On Literary Readings

by Ed Davis on November 21, 2009

On the opening night of the Sinclair Community College Writers’ Workshop some years ago, the famous writer had just read an hour-long short story in which not much happened. She looked at her audience, flipped her hair and asked, “Do you want me to read another story?” We were relieved when the director suggested we ask some questions instead.

It’s evident that even the pros are sometimes clueless about what makes for an entertaining literary evening. As both performer and audience member at such events, I’ve developed some convictions about what works. At present I have two poet-friends eager to jump into the fray, so this is for you, Rita and Julie, as well as anyone who plans on giving or attending readings.

Ed’s Recommendations for Dynamic Readings

  • Choose high entertainment-value passages or poems: funny, dramatic, poignant but maybe not too sad. 🙁
  • Set up the passage, if it’s not the beginning, by explaining any detail that’ll make it understandable (character’s names, place, etc.). But if you have to contextualize too much, consider reading something more self-contained.
  • Consider appropriateness to the audience. If you’re certain the event has been billed as adult, you’re within your rights to read a passage with sex, strong language or graphic violence; otherwise, keep it family-friendly.
  • Never, ever go too long: passages of no longer than 15-20 minutes are about right—better to leave them wanting more, quit reading and answer a few questions. And if you’re one of many speakers, stay absolutely within your time limit. Respect your hosts as well as fellow readers.
  • Always be yourself. You may be comfortable wearing costumes, using props, etc., but not me. I’ve found that being friendly and human is more than enough. If nervous, admit it, laugh at yourself and go on. For myself, trying to make the audience comfortable makes me comfortable.
  • Practice out loud, preferably in front of someone you trust to give you honest feedback. That includes timing. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Mark up your writing beforehand as if it’s a musical score with pre-planned pitches and pauses.
  • Offer the audience more than just your written words. Remember, it’s a performance—at minimum, use a non-monotone voice; at most, theatrical voices, complete with dialects, accents, gestures. (Also consider leaving something physical with them: a single poem, your business card, a postcard with a graphic of your book cover, plus phone number and/or website, contact info.)
  • Try your best to check out the setting beforehand. Will there be a podium ? Table? Microphone? (Always adjust and speak into it; ask audience about volume.) Refreshments? Seating adequate?
  • Thank your host(s) and your audience. Be humble; they’re gifting you with their precious free time; reward them as best you can.

A Revelation

If it’s not already obvious, a reading is more about the audience than it is about the reader, more about connecting than about selling lots of books. They want you to change their minds about how dull literary events can sometimes be; they want to have fun, connect with a real human being. And, despite your flyers and e-announcements, there’s nothing like a public performance to grant even those close to you permission to buy your books.

Venues: Beyond Bookstores

Writers with traditional New York publishers have major distributors to put the books into bookstores, leave them for a short time and, if they don’t sell, then remove them. What could be easier for bookstores and publishers? So no wonder store managers may consider non-traditionally-published authors nuisances, taking valuable time and shelf-space away from the traditionally-published. Also, most chain bookstores will take 30-40% of the cover price (their “discount”) of each book sold and might take many months to pay authors. Smaller, independent bookstores may take a smaller discount and appreciate you more, since they may define success on a smaller scale.

So why not think outside the bookstore box and consider readings at:

  • Churches: Unitarians even pay their guest speakers!
  • Classes: speak to high school or college students; however, young students don’t usually buy books, but non-traditional students such as senior citizens often do.
  • Libraries: are often writer-friendly, but they do want assurance from you that you can draw a good crowd; it’s hard to justify their effort if no one from the community comes.
  • Writing groups or clubs. Bookstores and alternative newspapers like Dayton City Paper often publicize them. Offer your services!
  • Musical venues. Be the poetry part of the evening at the coffeehouse, open mic night, etc.
  • Cultural festivals. Do you write about Appalachians, for instance? Try Dayton’s annual Mountain Days festival.
  • Writing conferences: most offer their own “bookstores,” which may sell your books for free; and if you’re a speaker at this event, especially a main speaker, you’ll probably sell books. (Thus, it may be worth your registration fee and travel expense, unless you’ll simply be lost in the crowd…)
  • Book fairs/festivals: speaking of being “lost in the crowd,” these events often have more writers than customers, and while you can network and socialize, you may not sell any books unless you’re very extroverted with great marketing skills!
  • Private homes: I’ve been invited by friends and acquaintances to share my work with a small group invited by the host. The literary equivalent of a Tupperware party!
  • Content organizations: if your work meshes with the mission and/or interests of any organization, you may be the perfect speaker. My book about saving farmland, The Measure of Everything, was a perfect complement to a Tecumseh Land Trust-sponsored farm walk outside Xenia. I read at the Old Town Methodist Church and sold 7 books. Your book about a high school runner might make you perfect for the joggers club.

Epilogue: Read Me a Story

Finding your audience may not be easy and takes a lot of time—that’s even true of the traditionally New York-published, who often complain their publishers and publicists aren’t doing enough to get their work before the public. That brings up the related topic of (shudder) marketing. I’ve learned something about that issue the hard way and would be willing to address it, if anyone’s interested. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

To end on a positive note: at a recent reading I gave at Sinclair’s library, one of my own young female students said, “It was just like being a kid again and being read to. I loved it.”

Not read to sleep, I hoped—but didn’t ask. 🙂

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeanne December 3, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Good tips!


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