I had the fortunate experience of giving a poetry reading with my friend and fellow poet David K. Wheeler on Wednesday. He and I met in a poetry writing class at Western Washington University several years back and both worked for the same independent bookstore in Bellingham, although not at the same time.
Giving a reading (and royalty checks) are what us aspiring writers dream about. There you are, book in hand, reading your favorite passages to a standing room only audience. They hang on your every word. The audience laughs in all the right places. You get a standing ovation. The reading energizes you and inspires you to continue writing. You are doing it for the throngs of people who adore your work. Right?
Yes and no. Yes, you want to share your work with people for the sheer joy of it. You also want to sell books. Authors and bookstores hold author readings to advertise and sell a product. In today’s market, you as a writer are also going to have to be your own press agent and PR person.
First, you have to find a place to read, which can involve paying money. Hopefully you will be reading at a bookstore who is selling your books and they give you a space for free. But some bookstores do charge authors to do readings. Even if you don’t pay for it, you are at the mercy of the person who owns or manages the space. They may not return your calls or emails. The space may be double booked for the same night. It happens. More than you would think.
Now you have a venue in which to read. How do you get people to come? In the days before social media sites, it meant spending a great deal of time on the telephone. I would argue, that a good author will still spend large amount of time calling people in the area to either come to the reading or help spread the word. Facebook event pages and e-vites are great, but really how much of a draw to your event do they create? I don’t have any statistics to back up my claim, but I think that these sites bring in far fewer people than we expect them too. Honestly, I get invited to five to seven events a week on Facebook. It is easy to be overwhelmed and click No. No. No. all the way down the screen. An e-mail doesn’t have the force of commitment behind it. Do send e-mails, especially the day before the event, but don’t rely on them as your only form of advertising.
Another way to spread the word is through posters. When Dave sent me the poster he created, I made copies on obnoxious goldenrod colored paper and hit the streets with thumb tacks and tape. I live in a town with a small downtown core. Since this was where the event was being held, I focussed my attention to putting up posters near where the event would be taking place. Putting up posters blindly won’t net very good results. Have a plan for where you are going to put up posters. Have a reason for putting posters where you do, otherwise you are spending time and money (and deforesting America) without real cause. Make every thumbtack count.
One thing about putting up posters for an event that no one talks about is etiquette. Don’t be rude.
If at all possible, don’t cover up events for other people. Usually bulletin boards are festooned with paper like a porcupine in a Post-It note factory, but try and make an effort to be conscientious. If you cover up someone else’s event, you may get an earful from someone, or worse, the venue where you are holding your event will get angry calls about trying to “ruin” someone else’s event. It also happens more than you would think.
Another thing to do is to make an effort to take down the event posters that you put up. Your mother was right when she said, “Pick up after yourself.” Ideally, no one else should have to suffer the stab of a thumbtack from taking down your poster or look at your your advertising in a coffee shop weeks and weeks after the reading has passed.
Don’t forget about the newspaper and community event spots on the radio. People do indeed read the newspaper, especially in smaller towns. Getting a write up in the local paper or even a list in the “Today’s Activities” corner catches people’s attention.
Don’t also be afraid to use the connections you have. If you are in University town, contact and poster the English department, just be sure to get the approval of the administrative personnel first. If you attend a church or social organization of some sort, let people know about your reading–but do it in an appropriate way. The weekly newsletter or bulletin is great, but make sure you don’t hound people about an event. If you come on too strong, they may start to look the other way when they see you coming.
The most important thing to remember about holding an event is to be grateful. Only eight people came to your event? Fantastic! You only sold three books? Amazing! Treat every single person who comes to your event with warmth and gratitude. They may not purchase your book, but they will remember your smile and your name the next time they hear it. Sincere thank yous go a long way in creating fans.
Readings are hard work, but they are rewarding for both the writer and the audience if you take the time and effort to do them well!
Thank you to the Nuart TheaterSt. Mark’s Episcopal Church for your continued support of me and my poems; and especially to David K. Wheeler who gave me the opportunity to be his opening act.
Dave’s debut book of poetry Contingency Plans: Poems was published last year by T.S. Poetry Press and is currently a finalist for the Booksellers Choice Award.