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Surviving that First Reading – Updated

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books, Resources 2 Comments

Oof the biggest challenges I faced, after writing my first book, was reading from it to a live audience. I had never done anything like that before. 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 on the feedback loop in public readings. I enjoy readings immensely. But it took practice and learning from a lot of mistakes to get there.

So it’s no surprise to me that one of the most common requests for advice from new authors is how to survive that first reading. I’ve attempted here to create a useful checklist of advance work that will take a lot of anxiety out of the process. Plus tips for managing the event itself gleaned over many years in a changing landscape of opportunities for live readings.

It’s Okay Not to Do Readings and Fan Events

This most of all! I hereby give any author permission not to do live readings. If public speaking and social-marketing interaction terrify you, don’t do it. You’re a writer – you don’t also have to be a performer.

Play to your wheelhouse. 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. Or search for videos from previous readings at that conference or library event. Watch how someone else does it and ask yourself what did and didn’t work. In the way back when time, I went to several events at different women’s bookstores just to learn the boundaries. It helped me watch a range of styles and suss what was appropriate in different settings. And it gave me a chance to think about what I could and couldn’t do in a reading.

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.

  • That way 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 succeeds in the book because of all the work you did to bring the reader to that moment. A live audience won’t be ready to go with you down that road without a lot more time and work.

Write out an explicit set up for the passage, and spend no more than 30 seconds saying it.

  • Do not ad lib the set up. You’ll think it took 30 seconds and it really took 2 minutes. If it takes longer than 30 seconds to set up the audience for the passage, pick a different passage. Let your words take center stage.

Passage Set Up 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.

Adapt the Printed Word to Reading Aloud

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.

The audience can’t hear a paragraph break.

  • Over the years, I’ve had very few people follow along in the book while I read. So it’s good to remember they can’t hear what only a reader can see, such as a blank space meant to indicate passage of time. A transition phrase (e.g. “A few hours later…”) might really help. (And, think about this fact for when your book becomes an audio recording.)

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.

Make what you read from friendly to you.

  • You’ll have a copy of the book to show the audience, but you don’t have to read from the book itself. I copy out the passage I’m intending to read into a new document and edit it for reading aloud live. When I print it I use type size that’s comfortable for me to see.
  • Over the years I developed a special format for the print out. It looks like this.

    sample printout for reading aloud Warming Trend
    I print it landscape in two columns, each about 3.5 inches wide, and fold each sheet in half. The distance from one side of the column to the other is less likely to cause me to lose my place, which happened if I printed a column 7-inches wide.

  • If there’s a lectern, I turn each sheet like pages of a book. In the middle of reading the pages are arranged like this in front of me.

    sample half-page reading

  • If there isn’t a podium or lectern, I can easily hold all the sheets in one hand leaving my other hand free for gesturing or turning over the sheets. It’s nowhere as heavy or awkward as holding a book one-handed, or trying to get a book to stay open on a podium. One last thing, if the pages aren’t numbered during printing, I number them by hand. Never making that mistake again!
  • Also, put in visual breaks for yourself to mark a dramatic pause or simply where you need to breathe. Change out words that turn out to be tongue twisters. etc. If appropriate to the venue, swap out the adult words for PG ones.

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 Follow Instructions

  • 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.

Be Comfortable and Power Up

Do some self care before the event. Whatever you do to calm yourself, and to feel physically awake and strong, allow time and space for it. For example, I avoid a big meal before a reading. I arrive in the area early so I can walk off any fluster the commute may have caused. I wear clothes that make me feel competent, and that I won’t be distracted or restrained by while I’m meeting people and standing in front of a group.

Even a reading of five minutes takes energy and lots of good breathing. Whatever will maximize those things for you – wear that, do that, allow for that.

Introduce Yourself

Not all events and venues 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.)

Prepare for the Q&A

Not all reading events include a chat, or post-reading interaction with the audience. Even so, readers will always ask questions, one-on-one, or in front of everybody. 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. If only one person wants to ask questions, thank your lucky stars at least one person is willing, but make eye contact with other people when you answer. After a couple of minutes with just one person, encourage others to ask.

Ask Yourself a Question

  • 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 wrap up.

Redirect Out of Bounds Questions

  • 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?”

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

Watch Your Host and Audience

  • Use a timer on your phone or set out a watch where you can check it so you know how long you’ve been in the spotlight after the reading is over. When the audience starts shifting around in their seats, or your host edges closer to you, 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.

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.

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, me.com. 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 your site to read an excerpt, don’t forget to put 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

Work through and plan ahead for 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.

© 2019, 2017, 2012 Karin Kallmaker

First publication 2012-08-29

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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