newsletter and e-blasts that usually come out around the first of each month. So you need to have your event nailed down prior to that. We tend to book our authors at major stores three months or more in advance (because the bookstore event schedule fills up) and two months prior if it’s a smaller independent bookstore. Be mindful that there is work to be done by them ahead of time on your behalf, so be flexible and appreciative when they choose you for an event. Events truly cost bookstores money, effort and time. Your event should bring people and money into the store. If it doesn’t, the bookstore would obviously be challenged to have you back. Jenny always makes a point to publicly thank the bookstore employees for inviting her and encourages everyone there to buy a book, hers or not (although everybody usually buys hers!) and to commit to supporting the local bookstore. You’re being a good partner if you do that as well.  

If the author is planning the event on their own, what kind of promotional strategy works best? Paid ads in local newspapers, (free) mentions on social media, etc.?

Jenny Milchman

The single best strategy I would recommend is to identify which of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers live near the event space, and invite them PERSONALLY. Send a FB message, Tweet at them. In my experience, blasts don’t work, and there’s little that’s more annoying than getting an invitation to an event in Nebraska–when you live in New York. I haven’t seen much success with ads. I do think that coordinating with local writers organizations is a nice additional thing to try–writers like supporting other writers, and often are interested in talking to someone who’s “made it.” Sometimes the bookstore will have its own book club or writers group, and they can be invited. But personally reaching out? It may be 2016, but nothing beats it.

Ian Kern

Paid ads might work for smaller towns and cities, but they are mostly a waste of time. Getting the word out on social media and consistently asking fans/friends to come out is extremely helpful. It doesn’t matter if this is your first book or fifth. The worst that happens is they ignore the request or decline to come. The best is you have an enthusiastic crowd of fans and friends who buy books! Every little bit helps.

Also, keep the swag to a minimum. Custom ephemera (mugs, t-shirts, pencils, bookmarks, etc.) can be alluring, but nine times out of ten they just end up in the bin. Save your money. Put it toward a clean, inviting website. Or better, if you cannot tour nationally, offer to sign copies and have them shipped directly to the bookshop.

Julie Schoerke

We prefer to take an author to an audience, rather than try to entice readers to come out on their own. So, we generally partner with organizations and bookstores to have an author speak to a group that will be meeting anyway and needs a speaker. But if an author wants to have an event that they create from scratch, it’s important to understand that family and friends must be relied on heavily to attend the event. Bookstore events by mid list authors are not well attended unless there is a personal connection with audience members. Contacting Facebook and Twitter followers, etc. ahead of time and asking them to come to an event so that you can meet them can be a great way to transfer your “virtual” friends and fans into real ones! Be sure to take lots of photos with people at events and post them (tagging the people in the photo) or asking those in the audience to post and tag you.

Can you tell us about an event that you particularly enjoyed? What about it was unique?

Jenny Milchman

Oh gosh, I can never pinpoint one. So many have been am-a-zing. But I can say which ingredients make for a really good event. Involved booksellers, who ideally have read and liked your book; a rich enough event calendar that there’s a portion of customers who go to almost everything; and food associated with the event. I don’t know why, but the serving of food correlates highly with a super event. At one event I did at the Daniel Pierce Library in the tiniest town ever, a hall-length series of tables were covered with treats and tidbits, and the attendees brought me a laden plate because my signing line was so long. 

Ian Kern

Over the years we’ve had a ton of great events, many of which have included unique details. Some have been tasty (hello mini hotdogs!), some have been scintillating discussions between experts, and some have just been pure craziness (you try rounding up over twenty authors to sign the same anthology). And some have been just normal readings that turned out to be interesting based on the author’s experiences. The point is, you don’t have to go over the top to have a unique event. Lasers and chamber orchestras are not required. What is required is enthusiasm for your book and the ability to tell a good tale.

Julie Schoerke

What a great question! I can honestly say that I’ve been to so many bookstores around the country and, every time, I enjoy seeing the happiness and relief on each of author’s face when they know their dream is finally realized.

And so many bookstores do killer events! Some of my favorite are, of course, at Otto Penzler’s venerable Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. The crowds, the enthusiasm and energy among the books twenty feet or more in the air on all sides is intoxicating. The Tattered Cover in Denver is a huge bookstore with a big reputation, and it’s fun to see authors speaking in the special lecture room upstairs. Woodstock, GA has a fantastic events program that often has crowds winding outside of the Foxtale Bookshop for signings because they turn it into a party – they had a life-size “mermaid” wearing sequins floating in the window for one of our authors whose book was about mermaids. Eastside Story in East Nashville has Eastside Story Telling events at local coffee shops, and I absolutely love having our authors on stage with a couple of musical groups. These great community evenings always brings a crowd, thanks to bookstore owner Chuck Beard. Of course, my favorite seat in the United States on Thursday nights during the school year is at Off Square Books in Oxford, MS for Thacker Mountain Radio. Hundreds of well-read people cram into standing room-only area, and it’s a thrill to see our authors in this famous bookstore. The taping of the show is then distributed throughout Mississippi on NPR stations for the next month. The Bookstall at Chestnut Court always has celebrity authors as well as local authors for cozy events. I was at the first event for Gillian Flynn before GONE GIRL hit the New York Times bestseller list. It was an intimate group of about twenty fans. A few weeks later, after all the fanfare in the media, she did an event with one of our authors at The Book Cellar, also in Chicago, and it was so packed that none of us could hardly move – it was thrilling! Parnassus in Nashville, author Ann Patchett’s store, has been the sight of many of our events. The cool vibe of the store, and their wiliness to allow great, creative treats to be served, makes it a special venue.

(Ed. Note: Interjecting to give a shout out to One More Page Books in Arlington, VA, one of my favorite bookstores to give a reading. Great staff, terrific crime fiction selection, and entrenched in the community.)

What’s most unique about almost every book event is how the author and audience connect on a really personal level. Lots of events have included tears of joy and tears of exhaustion…but it’s the heart of the event and the promise and potential of what is to come for the author, that everyone there is cheering, that makes every single event unique in its own special way.

Follow-up question for Julie: How do you, as a publicist, assist an author when he/she is planning an event at a bookstore?

Julie Schoerke

We schedule literally hundreds of events every year for authors in all fifty states and in some foreign countries. Because we know what the pitfalls are, such as getting an audience in a market where the author knows no one, we work to find local hooks and/or other authors in the JKS Communications family locally who will take the stage with the author and encourage local book buyers to come out. We also work closely with the store team to be sure that the right number of books are ordered, that they arrive in a timely fashion and that there is media attention surrounding the event. However, TV and radio interviews or print media attention do not in any way guarantee that folks will come out to meet the author. But they do increase the chances that the signed books left behind at the bookstore will be purchased, and that there is heightened awareness in the community of the book. JKS Communications is a huge proponent of indie bookstores, but some people will read about the book and author, or hear them, and order online. That still increases book sales for the author. Although, we’d always prefer that the bookstore get the sales.

The way that a bookstore event is set-up needs to be turned on its head. Rather than having a Q&A and then signing the books, it’s much better to do the reading and presentation, then break for signing the books and take Q&A. Why? Because the real reason for the event is to sell books. If a Q&A goes on too for quite a while and there is a long line for people wanting their books personalized, some will walk out with nothing. Don’t lose sales because of that. Respect everyone’s time and sign the books, perhaps people can have refreshments while waiting for you. Then, after the books are sold and personalized, you have all the time in the world to answer people’s questions.

Is there anything you’d recommend a writer not do, either before or during an event?

Ian Kern

Sure, but first let me say one thing. While we are booksellers, selling books is not the end-all/be-all of an event. We want the author to get exposure and to introduce their works to the world. We want to create a relationship with the author. So if the event didn’t go as planned, well, that’s ok. What is important is we tried, together. 

Now, there are a few do nots. I hate being negative, but these things are important for a good bookseller/author relationship.

  • Even if an event is successful, please remember that this is a bookstore, not a party venue. Keeping the mess to a minimum and leaving around the scheduled time is helpful. We still have to clean up and close out afterward, so make plans to move friends and family to another location to keep the good times going.
  • Do not assume that bookshop is responsible for all publicity. This is a joint effort and the more people we have promoting the event, the better.
  • Do not ask the bookshop to carry a certain quantity unless you’re sure the majority will sell. If you are only hoping that fifty people will show up for an event, do not demand the shop carry fifty copies.

And finally, do not expect staff to turn the bookshop upside-down with crazy requests. We love a fun, creative event, but we also don’t want to move all of our furniture out of the way for a projection screen and a smoke machine. Keep it simple. If it will actually help enhance the discussion and sales, great. If it’s just padding, leave it out.

Jenny Milchman

In the words of the great ad campaign, don’t ever let ’em see you sweat. Things will happen that are tough to take–I went to one bookstore in Arkansas, and they forgot I was coming. We rescheduled, I rerouted through Missouri to get back there again–and the second time the store was closed. Be gracious, know that as hard as you’re working, the booksellers, librarians, and other hosts are too, and this is a career built word by word, day by day, and reader by reader.

Thanks to Jenny, Ian, and Julie for a terrific column! Got questions? Leave them in the comments below.

To learn more about The Mysterious Bookshop, click here.

To learn more about JKS Communications, click here.

Jenny Milchman is the author of COVER OF SNOW, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award and RUIN FALLS, an Indie Next Pick and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine. Her new novel, AS NIGHT FALLS, was published in June, 2015. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, teaches for New York Writers Workshop, and is the founder and organizer of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually in all fifty states. Jenny lives in the Hudson River Valley with her family.

To learn more about Jenny Milchman’s novels, click on the covers below:

coverofsnowruinfallsnightfalls

E.A. Aymar is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins, and his latest novel is YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD. He writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of top crime fiction publications.

To learn more about E.A. Aymar’s novels, click on the covers below:

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