I’ve been to quite a few author events over the years. Some went well; others didn’t. Some of the writers had done hundreds of them, and it showed, not always for the better. A couple were personable and comfortable, doing brief readings and answering questions enthusiastically, even though they must have heard most of them a hundred times. (“Where do you get your ideas?”) A couple looked like they’d done hundreds of them and were mailing it in.
Now I’ve done a few events of my own, and watched panels and the signings of others with a different perspective. I’m lucky in two ways. I’m one of those
strange rare people who enjoys public speaking. This is a huge hurdle for many, and I appreciate how fortunate I am not to have to worry about it.
I’m also a classically trained musician. Author events are performances. It’s not the wage slave and father who leaves the toilet seat up and can belch the alphabet the audience wants to see, or even cares about; they came to see an author. The trick is to be yourself. Not the scratching your ass in the bathroom self; the author self.
This should be easy: the author self is just as much you as the other disgusting elements. It’s the performance part that makes it hard. Most of us don’t perform publicly that often, or ever. The performance can’t seem phony, or you’ll seem like a phony, and no one likes phonies. (Anyone who says they do is a phony by definition.)
So how do you give a performance that doesn’t come across as a performance—which would be phony—if you have no performance background? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. Which is, in its purest form, preparation.
First, know what you want to do before you get there. Seems like the simplest thing in the world, but a lot of people don’t do it. They have an idea of what they want to do, but the audience hasn’t given you two of their most valuable possessions—their time and their money—to watch you figure it out as you go. You’re taking their money, in the form of paying for your book. Be a professional.
After consulting with Laurie Stephens of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, my launch event broke into three parts: a brief (five minutes) talk about how the book came to be written; a short reading; and questions from the audience.
How did the book come to be written?
The fraternal twin of the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” Never underestimate the fascination readers have with how authors create books. We tend to talk with other authors, with whom this is a settled topic. Readers don’t know that. Give them the lowdown on how you came up with and developed the story, They’ll love you for it.
Oh yeah, and write it down. Not word for word, but have a detailed outline for reference. If you create, edit, then rehearse it a few times, you may not need the outline, but it’s the preparation that makes it superfluous. Remember, they didn’t come to hear an extemporaneous speaker; they came for an author. Authors write shit down.
Is The Book Any Good?
The critical question, and the only answer you have is the book itself. Take five minutes or so and read a chapter. (Two, if they’re short.) The first chapter is always nice, but if there’s another that gives a better feel for the style and tone of the book, read it. The first chapter of Grind Joint is only a few hundred words long. I read that and Chapter 3, where Doc interviews the guard who (spoiler alert!) found the body. It’s also fairly short, but it shows the kinds of people the book is about, how they talk, and a bit of the style. It also, hopefully, helps to set the hook.
This is part of the performance; don’t drone through it. I printed both chapters in 16 point font, double spaced, and read then aloud several times in the week leading up to the event. I marked the pages with orange ink to show where I wanted pauses, which words should be stressed, which laid lack, and to remind myself to leave space between narrative and speech, between speech and attribution. The listening audience can’t see the quotation marks; they have to be implied. Also critical: take your time. If you’re like most people, you read aloud about 50% faster than you think you do, maybe more when reading your own work, because you know what comes next. They don’t. Cut them a break.
Everything else primes the pump for questions; a dearth of them can doom the event. The audience knows how the book came to be written and what it sounds like; now they want to know you. Monosyllabic answers are death. They stifle enthusiasm, and may be perceived as disrespectful to the questioner, who came out in shitty weather to ask you this question when they could have stayed home warm and dry and watched Castle, and you dismissed it with a word. Don’t ramble, but give each question the courtesy of a full reply.
Some people are naturally funny, some aren’t. Play to your strengths. If you’re funny, don’t shy away. (Just be careful you don’t think you’re funnier than you are.) If you’re not comfortable with the idea, it’s possible to be personable without being Louis CK. Be yourself. If an appropriate story comes to mind, tell it. You’re a storyteller; that’s why they came out.
A bit of subterfuge may come in handy. In any group, people are often reluctant to go first. This is especially true of readers, who are often introverts by nature. Everyone will feel uncomfortable if the hostess asks for questions and everyone sits there like guests at a Marcel Marceau tribute. I was lucky: Laurie Stephens got the ball rolling with a couple of questions for me, and things flowed from there. (Authors, if you can get an event at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA, go for it. Everyone will treat you like you’re Robert Crais, and they know how to pull off an event.) Not all hostesses are as accommodating, so don’t be afraid to use a plant. If someone you know is there, give them a softball question to ask in case things slow down. Once the seal is broken, questions may pour out. (This can also come in handy if some long-winded person is in the process of hijacking the show.)
If there’s one critical takeaway, it’s this: It doesn’t matter if you traveled a great distance to get there, or it’s the last event of a tour, or you’re tired, or you’re sick or hungry or have to pee or if three people showed up and you brought two of them with you: they get your best show, every time. You wouldn’t turn in less than your best work when submitting the book; it’s the same thing.
The people at your event are paying you the most sincere compliment. They have left their homes and a myriad of other things they could have done, traveled whatever distance, spent their limited time to listen to you, spent their limited cash to buy the book, and will now almost certainly spend several more hours reading the book. This is how you have chosen to earn money, and it doesn’t work without them. You owe them that much.