Author Events: Notes to Myself and a Rant

After 17 years of running author events at a bookstore, I think I can claim to be something of an expert on the subject. Having learned from some of the best authors who have graced the store, (you know who you are) I know what to do when it’s my turn to be the star.

When it is me behind that podium talking about my book, the number of chairs (set up by someone else for a change!) will be conservative since it looks better to be adding chairs then have rows of empty seats. But worry not: at my event, those chairs will be full because I will only appear where I am pretty damn sure of an audience. That means, my proud mother (not in my case, since she’s no longer alive – but you get my drift) lives in town or I have a lot of friends nearby. I’ve contacted an existing group interested in the subject I write about.

Yes, authors, the onus is largely on you. Unless you are a ‘name’ or are a psychic willing to do readings at your event (seriously – this always gets a crowd) do not go down a list randomly calling bookstores hoping to set up an event. And even if my publisher provided publicist (still dreaming) sets up my events for me, I will still personally reach out to the organizers to discuss the date. Maybe they always have a core group audience – and more likely, not. I’ll know in advance what kind of hustling I need to do to entice my supporters out and will do it. I will not delude myself that an audience will just be there – I know how hard it is to get people to come out so I’ll help rather than talk only to 3 homeless people asleep in the chairs.

At my book events, here’s what I will not do: I will not read from my book. I know, that’s what everyone’s instinct is — to share your glorious book with everyone by reading your favorite passages. Okay, maybe I would read a very little bit. Trust me, even 10 minutes at a shot is a wee bit too much. Really. The fact is, most people, including authors, are not good readers – not good enough to have that be the feature of the show. Record yourself and you’ll understand. See how your voice changes into a ‘readerly’ voice? Maybe this sounds good to you, but it’s unnatural sounding and in most cases, is terribly soporific.

Have you noticed that very few authors read their own audio books? The publishers are not dumb. You can write, but chances are you can’t read. I don’t need you to read to me. Don’t read. Talk to your audience and tell them about why you had to tell the story that is your book. Tell us what you ate for breakfast – whatever. If someone has traveled in the rain or snow or come in from a beautiful day to sit in an uncomfortable chair for an hour (and it should never be more than that!)  it is because they are interested in YOU. Don’t disappoint them.

Pretend you’re a standup comic and work out a routine. Even if it’s not funny. Or imagine you are a motivational speaker and getting paid $10,000 for this event. (Hey, this may lead to something!) Or just be your quiet self but tell us your story. We will then want to read your book. And then you can read us a passage or two, if you must.

Just be natural. Don’t come with a script – but know your lines so it flows. And if you’re doing lots of venues in the area or are appearing at the same place, even years later, don’t tell the same story. Your groupies are there and have heard it – tell them a new one.

Here’s my suggested program: following the brief but charming introduction your host makes for you, greet your audience – calling out any local connections, the one’s you love, etc. and perhaps, their significance to you and/or your book. Connecting like this make everyone feel a little cozier – most of all you. These are your peeps after all so taking these minutes to reach out – it will relax you enough to enjoy this time. And then, so will your audience.

Now, tell us a good anecdote or two to draw us closer to you and your work. Okay, you can read a brief passage to illustrate some point you just mentioned. Now stop reading. Stop. I said stop… and tell us something else. Talk to us. Make us laugh and cry. You do it in your book, you can do it here. Readers want to know more about you or they would not have shown up. You know what I mean. Why do you think your picture and a blurb are on the back jacket of the cover? Who are you? It’s sometimes what readers look at even before the blurb. Flesh out that blurb.

This should fill about 20-30 minutes. We really love you now and want to know more and now feel okay asking. So ask for questions. You’ll panic because no one raises their hand right away. Wait a few seconds but don’t make it awkward. People are shy and no one wants to be first. So ask your own question to the audience – that will give someone courage to raise their hand. Sometimes if authors have a friend or relative in attendance, they’ll plant a question – a good idea. You’ve just got to get the ball rolling, that’s all.

You’ve now been at this for about 45 to 50 minutes. Unless you’ve got a really scintillating discussion going, stop. Thank everyone for coming and tell them you’ll be happy to sign books for them. Enjoy this one-on-one with your readers but don’t linger too long with any one of them – share contact info if you must catch up or ask them to wait and join you for a drink later,  but don’t keep others waiting. You want everyone to buy your book and people are busy. You are a salesperson here to sell your book: sell it! Help keep books and bookstores alive by doing it right. We’ll all live happily ever after.

Oh yeah, this was advice to myself, wasn’t it?

Maybe you disagree. Do you want to hear authors read their books?


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63 Responses to Author Events: Notes to Myself and a Rant

  1. Avatar Lea Sylvestro says:

    This was a great piece….good, solid advice from one who knows what she’s talking about, and such a happy fantasy for a would-be writer like me. How many of these very talks have I given in my head while driving to work? Including the joyful opening moment of having a book to talk about and faithful friends and readers beaming at me as i blow them kisses. *sigh*

  2. Avatar dianeprokop says:

    For years I’ve been trying to convince authors not to read. Why oh why won’t they listen? Great piece, Tricia. I’m going to post this on FB and Twitter for all my author friends.

  3. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks, Diane! I know that most of us from our side of the biz get this. Oh, I bet you and I could have some good gabs.

  4. Avatar Marta says:

    Good advice! I have experienced each of these author stumbles. It would be great if the publicists ran a boot camp before the tour begins.

  5. Avatar Rae Anne Locke says:

    Well-spoken…I think the thing that compels readers to go see an author speak is to be let into his/her world for a little while. What motivates them, why they wrote the book, some humorous moments, or “insider” information. Something that helps reveal who they are – the audience most likely admires their work before attending. It’s nice to hear a short passage, but the intimacy of the talk is what I always hope for when I attend.

  6. Tricia, great piece. As for authors reading their own works, I was already warned about that. We often listen to books in the car, including kids’ and teen books. Usually well done and engaging. I made the mistake of borrowing from the library one of Madeleine l’engle’s books, read by the author herself. About halfway through the second disc the pleas from the back seat to stop it could not be ignored. We looked at each other with relief and then had a good laugh. Never did find out how it ended; we had had enough already. So I have learned that lesson.
    However, I must tell you that right now in my car cd player sits a recording of Seamus Heaney reading a selection of his poems, Interspersed with music on the uillean pipes by one of the great pipers Now, that is one poet to hear, and I am so glad of the chance to listen again to those sonorous Ulster tones. I will be glad to lend it to you. Sheila

  7. Avatar Prill Boyle says:

    Fabulous advice, Tricia! And well-written to boot! Can’t wait to go to one of your events!! xoxox

  8. Avatar Tricia says:

    Hmm, a great idea – I’d love to be a ‘coach’ for such a camp!

  9. Avatar Tricia says:

    Beautifully put, Rae Anne. A ‘reveal’ – yes.

  10. Avatar Tricia says:

    Sheila – I think poetry is different. Almost meant to be read aloud, don’t you think?
    Frank McCourt read at least a few of his titles for audio – and so well! Between the accent and being a natural raconteur, that’s no surprise.

  11. Avatar Tricia says:

    Prill, I remember your event for Defying Gravity as a great one and look forward to hosting you for another, one day.
    I think it helps if the author has taught – as you have – you know how to talk to keep people interested. (And you are completely charming to boot!) x

  12. Avatar Lee SD says:

    Brilliant, Trisha! Thanks for writing it. And Maura, thanks for posting it!

  13. Tricia, what a fabulous post! I want to forward it to every author before an event. I always gently correct them when they refer to their event as a “reading”.

  14. Avatar Sika says:

    Seriously Trish, you could be a writers’ coach for such events. Great piece – will remember the advise and will pass it on…

  15. Avatar Tricia says:

    Perhaps YOU have a book in the works, Sika? I encourage you!

  16. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks, Anne. Yes, unless it’s poetry – since that almost begs to be read, although that weird voice thing happens even more!

  17. This is great. However, I DO think reading five minutes is good. (and I know you hold that possibility open.) Particularly if it is a funny five minutes. I was just on four panels and the panel that was the strongest, in my view, was where the other author (Andre Dubus III) and I each read literally for under five mins…

  18. Thank you for this. The problem with me is that I don’t even want to go to my own event, not after this mean winter when sunny Satudays are at a premium. I know this is a bad attitude…At any rate thank you for the good advice. I too have sat through long readings and hated them. So when I do talk I’ll talk about how I started writing my book in the early 80’s and gave up on publishing it, so deeply, that even now, I’m not happy about the work of finding readers…Maybe I’m feeling that prepub fear other writers have spoken about. At any rate, thank you for this piece…


    Katie Andraski

  19. Avatar Tricia says:

    Oh, I would have loved to have been at that event! And to be truthful, you and Dubus could indeed go on reading longer and everyone would be rapt, I’m sure.
    I was listening to Terri Gross interview an author this afternoon – the interview opened with him reading (a short piece) and it was the perfect launch for the interview. Done right, it’s right.
    Thanks for affirming my advice and for commenting. I’m a fan since The Camel Bookmobile!

  20. Great post. As a shop owner (with books) I had gone through similar experiences when hosting authors. When my time came, I did exactly as you suggested. I talked a bit, opened the floor for questions and visited one on one. It changed me from dreading the events to looking forward to them as if I was going to be with family.

  21. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks, Katie, for reading and responding.
    I peeked over at your website and blog and — how exciting about your book! It looks like a page-turner.

    And your story is so inspiring — that’s exactly what I would want to hear about. And since you teach, you know how to keep the interest.

    I’d also reach out to book groups? So many churches and community centers and Ys have them. Sounds like a book that would really lend itself to discussion.

    But I know what you mean about this winter. I’ve been paralyzed for much of it – and even this morning- a dusting of snow seemed way too much!

    Good luck – it will be fun and I wish you much success! I look forward to following it.

  22. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks Angela!
    Congratulations on your book – I’ll be tracking a copy down – it looks great. And I love KY – where I studied and lived for many years.
    Do you guide your authors? I try too but as another book person mentioned, they don’t listen!
    Thanks again for reading and commenting. Lovely to connect.

  23. Avatar katiewilda says:

    Tricia, thank you for your warm and thoughtful and encouraging comments about my comment and website. It was my editor who cleaned up the book to make it a fast read. He did a nice job and this publisher is small and very enthusiastic. I will try book groups at churches etc. Thanks for the suggestion.

  24. Woah! Thank you for this advice! Book marking this and considering it my bootcamp.

  25. Avatar Anmiryam says:

    A great piece, Katie, thank you. I post an event listings for my area each week on my blog and while most of the events I’ve been to have been good, I’ve been to a few clunkers. I think your words are are also valuable to audience members. We can play a role in helping to draw authors out and make things more interactive and entertaining. I suspect that many authors are just overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious about being on stage. Most writers are not natural performers (there are exceptions, of course) and have to learn how to feel comfortable in front of groups of people, especially if the group is larger or smaller than they were hoping for.

  26. Avatar Susan McBeth says:

    Great post and right on the money Tricia. I have been an author events coordinator for years as well and in fact left my bookstore job to start my own company for those exact reasons. I wanted to create more interactive and intimate events that would increase the odds of a successful event for authors as I saw how many times things didn’t go well. I can tell you were amazing at your job and congratulations on having your own book now!

  27. Avatar Pippa says:

    Once saw cheryl strayed at woodstock. She would have been fabulous but the interviewer insisted on relating everything back to himself so unfortunately it was very disappointing.

  28. Thanks – this is very thoughtful and useful. In my experience, I think it’s effective if an author tells stories from the book, or leads us into how he/she wrote the book. Talk *about* the book and only read a short cliff-hanger piece at the end. I think it’s important to read a bit from the book so the audience knows that they will like your style.

    I was at a literary festival in Vermont last summer and heard author Tom Kizzia talking about how he wrote his book, Pilgrim’s Wilderness. His approach was perfect – he told a lot of anecdotes from the book, talked about his process and how he got to know the people in the book. By the time he finished, the book-signing line was out the door. I bought a copy for myself and one for a gift!

  29. Avatar Pippa says:

    Once saw Cheryl Strayed speak at the Woodstock writers festival. She was fab but unfortunately the interviewer thought that it was all about him and it really spoilt the evening.

  30. Avatar tea_austen says:

    Oh, Tricia, I wanted to cheer at the end of each paragraph here. YES.
    I spent five years producing a literary festival and good author readings are so illusive–and then magical when you get a really amazing one. Everything you say here is so true. I’ve got a book coming out next year and am already trying to devise events I’d actually want to go to. So much harder than it appears.
    And now I am looking forward to reading your book! It sounds like your life has been full of adventures.
    Thanks for the great post.

  31. Avatar Kenny says:

    All fair enough, but the truth is I love hearing authors read their own work. I’m much more prone to buy an audio book if the author has chosen to read it.

    Author events I’ve attended for Colson Whitehead and Ann Patchett were brilliant and largely followed your advice. He could have passed for a stand up comic, and she was completely inspiriing.

  32. Avatar Tricia says:

    Yes – there are authors I could listen to read to me for hours – event or not. Frank McCourt was like that. But mostly, not.
    Thanks for reading and commenting, Kenny!

  33. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks so much for commenting – and while my book is still a dream, I look forward to seeing yours and following your news! In the minutes before going to work, I glimpsed at your site and am so excited to see you write about all my favorite things – food! garden! and lived in Japan!
    I’ll be back and look forward to getting acquainted.

  34. Avatar Tricia says:

    I can’t imagine she let him get away with that! The host should be virtually invisible, for heaven’s sake! Too bad.

  35. Avatar Tricia says:

    Perfect! I agree and love a line out the door, as does the author. Thanks for commenting.

  36. Avatar Tricia says:

    Good for you! I’d be interested in knowing how that’s going. (bet you miss seeing the books every day though!) Thank you for commenting and I look forward to exploring your site.

  37. Avatar Tricia says:

    Yes – a good audience does help. And friends should rally – especially at the start of an author’s careers. And mothers! Oh, they are the best! I almost always say yes when a mother asks for an event for their (adult only please!) child’s book. No one gets a crowd out like Moms.

  38. Avatar Gwen McClellan says:

    That was simply a brilliant, well thought out, substantive description wrought from acute observation and experience.

  39. Avatar Gwen McClellan says:

    I’m not certain how, but I’m so happy to have discovered your blog.

  40. Avatar laycegardner says:

    Oh Boy, do I agree. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than being read to.

  41. This post is spot on! I was once subjected to a reading by a very famous author at a literary festival. He spent the ENTIRE hour reading a chapter from his book. I was completely bored…and completely annoyed. Conversely, I attended an appearance last week by Tom Ryan, author of Following Atticus, who never read one word from his book – and he had the audience eating out of his hand for the entire hour. I’ve learned by watching – so I just read a few brief passages during my appearances. Probably 5 minutes in total. The rest is story telling and answering questions. (But, as MelanieLynnGriffin said above – that 5 minutes of reading has sold books. An audience member at one of my recent events said that it was my reading of those passages that convinced him to buy the book, because when he heard them he knew I could really write. So, don’t discount reading just a little bit from your book!)

  42. What a great post! I needed to read this right now, since I’m doing a bunch of author events. A few are at bookstores where it’s just a “reading” planned– not an event with others, and I don’t really know many people in that immediate area. I plan to reach out to the bookstore– what would you suggest I ask them?

  43. I think your tips and pointers are all good– except for not reading. Not everyone is a raconteur, either. Frank McCourt was mentioned, but he shouldn’t have been– he, like precious few others, was a most witty speaker and an excellent reader, so he could do both, though he was a better raconteur, so that’s what he mostly did.

    I think every author is obliged to read at least a small excerpt (or a handful of poems). The thing is, besides making sure they schedule an event at a place where they will have an audience, they also have the responsibility of making sure they can read aloud well. Writers must practice that. They’re practiced the writing, and they must practice the reading. It’s part of the job.

  44. Avatar karen says:

    GREAT piece. Shared by way of Colleen. Thanks for the insight.

  45. Loved this piece, Tricia. I’m bookmarking it for future reference, because of course I’ll need it for my own future (albeit currently imagined) author events.

    As I read your post, I couldn’t help think you could give the same advice to authors establishing their platforms: be yourself, tell people about you, shout out to the people who helped/encouraged you along the way, etc. Basically, make it about giving people the chance to know you and you getting to know them in return, not all about your books.

    I do like a little bit of reading at an author event. I went to one of Cheryl Strayed’s last year, and it was a special moment to get the inside from her regarding the parts of her book (Wild) that meant the most to her, were hardest to write, she almost left out, wanted to expand on, etc. She read a couple of passages, but only a few minutes worth each time. But 45 minutes?? No tricking way, no matter who the author is.

  46. Avatar tea_austen says:

    I had to chuckle at your comment above–so true! In my experience social media outreach pales in comparison to mother outreach. I’m fairly sure I owe one of my website awards to votes my mother drummed up for me (without my asking). No joke.
    I noticed the parallels in our bios as well–Kyoto owns a bit of my childhood and a chunk of my heart. I’m so curious about your experience there.
    Looking forward to getting acquainted as well.

  47. Wonderful advice, both for authors and for those elected to host their author events. Thanks for sharing this.

  48. Avatar Tricia says:

    Thanks for reading. And good luck with your writing and I send you lots of healing thoughts on your health. And what a gift that bird was! I’ve never seen one. Gorgeous.

  49. Avatar Tricia says:

    Hi Kelly.
    I think your example with Cheryl Strayed is a perfect one of how/when it works. A little bit and relevant.
    Your blog looks hysterical and I look forward to following!
    thanks for commenting.

  50. Avatar Tricia says:

    I’ll keep an eye out for your book – it looks terrific and I bet you’ll keep the crowd laughing.
    Thank you for reading and commenting.

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