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Surviving that First Reading

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books, Events and Appearances, Readers and Libraries 2 Comments

Edvard Munch The Scream
I’vehad twenty-mumble years to get used to reading passages of my books aloud. My very first reading at a bookstore in Vacaville, sadly now closed, is still a vivid memory. I had flop sweats from minute one. I plowed onward and at the exact right time in the scene the audience laughed.

Once I got that laugh I was hooked. I enjoy readings immensely, and one of the most common requests for advice from new authors is how to make that first reading work.

It’s Okay Not to Do Readings and Fan Events

Before going into making the first reading a success, I hereby give any author permission not to do one at all. If public speaking or social interaction terrifies you, don’t do it. You’re a writer – you don’t also have to be a performer. Play to your wheelhouse, and if that’s staying home and writing more, you are winning, big time.

Scout the Landscape

If you can, attend a similar event before yours is scheduled to occur. Watch how someone else does it and ask yourself what did and didn’t work. Sometimes that’s not possible, but in the way back when time, I went to several events at different women’s bookstores just to learn the boundaries. It helped me figure out what was appropriate.

Pick the Right Passage to Read

  • Choose something that’s within your confidence and competence level. For example, the worst thing of my own I ever read aloud was a very funny scene (usually a good thing) that had 5-6 different speakers. Personal reality check – I don’t have a knack for different voices. The humor got lost in the audience trying to follow who was talking. Now I stick to two voices max. I do have good comedic timing so I tend to pick something with at least one good punchline. Play to your strengths.
  • Pick a scene that’s earlier in the book so that there is less need to give the audience backstory, which is almost always dull and time-wasting. It is perfectly okay to end on a cliffhanger or simply because it’s a lovely sentence, or a good punchline.
  • Don’t read the big dramatic scene in the story! You’ll spoil all the tension for the reader who was intending to buy it and it will probably fall flat anyway. That scene works in the book because of all the work you did to bring the reader to an emotional readiness to take in what happens. A live audience won’t be ready to go with you down that road without a lot more time and work.
  • Spend no more than 30 seconds or so describing your book and explaining the passage you’re going to read. If it takes longer than that to prepare the audience for it, pick a different passage. Let your words take center stage.

Passage Introduction examples:
I’m going to read from my latest novel. It’s romantic intrigue set in a small town near a huge wildlife preserve. The main character, Sue, makes a frightening discovery.

I’m going to read from NameofBook. Nancy is fleeing a party where she spilled wine on the only woman she’d been interested in. Her evening isn’t going to get better.

Customize to the Event

  • Not all events are the same. Sometimes there’s a moderator/host who’ll take care of introductions. But sometimes there isn’t. Be prepared to quickly introduce yourself. By quickly, I mean 30 seconds or less. Try for less. This is called “the elevator speech.” Write it out, practice it, and you’ll be able to say it in any setting, not just at a reading.

Elevator Speech example: (Adapt tone as needed from a conversational answer to “what do you do?” to a self-introduction in a formal setting.)

“My name is Karin Kallmaker and I write novels and short stories. My specialty is romance and adventure for and about lesbians. I love writing for that market. The readers are fabulous. My next book comes out in June.” (More formal, about 15 seconds.)

  • Be aware of the surroundings for explicit content. If you’re reading in the afternoon at a general interest bookstore it’s probably best to ramp back the F-word and the sex with toy scenes because of the possibility of kids nearby; don’t cause trouble for your bookseller if you can avoid it. If it’s the LGBT center erotica night, ooo baby, let it all hang out.
  • It’s not a rule that what you read is exactly what’s in the book. If a great passage has something right in the middle that will confuse your audience, skip it. They won’t remember later that you did so. Also, add more tags for the dialogue. Swap out “she” with names when it’s not clear.
    I copy out the passage I’m intending to read into a new document and edit it for reading aloud. Also, put in visual breaks to mark a dramatic pause or simply where you need to breathe. Change out words that turn out to be tongue twisters. etc. If you’re not sure of your audience age, swap out the adult words for PG ones.
  • Don’t be thrown by a small turnout. This has happened to everyone. EVERYONE. Here’s the key: Don’t take it personally. Be gracious to anyone who turns up. Be grateful for their time. Thank your host. Vent to a friend later. Don’t gripe on social media! Later, evaluate publicity and look for improvements you might reasonably make. Otherwise, chalk it up to experience.

Practice Like the Pro the Audience Already Thinks You Are

  • Practice, practice, practice. If you have the technology, record yourself at least once and listen to it all the way through, painful as it may be. I still haven’t conquered my squirrel voice tendencies, but I am aware of them and do try to lower my timbre by pausing for a good breath now and again.
  • Time yourself. This is vital. First of all, running long can be disastrous for you – See next section. But also, different kinds of passages read at different speeds. My readings run anywhere from 200 words per minute for comic and light to 100 words per minute for something where dramatic pauses and a slower pace are necessary to help the audience follow along. That’s quite a range!

Mind the Clock and Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

  • If you’ve been told to read for eight minutes, then read for eight minutes or less. This is particularly important in group readings. Don’t go over. Readers might not remember that you’re the one who blew the timing of the event so that last person lost several of her minutes, but believe me, that author will never forget it was you. It could be why you’re not asked to play reindeer games down the road.

    Readers can notice when someone is out of sync. For example, at one event we’d all been warned repeatedly that the space we were in had to be vacated on time. There were at least sixteen authors on the roster for a two-hour spot. If the author knew when to show up and what order she was to be in, then she knew about the time limit. We each had five minutes, including all introductions. This particular author took seventeen minutes and forty-two seconds, and I wasn’t the only one keeping track.

    Even worse, the last person on the roster – one of the big names, which was why she was batting clean-up – didn’t get to go at all. All around me in the audience the readers were grumbling, and they knew exactly who’d hogged far more than her share. Even worse, that meant there was even less time to sign and sell books when we’d moved to the reception area.

  • If you’re going solo for the event, take your timing cue from your host. If there’s no host, ask a friend or someone with a friendly face to give you some time signals so you’re aware of how long you’ve been chatting. (You should already know how long your reading took, right?) When the audience starts shifting around in their seats it’s time to wrap up. You don’t want to eat into the time they need to do something, like, say, buy your book.

Prepare for the Q&A

Most of the questions fall into general categories. You’ll be 95% prepared for anything if you think of one or two things you’d say to each of these:

  1. How do you do research
  2. What’s your writing schedule, do you write every day
  3. Do you outline or do it seat-of-your-pants
  4. Where did you get this idea
  5. What are you working on now

Managing an audience can be tricky. If one person wants to chat extensively, and you have other people looking eager to ask their own question, ask the chatty person if they’d like to talk once the formal part of the evening is over.  Don’t let one person hog the time. Now if only one person wants to ask questions, thank your lucky stars at least one person is willing.

Because, sometimes, no one wants to go first. So be prepared to ask yourself a question to get the ball rolling. Sometimes the audience does want the answers, but they don’t want to be the one to ask. So it’s okay to break the ice with, “One question that nearly always comes up is…” (I suggest #4 above as a natural self-question.) If after you’ve asked and answered one question no one wants to follow-up, it’s time to move on.

The awkward overly personal question? “What’s in the book – is that how you like sex?” Yes, I’ve been asked that and other questions I felt were off-limits. My most successful response is, “What answer will get you to buy the book?” The audience will laugh, giving you the room back. Look elsewhere and ask, “Anyone else have a question?”

Request an Action to Close

Last but not least, you took the time to prepare and get to the event. Finish with the whole point of the event: ask for an action. Practice a simple closing thank you,

Closing Thank You examples:
I hope you enjoyed that – I certainly did! I have a free excerpt on my web site, Check that out if you’re curious about more.

That’s my whole spiel. Thank you for listening. My book is in the vendor room at the XYZ table, and I’ll be there to sign them in a few minutes. I hope to see you there!

Pro Tip: If you send people to read an excerpt, don’t forget to put a buy link(s) at the beginning and end of it.

Bookstore Etiquette 1: Pimp the Store

If you’re fortunate enough to be at a real bookstore, don’t be shy! Pimp the store. Talk about their donate-a-book program or something else special they’ve got going on. If love of bookstores isn’t enough to motivate you, enlightened self-interest: You want it there for your next book.

Bookstore Wrap-Up examples:
It’s great to have this store and I hope you’ll buy my book here — or any book for that matter. It’s the best way to say thank you and support this space.

This event was free, but how about we make it a one-book minimum before you go? Any book will do.

I happily sign books people bring from home. I know they’ve been collecting them for years. But I always nudge them hard to buy something to compensate the bookstore for hooking us up.

Bookstore Etiquette 2: Don’t Be a Jerk

Don’t be a monumental jerk and tell people or hand out a flyer or business card that promotes buying your books at a competitor (like Amazon) or at a website, even if it’s your own or your publisher’s. Not only is it tacky and ungrateful, the couple of books you might sell will not make up for not being welcome at the store in the future. While you are a guest in a store, the only place in the world books can be bought is at that store.

Relax – It Will be Okay

Think through the various aspects of the event and you’ll do just fine, even if you get the flop sweats. On that topic, have a tissue handy, bring your own bottle of water because not every venue will provide one, and whatever you do, breathe.


It’ll be okay.

Copyrighted material.

Comments 2

  1. Thank you so much for this. It’s been a topic of some discussion in the 2017 GCLS Con Virgins group. I’ll be sharing it with my fellow authors who were all brave enough to sign up for a spotlight.

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