Independent Bookstore Day will be upon us soon (Saturday, April 27th) and I have agreed to appear at Forster's Book Garden in Bolton, ON from 1-4pm. I may be called upon to read a passage from one of my books.
This brings back a memory from the beginning of my writing career where I was attending a book launch for my first published book, "Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival". The local retailer said, "No readings". I was surprised, and disappointed, since I feel that reading part of a chapter – or all of one if it's short and you're good at it – can really galvanize the audience. So when I took her to task over this, she said, "Peter, my experience is that most authors are terrible readers. They speak with a monotone and put the audience to sleep. That does not sell books!" I explained that I was a former broadcaster, very comfortable in front of a crowd, knew how to "work" an audience and was well attuned to audience satisfaction. I asked if she'd relent. I must have been convincing since she agreed to let me read. Sure enough, I blew away the audience, the bookstore owner apologized and we sold lots of books.
OK, so I'm not recounting this story to rest on my laurels. Indeed, I mention it simply to set up passing along a couple of tips for you aspiring writers who may wish to take advantage of reading your work publicly. It's a great opportunity to connect with readers and build your profile.
How? Well, let's start with this: every audience deserves the best you’ve got. They've taken the time to show up and they might even share some of their largesse if you can convince them your book is worth purchasing. If you'll accept that, then you'll acknowledge the requirement to put in the time to practice and give your reading your best shot.
“Reading” does sound a little flat, doesn't it? And, in fairness, if that's all you think about this exercise, you're missing the point. The chance to share some of your work with others creates an opportunity for a performance and an occasion for selling yourself. So, if you think of a reading as performing your own work, you're more likely to act it out, giving it dimension that may not be there on the printed page. Audiences love this!
So, how do you do that? Prepare. Rehearse. Experiment. If it feels like going on stage, great, because that's just what you're doing. You certainly don't have to memorize your text the way actors commit lines to memory, but you do need to have practiced reading enough times so that you’re comfortable with it.
Another part of that performing thing: don't bury your head in the book. Look up. Make eye contact with the audience whenever you can. Why? This personalizes your approach and also allows you to connect with people. And it shows you're comfortable with what you're reading, making the audience feel that way too. Remember: it's more than words that you're selling: it's the power of you and your book!
Note my use of the word "selling" above. Don't lose sight of the fact that meeting with readers is a sales opportunity. First off, you're selling yourself as an interesting person. If the reader likes you or finds you intriguing, then they are far more likely to think your book will be intriguing too.
Back to performing. Here's something I learned from President Ronald Regan. You'll recall that Ronnie had been an actor before getting into politics, and he knew how to work a crowd. One of the tactics he used was to speak at a fairly quick pace. Keeps people on their toes. And that's the way I read aloud (and I've received a lot of praise for it). If you're slow, plodding along, people lose interest. But if you keep the pace going, you'll find them on the edge of their seats, wondering what's next.
Then there's the matter of what you're going to read... this can be tricky. You want to entertain your audience, so reading a segment that creates interest or fear or humour or whatever... is key. Length matters too. Don't go over 10 minutes. In fact, 6 or 7 minutes is just fine. "Always leave 'em wanting more" is a good adage to recall right about now.
I’ve seen people nodding off when authors read in a monotone with no drama. It's so easy to avoid this fate.
Practice. And make a partial chapter reading a real asset.