5 Tips for A Successful Reading

Ah, that tried and true marketing tool: The author reading. If you have books to sell (or one day hope to), it’s a good idea to remain in the good graces of your supporters. Getting published isn’t license to act like a jerk. Following are all mistakes I’ve seen authors (some famous) make at their readings. The result? Pissed-off bookstore owners and audience members. Guess what that does to sales?

Guest column by Marianna Swallow, who teaches
public speaking and presentation skills, and is furiously
working on her business book,
Stop Whining, Start
Speaking. A latent actress, she reads her personal
essays all over Chicago, and she’s always nice to
her audience. See her website here.

1. Respect your audience. The most valuable thing anyone can give you is time and attention. Arrive early and start on time. I’ve seen authors waltz in 45 minutes late to their own reading—because they were next door enjoying a leisurely dinner. (Planning, people!) During Q&A, remember there is no such thing as a dumb question. I’ve seen famous authors scoff at questions and even respond with, “That’s a stupid question, someone else ask another one.” Yeah, I’m not buying your book, sweetie.

2. Respect your host(s). No matter where your reading takes place—a large bookstore or a quaint vegetarian café—remember you are a guest. Behave as such. The owner or manager is giving you a platform to help sell your product. Don’t demand the proprietor change the chairs around 5 minutes before your reading, and if offered a drink, don’t demand or quaff an entire bottle of wine. Be gracious. Your host is your partner in sales. Don’t defeat your purpose by uttering something negative like, “You don’t have to buy my book.”

3. Read for 10 minutes—tops. Adults have a short attention span. Heads start to nod and minds start to wander after 10 or 12 minutes. I don’t care if you’re Stephen King. Keep it brief, keep ‘em wanting more, and make ‘em want to buy your book. I’ve seen writers turn a 10-minute poem into a 45-minute manifesto. If your audience is fidgeting, looking around or at their cell phones, it’s time to wrap it up.

4. Be your own billboard. Don’t expect your hosts to drum up all your business. It’s the age of Twitter and Facebook. You have no friends in Bozeman, Montana? Your friends or their friends probably do. Reach out to your network, ask for help spreading the word, and take some initiative in promoting yourself locally. This is super important if you don’t have a publicist promoting you. Know that you’re partially responsible for getting yourself an audience. And no matter how big or small your audience is, bring your A-Game. No matter what. Which means you need to…

5. Prepare, Practice, and Project. I rolled my eyes when I saw an author, book in hand, step to the microphone and say, “I didn’t prepare anything, so I’m just going to open to a page and read whatever I find. Here goes.” Choose an appropriate 10-minute segment from your work, and type it up with a 14-point font, double spaced. When presenting, reading from plain paper is easier than reading from a book. And when you do, speak from your gut. If you’re not a seasoned public speaker, you will likely fall into the habit of speaking in your normal, every day voice. That ain’t gonna fly in a crowd. Imagine that your voice originates in your gut and speak from there—it will carry farther, and your audience will appreciate it. And for Pete’s sake, practice before you get there. Ten minutes spoken is different than 10 minutes read silently to yourself. Plus, you don’t want to be stumbling over your wonderful piece on “prestidigitation” before a roomful of people.


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One thought on “5 Tips for A Successful Reading

  1. Ian Bontems

    Great post Chuck and thanks so much for this information, Marianna.
    I’m not at the stage where I’m giving readings at a book signing, but it’s always good to get some tips.

    I think a lot of writers (me included) are shy about this aspect of the business.
    "Waddya mean I have to sell it? Can’t I just write ’em?"
    Not anymore, and I guess it’s been like that for a long time.


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