Author readings and book tours are not an essential component of the writing or publishing processes, and so these events have long been associated with a kind of miasmic purposelessness. Go to your basic reading and sit in the back row, where if you squint, you will see above the head of almost everyone involved—the writer(s)/reader(s), the audience, the publicist, the bookseller, the sales clerk(s) who set up the chairs and must wait around to take them down before heading out to an indie-rock show, the local reporter doing a trend piece on the decline of readings—a clump of thought bubbles bumping up against each other like trapped balloons, all imprinted with slight variations of the same theme, namely: “Why are we here?”
Writers (and to varying extent, their publishers) have long struggled to justify the relevance of readings, both to themselves and to prospective audience members. In 450 BC, for example, when Herodotus (a.k.a. “The Father of Lies”) published his nine-volume epic The Histories and soon after announced his intention to read from his work at an outdoor café/independent bookstore in Halicarnassus, he sent out the following message by runner: “You guys, I’m reading on Tuesday night—hope you can make it!—there’s going to be free booze ☺” To which his best friend nevertheless responded, also by runner: “Sorry, I’m going to be out of town ☹” which (although the record is unclear) we can assume was a lie, given that the event in question conflicted with a much-anticipated television broadcast of Sophocles’ Ἠλέκτρα.
Yet writers continue to promote their events, with or without the help of their publishers—and occasionally, the stars align and the event in question is deemed a success, or at least not a complete disaster. Here with advice, lessons learned as well as horror stories of readings and book tours past are authors Shane Jones, Laurie Weeks, Charles Yu, Tao Lin, Sheila McClear, Jon Michaud and myself; publicists Lauren Cerand and Brian Ulicky; and event organizer Jennie Portnof.
After my first novel, Light Boxes, was picked up by Penguin (it was originally published by the incredible Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius), one of the first questions my parents asked was, “Are you going to go on a book tour?” This question seems like a kind of knee-jerk reaction, because I’m not sure what people outside of publishing and writing would ask other than this or how much money you’re going to get. It’s nice to be able to say, “Yes, I’m going on tour.” And if your family ever asks about book money always tell them, “One million dollars.”
I’ve disliked giving readings in the past. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I always wanted to go on a book tour. When you’re submitting flash fiction to Kitty Fart Face Review and you see another writer going on a twelve-city tour with a novel, you too want that. You kind of crave it, even if you deny yourself in expressing it. The basic idea of readings connects to the ego in all of our little writer bellies. We want to be read and heard. After spending so much time fucking around alone, forming words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into a novel that someone is willing to publish (they believe in you!), it kind of feels good to stand up and let people see you.
I did a solo six-city tour for my first book that was paid for by the publisher (I believe the budget was $5,000, which, thinking about it now, seems incredible and reckless that they would do such a thing). I live in Albany New York. Here are the cities I read in, in the order I visited, how I got there, and the most memorable thing I can remember without trying to think too hard:
• Albany (drove myself; made eye contact with my mom in the audience).
• Boston (plane; before reading sat in a bar alone and ate a hamburger served on an English muffin).
• New York City (train; was 100 degrees outside).
• Portland (plane; during the Q&A a man asked if I was surprised when Spike Jonze bought the film option. I said no, that I expected it. Not sure he picked up on the sarcasm, felt like an asshole).
• Seattle (train; read in what was possibly the basement of the bookstore).
• Los Angeles (plane; drinking three cups of coffee—not a good idea before a reading)
• Back to Albany (plane; last person to board the plane, sat between two massive dudes reading James Patterson).
My publisher was supportive during the publishing process and tour. There’s a weird vibe for a debut novel: this build up a few months prior to publication, where everyone wants you to do well, visions of solid sales numbers and great reviews. But the reality (and I’m trying hard not to be cynical sounding here) is that the publication day comes, the first tour date lands, and it’s just like every other day except you have a book to hold and read from. Which makes the “we’re sending you on a book tour” such a crazy hopeful thing for a publisher to do and I’m pretty grateful for it.
The single worst experience I had on tour was my reading in Albany. No one showed up besides my family and a few friends. When I say my family showed up I don’t mean my mom. I mean my mom, dad, grandmother, sister, aunt, uncle, three cousins, etc. It was great (they were there to support me) but also embarrassing because no one else was there. Where were my fans? To make it worse, the bookstore did no introduction (the clerk told me: “Go ahead, whenever”) and I had to slowly walk up to the podium, introduce myself to my family, and read. The best way I can describe this experience is to picture having a dream where you’re reading some fiction you wrote while standing on top of the dining room table in your parent’s house during your little brother’s birthday party.
As I’m writing this, one big question looms: are readings worth it? That is, do people buy books and connect with the author and all those things the publisher wants to happen, do they actually happen? Yes, people buy books. On my tour, I believe I sold books to people who normally wouldn’t have bought the book. Does it make up for the expenses paid by the publisher? No way. I can’t see how, and maybe that’s why for my second novel Penguin won’t be sending me on a tour. Did I connect with people? I don’t know. Maybe? It’s a hard question to answer. I think I connected with a few people who thought I was a decent real human being and the connection (not just lonely reader and invisible author) maybe gets a little deeper, changes in weird and cool ways.
I’m glad I went on my book tour. It’s kind of a dream scenario for writers (especially having everything paid for), but it’s also humbling. The largest crowd I had was maybe thirty people. The others I averaged between 10-15, and who knows how many of them were bookstore staff or distant family relatives.
Here’s some advice I need to say in relation to book promotion and readings: don’t take it too seriously. Book publicity in general is complete chaos. From my experience, it’s a guessing game and no one has any idea what’s going to sell. Face it, not many people are going to care about your book. Worry about writing a book that you love. Why 50,000 people buy a book compared to 5,000 people for another book is anyone’s guess. So, if you’re going to go on a book tour and give readings, remember to have fun. I think I took myself too seriously. When signing the few copies for “fans” I looked toward the registers to see if people were buying my book. That’s silly. I feel embarrassed for doing that. I wish I would have relaxed more, maybe took some pictures.
In the six months since Zipper Mouth materialized at long last as an actual book last October, 2011, I’ve done what feels like hundreds of readings in NYC, though really it’s around 20 or so, and a few in San Francisco, LA, and right now I’m in Philadelphia after a reading at the excellent Vox Populi. My life’s been so crazy lately that technically, no, I haven’t toured yet, though in my mind it’s only a matter of days until I get a grip and take the world by storm in a glamorous multinational whirlwind of electrifying personal appearances.
One of the weirdest things about Zipper Mouth’s trajectory is that, in effect, I toured it across the country in 1999 with Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson in their legendary Sister Spit vans. Almost everything in the book was written by then and had been published in one form or another, and that’s what I was reading almost every single night, in bars and libraries, living rooms, barns, coffee shops, for six weeks. I partially supported myself on tour by selling a little chapbook version called Zipper Mouth, which included educational graphics and some passages that didn’t end up in the final version.
When the book came out I was recovering from hip surgery so it was enough just to keep up with the interviews and readings in NYC. Getting to San Francisco for a reading organized by Michelle Tea felt like a mystical spiritual necessity, since it was the Sister Spit tour that inspired me to keep going in the first place. Michelle gave me $100 from her Radar Foundation funds and somehow I scored the ticket to SF, but the morning I left my friend’s apartment to drive to the airport, the car had been towed so I made it to SF the next night to be driven 100 MPH, French Connection-style, straight from the airport to the venue, where I literally walked in the door right as the person reading before me read his last paragraph to thunderous applause.
I guess the last few months have been a tour of sorts, with gigs just appearing, arranged through friends and associates and invitations from bookstores, reading clubs, etc. The Feminist Press at CUNY is a small nonprofit, and so they just don’t have the funds to send me jetting around on The Book Tour, but they help in every other way possible, publicizing events, getting a stack of books ahead of me to sell and sign after the readings. Amy Scholder, my editor/publisher is a miracle. She and her tiny staff of young, uber-competent love-machines, especially Elizabeth Coke, the publicist, threw me two book parties, including one with a DJ, took me to dinner and home in cabs, slipped me MetroCards, mailed books to friends, and sometimes let me keep the money from book sales at the readings. WHICH THE ENTIRE STAFF ATTENDED NIGHT AFTER NIGHT. I have no idea how any of them do it—most of them are writers and artists, too, and then of course there’s one’s personal life to attend to.
I’ve had so many great, epiphanous events. In Boston on the Sister Spit tour we read for an insanely groovy audience of 800 people or more, and it was like Woodstock: you could do no wrong. I hadn’t known that was possible. I’ve had supernatural experiences in nightclubs at 1 a.m., like reading at Jackie 60, my book launch at St. Mark’s, where I’d wanted to see my book since the day I arrived in NYC; the book party at Dixon Place, where I’d done so many readings thanks to the force of nature some call Ellie Covan. I can’t keep track of all the great readings. I really hate the formal things under fluorescent lights, though, with folding metal chairs.
Author events definitely help me sell books because I’m terrible at marketing or “maintaining a public profile.” I find it almost impossible to send my work out to someone who doesn’t already know it, though I did okay with that when I was young and impetuous. But readings are more fun and I discovered that, in my case, voice and vibration and intonation make things fall into place in a way I can’t do in a letter to an editor. I generally have a good time reading and the performer in me takes over. At last I relax. There’s truly a channeling kind of thing that steps into your body and always surprises me, which is the goal: surprise, discovery. I much prefer reading with one or two other people, and the best energy for me usually happens in bars and nightclubs, especially if there’s a dance party or DJ on the agenda. People are loosened up; we all relax and it becomes a true give-and-take kind of thing; sometimes it’s just pure bliss.
I’d mark the “Author event” number one in terms of importance. I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t do readings; it’s as much a part of the work as the words on the page. My first reading ever in NYC forced me to figure out how to create a narrative pull between the sensual pleasure of these dense blocks of imagery, which mean everything to me, and some kind of detached humor not based really on plot. I finally finished a story I’d been dithering around with for-like-EVER. I’m not an “auditory learner”—poetry readings don’t compute for me at all, though I want them to; what creates an experience for me as an audience member is a sense of play, no matter how serious the project. I also want enjoyment, an experience, so I arrange what I read as though I were in the audience. I want beauty and even though I’m coming from a serious, considered place, I try for a light touch to undercut heaviness that usually comes from the ego’s sense of importance, cuts out space for the audience to enter and interact. So both on the page and out loud the aim is to carry myself and you along through various visceral states to someplace mysterious and unforeseen through suggestion and rhythm, rather than literal sense. Readings help me do this on the page and to make discoveries, because the feedback loop and connection with the audience is just crucial. I’ll rearrange things for readings; like some things work better on the page.
It depends on what kind of writer you are, but for me it’s important to read anywhere and everywhere, to honor the invitation. That’s where you take the risks and make the discoveries. Face down the fear so you can connect. The credo I invented to work by is “The Theory of Total Humiliation,” (TOTH) a rip-off of Karen Finley’s title of a play she did in the early ’90s called “The Theory of Total Blame.” This rule, where I must humorously embrace and welcome the threat of humiliation, is how I stop my punitive super-ego from keeping me chained to the radiator of self-contempt and fear of speaking, a culturally induced violence towards the value of one’s perception, which is what my work both explores and contests. It’s a gift I can give, to take the risk of totally sucking, as opposed to sucking up the audience’s energy for ego satisfaction. It can’t just be about being a famous rock star, though that desire’s there and that’s fine; but the challenge is to stay level-headed, and I kind of do that by remembering that, really, I was sort of given a certain talent, which it’s my job to show up for and protect and treat with respect. Even that sounds self-important, but anyway, I’ve discovered that facing down the fear and being vulnerable with your work doesn’t elicit punishment, which the “state” wants you to believe with all your heart is what will happen—instead a magic alchemy occurs, you discover a kind of authority, and all sorts of synchronicities starts to spin into being, which is how Zipper Mouth finally made it from boxes into print.
I panic about what I’m going to read every single time, god knows why. Though I’ve read enough that now I trust the work and have learned that no matter how fucked up and disgusting I feel, if I show up the work will carry itself. Maybe sometimes not. So it’s important to read everywhere you can, I think. My default mode before readings is to fall back on proven crowd-pleasers, but the young Feminist Press girls have been stern, demanding that I read something different. They’re always right, which keeps the work alive for me; these kids are way smarter than I am in many ways, it keeps me humble and inspired.
For the record, I loathe Q&A from the audience afterwards, whether I’m in the audience or onstage. As far as I can tell you hardly ever learn anything interesting and personally I just go blank. For the same reason I prefer interviews where I can respond in print, because then I can really give considered answers and actually express things that reflect my years of thinking about writing and how it works and that I do think it’s important to talk about. Sometimes panels are great, too, if you’re with the right people—you can really riff and play off one another. Other times they make you want to die.
They worst author event was a live online interview about my book in which I feel like I really let the people down. I just wasn’t prepared for the skill required to field so many questions coming in, serious ones that required lengthy typing if answered correctly, as well as banter to engage in, plus I was thrown off by the shock of interacting with people who were moved somehow by my book and my fear of not being able to live up to their expectations. I wanted to be helpful but it was kind of overwhelming. One needs a lot of practice, I guess, to get good at that kind of thing. It interests me, though, because it’s such a challenge.
A contributing screenwriter on the film Boys Don’t Cry, Laurie Weeks is a writer, artist and performer in NYC. Published in October 2011, her first novel, Zipper Mouth was chosen for several “10 Best Novels of 2011” lists and is a finalist for both the Triangle Publishing Edmund White Award for Best Debut Novel and the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Debut Novel. A German edition is forthcoming, and a portion of Zipper Mouth appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading.
For the hardcover, I did something like ten events in seven cities. Considering it was my first novel, many of the events were pretty well attended (or maybe I just had low expectations), which was completely due to the efforts of the publicists at Pantheon and Vintage, and the booksellers. I went to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco/Berkeley, San Diego, Boston and New York, and in each city I had at least one reading where a decent number of people showed up. And some of them weren’t even related to me.
The paperback tour (which was another eight or nine events, something like that) was different from the hardcover, partly because there was a bit more awareness of the book by that point, and also because I think paperback tours might be a little different in general. So that was built more around festivals and panels and other stuff besides straight-up readings. I had the opportunity to participate in Writers With Drinks, a long-running and amazing series in San Francisco held in a bar called the Make-Out Room in San Francisco’s Mission District. And I also got to go to Google’s office in New York, which was really cool. I felt like I was inside the fortress walls, like I was somehow standing right at the intersection of the capital ‘E’ Economy and capital ‘T’ Technology. Also, it’s a weird feeling to know that you are the dumbest person in the building.
The events help sell books directly, but there are other ways that the tour helps sell books—local blogs and publications might run a piece or calendar listing in connection with the reading, and then there are podcasts or radio shows in that city. Another good that comes from the in-store events is the chance to actually meet with the booksellers. To have smart, passionate people actively trying to put your book into the hands of readers who they think might like it—that’s a significant thing. That might actually be the significant thing.
There are a lot of things I will try to do differently on the next tour. Mostly, try to enjoy them a little bit more. Try to relax. I have pretty bad stage fright, and so for many of the live radio interviews and especially panels, I was just trying to make it through without saying anything catastrophically stupid. I’m not sure I’ll be any more relaxed this time, but I should be, because I’m older, wiser, and also I have some Xanax. I think it’s Xanax. It might be Viagra. I got it off the Internet, so it should be pretty trustworthy. So for the next tour, I’ll either be calm and collected or nervous with a dangerously out-of-control boner.
I prefer Q&A to reading. That’s another thing I would do differently—do a little less reading and leave more time for questions. People seem to enjoy that more anyway. They’ve either read the book already in which case, why would they want to hear me do it again? My voice isn’t going to be as good as the one in their heads. Or, they haven’t read it, in which case I’m either spoiling it for them, or making them not want to buy it anymore. Questions, on the other hand, are fun, and something they can’t get anywhere else. In fact, I’ve thought about not writing books anymore and just doing Q&As.
No one has heckled me yet, although I did have one guy at a reading come up to me and start asking me questions about the technology of the TM-31 and how it works and it took about five minutes for me to realize what was happening—it was about the time that I noticed how glassy his eyes were—and then he finally just came out and said it: he was a time traveler, too, and he wanted to know if I could do it anytime I wanted or had to use the machine the way I described in the book.
I’m getting off-track. So yes, the publisher was very supportive for both hardcover and paperback. I’m not sure if everyone gets so lucky, but I have to say that the whole thing, from the time the manuscript was accepted to the publication of the book, it was a really positive experience. All of the people I worked with at the publisher, they all really care about making books, and I learned a lot about what goes into it, big choices and little choices. I was really impressed by the professionalism, dedication, and creativity that they put into those choices, and I saw first-hand how it’s those choices that really end up turning the manuscript into a book. I mean, it is the same text, the same work, but the way you present it, the way you frame it, bring people into the story through design and art and how you try to make them interested, that’s not something that I have any idea how to do, but they do. I learned what it means to actually publish something—they don’t slap a cover on it and ship it to stores. I’m sure this sounds crazy and starry-eyed and Pollyannaish, but it really was everything I imagined it would be, back in the days of licking hundreds of envelopes and folding SASEs (not that those days are over). And when things didn’t go so well for the book, they stayed positive, and had creative ideas about how to connect with readers and booksellers. That was all really important to me, especially with my first novel. Without that support and energy and publishing intelligence behind it, it’s pretty easy to imagine a sad outcome. I mean, honestly, it’s a weird book. It could have slipped through about ten different cracks along the way—with reviewers, bookstores, between genres—and to the extent it didn’t, it’s very much due to the publisher’s support.
Charles Yu is the author of How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe .
LAUREN CERAND (Publicist)
• Tours are overrated, and authors often incorrectly assume there is a correlation with talent or self-worth. I would recommend teaming up with someone local who has some savoir faire about the scene, and putting effort into coming up with the best possible event in that area. You are always going to do better in a locale that you have a connection to, past or present.
• I can lose track of the events I publicize and put together in a month, let alone over the past decade. The scale can always vary so widely, and it’s about the right happening for the right writer in the right setting for the right reasons. I enjoyed introducing David Lynch to Au Revoir Simone via Upstairs at the Square, the event series I have helped to create for Barnes & Noble for the past six years.
• A client, one of my first who I still work with, and I were laughing about a bad event several years ago, on the phone this morning; it was a big-deal launch for her, and I asked them to have chocolate chip cookies, her favorite, especially since we could barely afford their catering minimum, which they totally blew. While I was dealing with that, the stage caught on fire: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
• In a bookstore, and to a crowd, you can sell some books. If someone is interested enough to come out for you, it could be said they’re into it. Will there be enough of them though, to justify the resources? The average author event, conceived with a generic formula corresponding to an outdated set of factors, attracts eight people.
• I encourage people to do less, better, when it comes to author events.
• The internet has completely changed the way that people process information. No one wants to be read to from a lectern-broadcast style. We all want to comment now, in real time.
• I loathe gimmicks. And readings. The conversation is the way to go: Why should I read this book instead of all the other books, tonight? I’m currently helping to program the inaugural Mazama Festival of Books, strictly a series of themed salon-style discussions.
• When it comes to choosing excerpts, as in life, choose sex over death.
• I tell authors to read the same thing, as the more boring it is to them, the more natural—and unrehearsed—it sounds to the audience.
• Be selective, and go where your audience is most likely to be found. In all likelihood, it’s as unique as you are.
Lauren Cerand advises her clients on buzz, and how to get it.
I had 25 readings for my second novel, Richard Yates, September 7 to November 4 (exact dates/venues here here at bottom) in 2010. Melville House, who published Richard Yates, paid for all travel (plane, bus, inter-city travel) and offered to help find places for me to sleep at night (I mostly already knew people in most cities from previous book tours or from the internet) and I asked if they could pay for hotels in 1 or 2 or 3 cities if I couldn’t find any place to stay for free and they said yes (I gave them receipts later for, I think, 2 stays in hotels; they reimbursed me). ~20 events were just me reading; the others included other readers, for example RADAR in San Francisco, and one event was a panel discussion on the topic of “hipsters” at UCLA.
My favorite event was maybe at The Booksmith in San Francisco because I’d ingested a medium-large amount of psilocybin mushrooms before it and it was livestreamed and it was scary, I think, at the time, for the ~80 minutes of the event (which included a Q&A and signing) but has remained amusing and interesting (to me, to think about) for weeks and months and maybe years. It’s also been a source of productivity, in that Flaunt published an account by me of it (later republished by Thought Catalog) and there’s video of it online, which I embedded on my blog in a post (*contest* discern what drug I’m ‘on’ *contest*) I enjoyed creating and monitoring. My most uncomfortable reading was in Toronto because I had no drugs and didn’t know anyone in the audience (which stood almost in a half-circle around me; there weren’t chairs, I think) and was sitting, “completely exposed,” on a stool. I think I stuttered, at times, and said “I don’t know” to almost every question during the Q&A and felt like I had an openly scared expression sometimes.
I think author events may be most helpful, in terms of selling books, by generating local coverage, which is most likely to happen, I feel, if either  the author is already known or  the author is reading at a known, independent bookstore (that the media is attentive toward) such as The Elliott Bay Book Company, Atomic Books, McNally Jackson, St. Mark’s Bookshop and also, maybe most importantly,  the author’s publisher works hard on contacting the alt-weeklies, newspapers, magazines, websites (Bostonist, Gothamist, Austinist, etc.) of each city, knowing which places to contact how far in advance, to say the author will be in the city for an event, in an effort to, at the least, get the event listed but more with a focus on getting someone to write about the event or interview the author. I’ve felt surprised by how some local websites or alt-weeklies will want to interview me or cover an event after learning about it the same day or, like, that week.
The least helpful author events, in my experience, are ones in suburbs or non-major cities or, unless the author is extremely famous, Barnes & Noble (because the media is more attentive to readings in known, independent bookstores, I think). I had a reading in a suburb outside San Francisco, I think, that 2 or 4 (2 arrived, like, after it began) people were at and a reading in [non-major city, but still a city, that I’m not remembering currently] that, like, 6 people were at. Feel like just typing “AVOID SUBURBS.”
I prefer to read in a quiet, steady monotone. I don’t like when people attend a concert or a reading and say the musician or author is a bad performer because of low energy levels or lack of inflection. I like attending concerts where the musicians barely move and are afraid to look at the audience, in part because I can then focus on the music instead of feeling pressure to also move or to look at things. Feel like just typing “AVOID MY READINGS IF YOU DISLIKE HEARING PROSE READ IN A QUIET, STEADY MONOTONE.”
I try to read things least conducive to “zoning out,” for example, parts of a book that are mostly dialogue or don’t have very long sentences and, based on experience, seem most likely to cause people to laugh. Or I try to read some other thing, like poems or an essay or something, that isn’t the book that is currently being promoted for sale at the reading. It seems bleak to me a little to read a book to an audience that has come to buy the book, has already read the book, or will (after the reading) be perusing the book to discern if they want to buy it. I like Q&As. I would rather there only be Q&As instead of readings, both in terms of my events and me attending other people’s events. Something I don’t like about Q&As is when someone asks a question like “what did you eat today?” or some other question with a concrete, unique, as-yet-unknown answer and there’s a group of people who view that person (or that question) as bad or “silly” or something. Feel like just typing “I LIKE QUESTIONS THAT MAY ELICIT CONCRETE ANSWERS, IN PART BECAUSE THE ANSWER WILL LIKELY BE SOMETHING NO ONE KNOWS YET, WHEREAS MOST QUESTIONS THAT ELICIT ABSTRACT ANSWERS HAVE ALREADY BEEN ANSWERED AND CAN BE READ AT ANY TIME IN MORE ACCURATE FORM ON THE INTERNET OR IN ONE OF THE AUTHOR’S BOOKS.”
Tao Lin is the author of 6 books of fiction/poetry and can be followed on Twitter here. His 3rd novel will be published by Vintage in 2013.
BRIAN ULICKY (Publicist)
It seems like every publisher is scaling back book tours (because they are) but at the same time there are still a lot of authors hitting the road, on the publisher’s dime or their own or some of both. Book tours unlock more media potential than not, and bookseller enthusiasm is as important to the success of a book as ever (if not more, especially for fiction). Meeting a promising debut novelist or an established name sows mutual goodwill and signals that a publisher is both putting its money where its mouth is and thinking beyond Manhattan. But you have to be doing the right events. The ideal event is at a venue that sincerely wants the author to be there. There are way too many cases of sticking people, or people sticking themselves, in bookstores/lecture halls/bars. This is bad business for everyone and especially discouraging for an author. While I do a lot of pitching before one of my authors heads out on tour, I rely a great deal on venues to promote their events locally, and they’re going to invest more time, energy and promotional dollars in books and authors they like or think their clientele will like. If anyone—publicist, author, bookseller—is getting a whiff that maybe a certain event or tour isn’t a good idea, it’s not. There are other ways to promote a book, and the ideal author keeps an open mind.
Off-site events—meaning outside of a bookstore—have become the thing to do. There are so many awesome fixers (or you know, “curators”) in regional markets these days, who cultivate relationships with venues, readers, media and local booksellers to create worthwhile events of all sizes that not only move books but also reclaim enthusiasm from competing entertainment options. Many of these are set up as “conversations,” which are in almost every case more interesting to attend than your basic talk/read/Q&A/signing. A good book tour these days is usually a mix, and it’s primarily the publicist’s responsibility to make these connections (not to mention exploit any the author already has!).
Brian Ulicky is a publicity manager at Blue Rider Press/ Penguin USA.
Everyone in every niche of publishing will tell you that readings are of not much importance anymore. That they don’t sell that many books, that going on tour is a useless endeavor, that you should maybe do one event locally, which your publisher will promise to help you with but probably won’t. Their supplemental advice is usually to “Tweet a lot!” and “develop a web presence.”
(Given that publishing’s not doing so well these days, you might question some of these gems of wisdom.)
I love going to readings. If it’s an author I enjoy, I look forward to seeing what they’re like in person: their physical mannerisms, their voice, their confidence or lack thereof. Are they self-effacing and awkward? Cocky and confident? Do they read smoothly, or mumble on for too long? Either way, it tends to endear me to them. Even seeing writers I didn’t think I liked has made me pick up their book.
One caveat: I am terrible at readings. I stumble over sentences, my voice shakes, I don’t make eye contact. But author events are one of the few chances an author has to connect with readers—or potential readers—live and in person, which can create a deeper connection in ways that your blog and Twitter account never will.
I went to three cities on the West Coast when my book came out (the fourth one was canceled), and did several events locally. Here are some things I learned:
What Part of My Book Should I Read?
I usually decided by asking a) What are the parts that are the least embarrassing to me? And b) Are any of the people I’ve written about in the audience tonight? In general, pick something that somehow sums up the overall scope of the book.
Which brings us to:
How to Be a Good Reader: Advice from an Actor
Listen, I know how much I suck, because people tell me. So I asked an actor friend (he went to Cal Arts so I assume he’s good) on how to improve. Here’s what he said:
1. Take a bunch of deep breaths beforehand.
2. Acknowledge the inherent awkwardness of the situation.
3. Don’t read from your book or from a piece of paper. Memorize the section you’d like to read. Just memorize it.
4. Make intermittent eye contact with the crowd.
Alcohol and Drugs
Stage fright: it happens. Sometimes, when it’s a larger local crowd, you may look up beforehand and see more than one person that you’ve slept with. Like maybe three. This doesn’t mean you’re a slut or anything; it just means your worlds are colliding. Anyway, I don’t suggest tranquilizers (they’ll make you sound like a zombie), but a stiff drink. Only one, though. Bring your own wine if you need to. Edgar Oliver does, and he’s the best performer and storyteller I’ve seen.
Dealing With the Internet
The Internet has made it easy and fast to promote your events, in that you can now harass more people, faster, by posting your event’s information all over blogs and Facebook and listings and stuff. Does that help get more people out? I have no idea. That said, if you’re going to do readings away from home, it can help in searching for bookstores that do events in different cities—try visiting an author’s website who’s kind of on your level and see where they’re read out-of-town.
Also, people love to blog these days—”join the conversation,” if you will—and they can and will review your “performance,” should they actually get their ass out to your reading. Criticism is the price of putting yourself out there, so just deal with it. Remember: while they were writing that blog post, you were getting drunk with some bikers in Capital Hill!
On ‘Gaming’ Your Reading
Don’t be afraid to make your reading/event all about you. After all, it’s YOUR book.
Many people have fun games or gimmicks involved with their reading. This may be cloying or clever, depending on the book—think long and hard about whether it’s right for yours. Extraneous activity can draw too much attention away from your book—for example, I’m firmly against live music at book readings. And don’t do a raffle.
When I did an event at McNally Jackson in New York, I brought in a local academic, Amy Herzog, who had actually studied the history of the peepshow. I read from my book, and she did a PowerPoint presentation and talked about the history of the Times Square peep show. I think it worked out well by demonstrating the social importance of the peepshow and commodified voyeurism. I’d like to think that it also showed that it wasn’t just my story, but part of a larger history.
If you don’t want it to go it alone, or want to increase attendance, you might make it a group reading. Go ahead, but make sure you get top booking and the best time slot (it’s your event!), and make sure not to include anyone whose book is better than yours.
On Lowering Your Expectations
You need to adjust to the idea that sometimes you’ll be reading to 5-8 people and that’s just the way it’s going to be.
That said, there are always unexpected upsides and chance encounters when you’re away from home. At my reading in Seattle with the fewest people, I met an awesome gal who: a.) took me out to dinner b.) took me sightseeing all around Seattle in her convertible, and c.) let me stay at her house. (Hi, Karion!)
Don’t Oversaturate the Market
Give a couple readings in your hometown, make them special, and promote them well. Don’t do a dozen, or say yes to just anyone that asks you to read—people will get sick of hearing about your events and they won’t come, because they assume there will always be another.
Extra Bonus Advice: If you’re on Tour… Do Local Radio!
It’s great. I don’t know if it helps turnout, but at the very least it makes you feel like you’re doing something. I have no idea how to get started with that, because a booker called my publisher and asked me to do it and I said “Yes” to every request, and then more came in, usually starting at 6 in the morning. In general, if you get any sort of opportunity whatsoever, do it.
On Letting People Give You Rides
When I was reading in L.A., an author friend of mine told me to “Never get in a car with anyone in L.A. They’ll get distracted, and end up driving you to a party with Kool-Aid… and vodka… and crack.” However, I got in someone’s car in L.A. and it was fine.
Basically, unless you’re lucky enough to be one of those charming extroverts, the “author events” thing may a little awkward and a little weird, which you’re probably used to if you’re a writer. But there are ways to make it fun, have fun, and meet cool people in bookstores. Maybe.
Sheila McClear is the author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls .
A friend of mine, the poet and playwright Atar Hadari, likes to tell the story of a touring production of Death of a Salesman for which one paying customer showed up. After some debate, Lee J. Cobb, who was playing Willy Loman, decided that the show should go on regardless of the size of the audience. This anecdote became something of a touchstone for me during the months I spent publicizing my debut novel, When Tito Loved Clara, which was published in the spring of 2011 by Algonquin. It was a comfort to hear that the size of the audience is not always proportional to the quality of work on offer. It was also a reminder to be professional and to treat the people who do come to see you (no matter how few) with respect.
“Book tour” is probably too cohesive a term for the two dozen events scattered over a period of six months that helped publicize my novel last year. Some events were large (I had close to a hundred people for my launch reading at the Strand) and some were small (six on a rainy Monday night in Seattle.) Many of the events were set up by my publisher, who also kindly paid for my passage to and from them. In addition to being ahead of the curve on the use of social media and digital technology to promote its authors, Algonquin is also an accomplished practitioner of the old-fashioned, one-book-at-a-time, word-of-mouth approach to publicity. Even so, there were also a number of other events that Algonquin did not set up, which came about as a result of me being contacted directly by the manager of a literary venue or reading series. It really helps to have a website and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, if only so that such opportunities can find you.
In the weeks before my publication date, as the publicity gantlet loomed, my sleep was often troubled by fears that I would be heckled during readings, or worse, that nobody—not even a heckler—would show up for my events. As a middle-class white man publishing a novel about Dominican immigrants, I was also concerned about hostile reactions from readers who might question my right to the subject matter in my book. Consequently, I spent a lot of time preparing. I worked out a standard “How I Came to Write This Book” spiel. I timed myself reading certain passages. In my galleys copy of the book, I marked out five-minute, ten-minute, and twenty-five minute self-contained passages. I also tried to come up with answers for thorny questions.
The worst of my fears never came to pass, but those preparations served me well. Unless you are a natural performer, don’t plan on just going up there and winging it. Get tips from friends who have experience being on stage, either as actors or public speakers. Do a dress rehearsal in front of your boyfriend or your goldfish. It will really help get the nerves out. Contrary to what I expected, the actual reading from my book soon became the least interesting part of most events for me (and, I suspect, the audience). I got in the habit of reading shorter passages so that I could get to the good part—the Q & A. It helps if people in the audience have read your book: One of the liveliest discussions of my novel came from a book club that meets once a month in the basement of the Montclair Public Library. Be prepared to go off topic, to humor a few veteran bores, and also to answer some of same questions at every event: “How long did it take you to write the book?” “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How did you find your agent?” In my case, I also came to expect two others related to the novel: “Did you cheat on your wife?” (as one of the main characters does) and “Why did you kill X?” But mostly, be prepared to feel some relief that there are still people out there who love to read and are eager to discover new writers. That was the best surprise of all.
A couple of other lessons from my months of promotion: It can be lonely. Where possible, try to do events with other writers. Perhaps my favorite reading from last year was a fund-raiser for Behind the Book at KGB Bar where I read with Karen Russell and Patricia Engel, both lovely people and tremendous writers. Someone who was in the audience that night said it was the best reading he’d ever attended. Nobody has said that about a reading I did on my own. What else? Oh, yes: following a suggestion made by Susan Orlean, I signed up for Square, the free iPhone app that allows you to process credit-card transactions directly into your bank account. I have since enriched myself by several hundred dollars from people who don’t carry cash but like to buy books. Also: alcohol helps. Maybe the most enjoyable reading I’ve attended was one given by Jonathan Evison at which Evison handed out beer to the audience (and later played recordings of Bigfoot on his phone). For a reading in my hometown a few weeks later, I did the same—minus Bigfoot. Maybe it wasn’t Death of Salesman, but people went home happy. And so did I.
JENNIE PORTNOF (Event Organizer)
I was one of four editors of a small literary journal in the mid 90s through the early 00s. It started in our living rooms, kind of a “wow” and we can do this ourselves and have readings and it really started for me in workshops with astonishing and genius lesbian writers and poets—Eileen Myles and Laurie Weeks, for example—where we would meet in different people’s lofts and homes and have this intimate, hilarious, absurd investigation of I don’t know writing a poem while a nude model sat on the couch. Which did and did not work out as planned. It was a heartbreaking experience with each other and our work—we broke open to this whole world. We really just worked it all out together. Everyone had his or her own art practices along with writing. Some people were in bands—there were also dancers, choreographers, downtown denizens/promoters and activists (everyone was an AIDS activist, politically engaged and involved somehow), performers in the downtown scene, science journal writers, professors, published writers, artists working in all forms, friends, people just out of school, editors at small presses. And we were all writing, making things, figuring out what we could share and create in this really intimate form with such an eclectic group. I feel like everyone was related somehow, intellectually and spiritually, to Allen Ginsberg, or knew him through other people, because Allen was this wonderfully complicated, openhearted and fruity Friend to All. He was the great tradition of caring, of taking in, of being kind—hopefully as an artist and a person you follow the kindness. As Stephan Frears once said in a Q&A: “I followed the kindness.”
Interestingly, I don’t remember us ever reading any of Allen’s poems. Maybe his great, spacious interviews, but not his poetry. “And then I understood that the answer is yes, yes yes: I care because I want you to care about me. I care because I have become aware of my absolute dependency upon you, whoever you are, for the outcome of my social, my democratic experience.”—June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays. There was a lineage of male poets in New York (Ashbery, O’Hara Koch, and Schuyler, etc.) and we—it was a conscious reorganization and experiment around where are the New York Poets who were women, everyday things, class, sexuality, conversation, activism—not being frightened of yourself or language—and you should be frightened, it should be terrifying! But not in the beginning, and that’s what the collaboration did—made this thing we blunder around doing, living—possible. Of course it also turned it on its head. Even if you didn’t know that lineage, they were a benevolent, flamboyantly flawed, gossipy, tricky, joyful presence, a specific expression of reality, of the city, and there was this huge gaping void of where are the women? And that was a feeling that was all there at the time. People celebrate My Beautiful Laundrette as a gay film, taking on gender and ethnicity, but it’s also (and more interestingly) a big fuck you/terms of surrender to Thatcherism—artists had to become entrepreneurs, they had to sell their own talent, which is a freakish, sad position to be put in—I think of this time in NYC as a specific coda to the AIDS wars, to Reaganism. We were shell-shocked. We needed help from the old guard. We knew we were in the far north—we were out in the cold, NEA massive budget cutbacks and a decline (that’s a nice word) of grants to artists and all of that bullshit. I mean, who the fuck cared about poetry?
I’m not saying this is over, not at all, but it feels more hidden, or more dispersed and ephemeral, no one goes out in support of their work for the pure crazy joy of it—and if you’re gay and you write a gay novel or poem—well, it’s marginalized, isn’t it? No one gives a shit. Disappeared. It was fantastic that Eileen and Laurie made themselves available like that, in a laboratory setting—to a circle of friends and fellow travelers, starting off with a few conversations touching on commonality and what language and meaning meant specifically to say, the New York poets (Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley) then we would go over to Philip Whalen, Gertrude Stein or a crazy poem Christopher Smart wrote about his cat, or oh, my god look what Nabokov did here and I found “The X-Files” f/f slash fiction that will blow your mind (whose author, by the way, started one of the largest independent gay and lesbian romance genre publishing houses)—we were off. What happens to you everyday? So the idea of starting a journal just naturally came out of this excitement and feeling of let’s take a walk around Times Square before it completely disappears and write about what happens. We did that once and rode up and down the Marriott glass elevators. Did you breathe between now and then, toodle over to the fridge, up Second Avenue? Here’s the Poetic Edda. How do you really write about sex. It’s so weird isn’t it, nearly impossible! We went to Kinko’s and laid everything out in Quark (jesus, remember that? I still have some floppy discs)—there was a little place in Massachusetts (a lot of the small DIY journals used those guys) that would print up your manuscripts for just a little money. But the idea that we could do this ourselves, and get our friends, other poets, to contribute came out of the idea of gathering, collective gatherings. It was a simple leap. You assemble ideas, you love people. There’s still a workshop network outside of the academy, but I don’t know if it’s as strong. It’s a great New York tradition.
As the “publishers” of our own journal, we put on the shows. There was a shared circle of art and people who made it, that was just all going on all the time and there was a very engaged, large audience. Our events were fun and kind of thrown together, but a lot of work. The musicians and more establish poets in the group would book out small spaces through their networks, they were awesome at that—the backspaces of bars or poetry clubs and performance spaces. Bars are great venues, obviously. Small press houses are a little more formal; my mom came to a few of them in those kinds of venues. The events definitely helped us sell books. We put the journals in the front, and the poets would read and you could pay for one of our journals if you wanted to, along with drinks or a snack. This was pre-internet, I believe, or I don’t think we did or factored that into a way to promote the event, oddly. Or maybe someone else did and I didn’t know about it. So it was word of mouth or via email.
We didn’t make any money at all except towards our next journal. Our general attitude was, hey, we have a space and please come and hear all these great poets and drink and hang out. Later on, after we were all over the country and not doing the journal we were in a group art show and one of the other editors came and played their music and I did this weird thing where I made cut-ups/collages of all my poems that had been in the journal and I’m not sure that was very successful at all but it was really fun. It was stressful. All my drawings kept falling off the walls and I would get annoyed calls from the gallery curators, but that was very much the feel of the journal. Sort of falling apart, on the fly and lots of energy and discovery.
I now usually hear about readings by way of email lists, Facebook, conference announcements, gallery readings, and university/college invitation reading series. The internet seems to have made readings a little less DIY and a little more commoditized or gentrified. Has the internet, all the web-based magazines, the poetry blogs (Harriet over at The Poetry Foundation is fantastic) changed the experiential pleasure of going to a poetry reading? It’s possible, but I hope not. It’s astounding to listen to poetry with friends and by friends or new friends, to buy a friend’s book online and have it delivered. I’m so proud of the landscape and how we figured it out by ourselves.
For Fort Necessity, there was always a nice balance of well-known writers/poets/artists and unknowns. I’m terrified of performing in public, so watching everyone else do it and the way people work that, whether it’s an actual performance of the poetry or themselves as a poet or a very naturalistic performance, very 70s New Wave cinema and easy was good for me, oh that’s just relaxing. I saw Anne Carson at the back of a bar and I thought that’s great, perfect. This is just another thing to do, wear red cowboy boots and read your stuff to people who enjoy it. It’s another way among many and you can participate in the creation of it. No big deal. You’re part of a happening.
Jennie Portnof is the former editor of Fort Necessityand is now working on a novel.
Some notes on my author events in chronological/bullet-point format:
• Housing Works/Tumblr Reads (group event, February 2010). Lessons learned: 1) a corporate sponsor/internet social-media startup giving away free booze helps with audience turnout, like there was a HUGE LINE around the block just to get in; 2) blogging is more important than reading; 3) don’t get into a blog war after the event because the New Yorker book blog neglected to mention your name in their coverage of said event: you will sound like an asshole and regret it forever. Also, you will probably be blacklisted from The New Yorker. #conspiracytheories
• BEA Random House Librarian Breakfast (group event, May 2010). Lessons learned: 1) Librarians are WIDE AWAKE at 8 a.m.; 2) most librarians are women and gay men; 3) don’t be tempted to give your insights about uptown Manhattan melting-pot/race-relations to Michele Norris, even if her autobiographical reading touched on these subjects—there’s a time and place for such discussions and the BEA Librarian Breakfast is not one of them; 4) mystery writers you have never heard of actually sell millions of books and you will wish that you had written a best-selling mystery instead of an esoteric literary novel about opera, homosexuality, My Bloody Valentine and cats.
• McNally Jackson (New York City, January 2011). Lessons learned: 1) Don’t be shy about asking someone awesome/intelligent/perceptive/established like Sasha Frere-Jones to moderate a Q&A for you even if you haven’t met him IRL, and even if your “marketing team” rolled their collective eyes at your suggestion when you confessed that you didn’t know SFJ IRL but that you had reasonably high hopes because you were both indie rockers circa the mid-90s and now followed each other on Tumblr (marketing team: “What’s Tumblr?” me: “Twitter on acid…” marketing team: “…”); 2) SFJ is indeed a pro and will make you seem super-smart for a few minutes, which makes you wonder why he doesn’t have a Charlie Rose-style talk show, etc.
• Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures (Pittsburgh, April 2011). Lessons learned: 1) It’s important to do one event for your family (see Shane Jones above); 2) people in Pittsburgh are genuinely, heartwarmingly, and shockingly enthusiastic to the point of gleeful to have someone from NYC show up and read, and you will wonder why you still live in NYC, where life is such a dreary ongoing hassle; 3) you will feel oddly relieved to return to NYC, notwithstanding lesson (2).
• Book Soup (Los Angeles, May 2011). Lessons learned: 1) If you’re going to a city for work, you might be able to get your publicist to arrange a reading at a great bookstore like Book Soup; 2) it’s important to reach to “reach out” (I hate that term, but you know what I mean) to people who live where you’re going and are familiar with the scene, even if you only know them by way of blogging and the internet; 3) Natasha Vargas-Cooper (who hosted my Q&A) possesses the beating heart of L.A. and somehow after the event drove me through/above the city’s infernal traffic to a strange, strip-mallish diner where at 4:00 a.m. I had the greatest chocolate milkshake in the western hemisphere; 5) it’s often these tangential experiences and memories that make the indescribable pain and hassle of a reading worth it; 6) Q&A moderators with hyphenated last names are apparently the best match for me?
• A senior center on the north side of Washington Square Park that somehow hasn’t been turned into condos or NYU housing (June 2011). Lessons learned: 1) sometimes you agree to read even though you know it’s going to be a surreal disaster, because karma demands it, and the events coordinator at the senior center enjoyed your book and invited you (via FB) to his Friday afternoon sesh; 2) some seniors will fall asleep during your four-minute reading; 3) during the Q&A, one guy will lean over to his friend and whisper/scream in reference to you, so that you can hear him from five rows away: “HE REALLY LIKES TO HEAR HIMSELF TALK DOESN’T HE?”; 4) seniors are terrified of e-books, and because you share their terror, you will hardly be able to assuage them and in fact may add to the looming despair they feel (you may even sadistically quote Schopenhauer to prove your point); 5) you will think back to the years you spent on the road with your band and wish that you had a guitar and a distortion pedal to offer the bliss of self-immolation, of getting blown away (with your insecurities) to the edge of a white-noise universe, of connecting with an ensemble of similarly tortured bandmates with whom you’ve laughed and fought and thrift-store-shopped to oblivion; 6) you will smile and sigh, promising yourself that you will never again appear in public, at least until the next time you are asked, when you will say yes, because why the hell not, it’s not like you have anything to lose.
Previously: Four Writers Tell All About Titles
Matthew Gallaway is the author of The Metropolis Case: A Novel. Shakespeare and Company photo by Lowell Allen, used with permission; Upstairs at the Square photo by Zawezome.