I hope I have enough experience now to offer a few tips for other writers contemplating public readings. I have concentrated on logistics and practicalities not the aesthetics or the finer points of nuancing a reading, so don’t expect Stanislavski.
1. Let them know you’re available. If your work becomes known you might get the occasional telephone call or email asking you to speak at an event, but that assumes the organizers know you are generally willing to speak and have your contact details. That is unlikely in the first instance, so it’s up to you to let potentially interested groups know you are waiting for their call. You need to think about who your work is likely to appeal to and approach them directly. The internet is a great resource for finding the contact details of various local, regional or national groups. You also need to decide how far you’d be prepared to travel before you make contact - how far do you want to spread your wings?
2. Let them know you’re a great choice. Your book may be fascinating, but what is the particular angle of interest for the group? You may need to tailor your approach accordingly. When I speak to Rotary Clubs about my Stephenson novel I focus on the big events, the engineering achievements; for WIs I do a talk on The Stephenson Women. If I’m reading short stories I select them according to the audience.
How do they know you are capable? By quoting snippets from your reviews or briefly mentioning any awards you may have earned as a writer. Once you have a track record as a speaker, by offering testimonials and quotes from those whom you have already entertained.
3. Know what to expect. Obviously you need to be informed of the date, time and venue of your talk (plus any directions and the postcode for your sat nav if you have one), but you should pump the organizer for more information. Crucially, what are the likely numbers attending? Not only might this affect how you frame your talk, but it helps you decide how many books to take along. No point in staggering into a place with a huge box of books for sale if your potential customers number no more than ten. On the other hand there is chagrin all round if you run out of stock with customers still in the queue. (‘Chance would be a fine thing’ you might say, but I have been caught out a couple of times with not enough books to satisfy demand - outnumbered, I’ll admit, by the occasions I have tottered out with a box only a little lighter than the one I took so optimistically in. And by the way that’s another thing to check - is there somewhere near the entrance to park your car?) It may be useful, too, to know roughly the gender split of the audience, and whether there will be any children present.
Is there a particular theme to the event? (For example, some talks I’ve done have been for writers’ groups where the focus of interest has been on the business or getting published.) Are there any other speakers? Other writers? What other business might be conducted during the meeting, and how will that affect the time and duration of your talk? (See point 6.)
4. Don’t be out of pocket. Even the big-name festivals can be surprisingly stingy when it comes to fees; with the small local ones you will be very lucky to be offered a fee at all. Some do, though, and don’t be afraid to ask. At the very least you should ensure that all organizers are prepared to cover your expenses - you need to make that clear in advance to avoid any embarrassment on the day, and also clarify how you are going to be paid and whether an invoice is required. True, you may earn some income from book sales, but that’s not guaranteed and there is no reason why you should risk being out of pocket even for a charitable organization. On book sales, reject any suggestion that the hosts should take a commission - the author’s margin on book sales is slim enough. The WI and some other organizations have a national policy on claiming commission on book sales, but I for one always strike that out of the agreement if I’m not being paid a reasonable fee - I usually replace it with a note that says ‘0% commission in lieu of fee’. And no, rotarians, the free meal is no substitute for expenses however well it is cooked or how convivial the company.
5. Don’t be down at heel. Is there a particular dress code? Rotarians, for instance, expect you to be suited and booted for their meetings, though personally I draw the line at wearing a tie - like snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins who had a permanent doctor’s note claiming a neck rash to get out of wearing the otherwise obligatory bow tie during championship matches, my excuse is that a tie constricts my throat and affects my speaking. It might even be true. In general, though, don’t give your audience a reason for disliking you before you open your mouth by turning up in inappropriate dress or needlessly scruffy, however bohemian you wish to appear.
6. It’s not about you. Speaking to a local group such as a Rotary Club is quite different from appearing at a literary festival or a special event organized by a library where the audience (if one turns up - and I’ve known an occasion where it was literally one person) has come specifically to hear you talk and read. The local group meet regularly, perhaps weekly or monthly, and you are there as a guest, just part of the proceedings. One of the advantages is that you are guaranteed a certain number of bums on seats, but bear in mind they are not parked there especially for you.
As ‘the speaker’ you will find yourself having to wait for the normal business of the club to be conducted. There may be reports from the president, the secretary and treasurer; perhaps other guests to be welcomed and accommodated; a meal to be eaten or refreshments taken on board (or both); a forthcoming trip to be discussed; a raffle to be won (you may have the privilege of drawing the winning number); even, at rotary meetings, a series of ‘fines’ to be jokingly levied on several of the members attending, to boost the charity pot. My advice is to act the polite participant, interested, amused as appropriate, without reticence but without drawing too much attention to yourself, and without too many surreptitious glances at your watch or fretting about whether you will be left any time to say your piece.
7. It is about you. Once you are introduced (you will have provided a brief CV in advance to help with this, and with a bit of luck the person making the introduction might have glanced at it) the stage is finally yours. I say ‘stage’ but you are much more likely to be behind a table at the same level as everyone else, perhaps with a small lectern in front of you to add another little barrier between you and your audience. It is your job to make everyone (this includes yourself) leave behind all the distractions of earlier business and focus on your talk, your book. This might seem daunting, but my experience is that even if members of the audience don’t know you from Adam or Eve they will be generally well disposed towards you from the start simply because one of their colleagues has invited you along - for tonight you are their honoured guest and they will give you the respect that goes with the position whether or not you turn out to be the least interesting speaker they have heard this season. (For the removal of doubt, if there are no questions afterwards and no book sales, you probably were.)
There are really only three things you can do to lose that respect:
- Give the slightest insult or offence to any of the members present, or to the customs of the organization.
- Make inappropriate jokes or comments.
- Exceed your time slot by more than five minutes.
I strongly recommend you do your best to avoid committing any of these sins.
Beyond that, there are a few things you can do to ensure that the focus remains on you and your work for the time you are speaking. It’s all about engagement, so it’s helpful to remove as many barriers as possible. If you can get away from that table, that lectern, into an open space that’s still close to the audience, take the liberated option; don’t hide behind the furniture. If you have been offered A/V equipment beforehand, think carefully: do you really need it? Any moment spent looking at the screen and not at you risks inattention. On the other hand if you have physical props that are relevant to your talk by all means use them - because you are directly handling these they will enhance, not distract. Think twice also before you accept the offer of a microphone. It’s unlikely that your audience will be large enough for you to need one. Microphone equipment available to a local group is generally of a low quality, and liable to malfunction. Unless it is a clip-on mike you will probably have to hold it close to your mouth (another barrier) and it will restrict your hand movement - try turning a page with a book in one hand and a mike in the other. If the microphone is on a stand you will find your head and body movement restricted. In any event listening to an amplified voice can be wearying after a short time; far better to rely on your own naked voice - well modulated, well projected.
I mentioned props and the difficulties of turning a page with one hand, which takes me to the most important prop of all - and potentially another barrier - the book you are reading from. These days I always do public readings from the Kindle version of my books, and here’s why: the Kindle is slim and easy to hold in one hand; the text can be bumped up several points larger so I can read easily while maintaining regular eye contact with my audience (vital in engagement); I can ‘turn the page’ with the same hand that holds the book simply by clicking the advance button with my thumb as I read; and I can flip easily from one extract to another with the use of pre-prepared ‘bookmarks’.
On the other hand, I want to persuade everyone to buy physical copies of my book at the event, so I ensure that I have all the books I’m referring to beside me to hold up on first mention (physical props) and of course I emphasise the delight of having a ‘real’ book to read while subtly advertising the fact that my books are also available on Kindle.
It’s very important that you come across as a ‘real’ person with a connection to the audience you are speaking to. Without eating up all the time of your talk by telling everyone your complete life history, include some relevant personal information - where you come from, something about your family, how you came to be interested in writing, in this subject. Let your enthusiasm for your work and for your readers come through. And be sure to invite questions at the end, because they are the best possible opportunity for real engagement and interaction. The question-and-answer session can often be the determining factor in whether a particular member of the audience is or is not going to buy your book.
8. Become a point of sale. You are going to arrive early at the venue (aren’t you?), not least because you need to check the configuration of the meeting to determine where you are going to speak from and where you are going to sell your books. It is vital that audience members can get to you and your books easily at the end of the talk, indeed that they should have to pass by on their way out. Think of visitor attractions, with the gift shop always the last stop and usually integrated into the exit. You and your books need to be where the natural flow is.
I say you and your books. At the end of your talk you must become the point of sale because it is you that audience members want to connect with, particularly if you have done a good job of engagement during the session. It’s much more likely that they will buy books if you are standing right next to them while you talk than if you are in another part of the room, especially if you are directly involved in the selling. Even if someone else is physically going to help you sell your books (which can be useful as it’s hard to talk and count money at the same time) you must be right alongside, still fully engaging with audience members until the last one has left.
Make it easy for your customers to buy. Before the event ask the organizer to ensure everyone knows that books will be available; otherwise they may not bring any cash. It’s important you bring along a float with plenty of the right change for the notes you will be offered. Bring a good signing pen too because weirdly (I’ve written about this before) so many people will want you personally to sign their books and perhaps include a message for them or the person they intend to give the book to.
Some people may get very enthusiastic about your talk, and want to chat with you at great length about it. This can be flattering, but be aware there might be a queue building up behind, even if it’s only a queue of one. People don’t like to be kept waiting. If necessary, ask to be excused for a moment to deal with the next customer, but let your enthusiast know you’re eager to continue the conversation. Otherwise you might be watching your potential sale disappear through the doorway while your new-found fan is still in full flow.
9. Ask for feedback and testimonials. You can partly trust your intuition to assess how well a talk has gone (sometimes but not always reflected in immediate book sales) and if it has been a positive experience you will usually have people coming to tell you so spontaneously. Virtually no-one will tell you if they didn’t like it, or even some aspect of it, unless you ask them directly. Don’t duck out of this; every talk is a valuable learning experience of one kind or another. My old friend Rosabeth Moss Kanter used to say if you want to learn how to do a better job take your sternest critic out to lunch. I’m not suggesting you go to those lengths, but how did I do? any advice for the future? are good questions to ask the organizer.
If you have done a good job you are well on your way to another one. The best routes to securing more talks, should you want them, are repeat business and referrals. Repeat business is valuable, though only really worthwhile when you have a new title on offer, otherwise you will be largely speaking to customers who either bought your book already or passed up the chance to purchase. Referrals will bring you new business, so ask your delighted organizer to spread the word around the network and also provide you with a couple of lines that you could use as a testimonial on your next piece of marketing material.
10. Keep and grow your contacts. These days every writer has to be a marketeer too. Every marketeer will tell you that their most valuable resource is their contact database. By keeping your contacts up to date, keeping in touch with people you have met along the way, and working with them to foster new relationships, you will grow your reputation and extend your opportunities to talk about your books, develop your readership and sell more books.