Author Readings: Purposeful or painful?

Ah, the pain of the author reading...

Last week someone asked me if I’d consider taking part in an author reading event featuring my new book. If someone had asked me this question twenty years ago when I first started shopping books to publishers, I would have been flattered.  I would have jumped at the chance.  However, many years of writing and publishing experience later have left me a bit dubious about these events.   And discussing these kinds of events with
other writers does little to disabuse me of the notion that they are largely a waste of time – depending on your objective.  So, what precisely are the possible objectives of an author reading in public?

From a publisher’s point of view there is only one bottom line objective, and that is the bottom line. Their objective is to sell more books. Publishers seem to believe that putting an unknown author in front of twenty people will result in massive book sales.  Given the effort involved in doing a reading and the sales potential from such a small audience, one has to question the wisdom of this approach.  Keep in mind, though, that there is no effort on the part of the publisher – only on the part of the writer and the organizers.  And in fact, in Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts even offers grants to publishers for readings. Who knew?

From a reader’s point of view, it’s a free night (or afternoon) of entertainment.  Sometimes there are refreshments and often there will be like-minded people attending.  Sometimes readings are at bookstores, sometimes they’re in libraries or other related public spaces.  When I was in New York city in July, I visited a gargantuan bookstore on Broadway where they had a more or less permanent dais and chairs set up for readings. Only in a large city would you ever see this!  But, is an author reading really “entertainment”?

My most recent experience of doing a reading was at a “literary festival” where a number of authors would take part in workshops and do readings.  This particular afternoon when I was scheduled to read from my memoir (it was about one month pre-publication at the time), I was on the agenda after three others reading from their varied recent books.  What can I say?  At the risk of being lambasted by fellow authors, my only conclusion that (painful) afternoon was that writers are crappy speakers.  To say I was appalled would be an understatement.  One after the other they took to the stage and monotonously read.  Every single one of them.  It was all I could do to stay awake.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a piece in the Globe and Mail titled “The season of readings is upon us, let the misery begin.”  It was delightful to see that I am not the only one who cringes at the thought of authors reading from their work.  Douglas Bell who wrote the article quotes Irish author Aidan Higgins.  He says it so much better than I could:

“There’s nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up.”[1]

[I beg you to click through and read the article – If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, you have less of a sense of humor than I do.]

I’ve been teaching and doing public speaking for many years.  I’ve taken the time to hone my skills and it was clear when I came to the podium and began speaking about my writing and then reading, that this was a breath of fresh air for the audience.  They couldn’t get to me fast enough after the readings were over to tell me how much they enjoyed the presentation.  But sell books?  LOL.

When you spend so much solitary time with your work as writers do, I think it can be fun to share it with a live audience.  But if you are a crappy speaker, just back away.  Please.  The fact is that unless you’re a celebrity to begin with or have a rabid following from previous books, the reading will not sell many books.  And if you already are a celebrity or have a fan base, they’re going to buy the book anyway.  So, the reason to do it has to be more than to sell books.

So, here are my tips for doing an author reading:

  • Don’t focus on selling books.  Just focus on connecting with live people.
  • Prepare. Take the time to consider what you’ll say to put your reading into
    context for the audience.
  • Consider your presentation skills.  If you’re not a good presenter and can’t make your work come alive for the audience, either get some coaching or just don’t do it.
  • For the love of god, don’t drone on and on.  Or you’ll have to carry a gun – to put the audience out of their misery.
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5 Comments

  1. Hi Patricia
    I’ve read your comments and could not agree more. I have attended several readings over the past few years; and other than assuring me that we’re well on the path to finding a cure for insomnia; its a painful way to spend an evening.
    Now extending into the realm of Subject Matter Experts / presenters; I’ve had the good fortune (and misfortune) to have presented at a number of professional conferences and training seminars over the past several years and yes, unfortunately the “monotone minority” have found their way to the professional podium as well. When will organizers come to understand that weak public speakers/ SME presenters often do more harm than good?

    1. I totally agree with you about presenters at conferences etc. This is a similar probloem as the “speaking writers” one. In both cases, the main focus of the individual’s work of is not public speaking, so I believe that he or she cannot be expected to be a terrific speaker. That leaves the responsibilty for getting these people off the podium in two camps in my view. First, organizers of events (readings, conferences etc) have a responsibilty to vet the quality of the information/entertainmnet/etc. Second, it is the responsibility of each of us who is asked to speak or read to be honest about our abilities in that area and learn that one in important word: NO.

  2. I am considering what you wrote and it makes sense, and I’d like to share my experience this week watching Ami McKay read from her new book, The Virgin Cure, at Bayers Lake Chapters in Halifax. She gave a rather long (~20 minute) prologue explaining the genesis of the book, then read an excerpt before taking questions. She spoke about the struggle and emotional toll writing this book required, and overall Ami struck me as truly genuine. I’m quite sure nearly every audience member bought a copy before leaving the store. Should I ever have the opportunity to do a reading, I hope I could do so this effectively. And you are certainly right Patty, a reading is a performance, and not all authors are performers.

  3. Alison, this is a great example of an author reading that worked — but it still begs the question of what it worked to accomplish. I’m, of course, referring to the notion of selling books as the desired outcome. Many first-time authors, for example, are sadly disillusioned by the poor sales results from their considerable efforts in this area.

    Here’s my issue: would most of those who took their time to attend this reading have bought the book anyway? If so, the author reading was unnecessary — for sales. However, if the objective is to provide readers with opportunities to see behind the scenes of what happens in the mind of a writer as a story unfolds, then that’s different, and I love that idea. With that in mind, I think it’s time we put (well-presented) author readings in the category of relationship building, and took them out of the category of marketing (except in the most peripheral sense).

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