The Truth About Book Readings
When we think about launching our books, we dream of doing readings (among other things like catching sight of our books in airports, and, of course, getting on bestseller lists), but in this day and age why are readings still so important to us?
By Katrin Schumann
For a new author, are readings really all they're cracked up to be?
Yes, yes they are. But not because they are easy, or make us feel cherished as writers, or sell books. In fact, in many ways readings are the exact opposite of what we think they'll be, which is why they're important in so many ways.
What do you dream about when you think of publishing your work? If you're anything like me, you want to see your book on an actual bookstore shelf, preferably face-out, even better on a table up at the front of the store alongside other authors you admire. What a rush.
But the image that I think is the most rooted in authors' minds is standing at a lecturn in a crowded, over-heated room, reading to a rapt audience, then answering a barrage of questions. It's a moment that captures for us this idea of "success" because it's on our terms: we made it past the gatekeepers, we snagged a deal with a publisher, and now here we are calling the shots and commanding a crowd.
But what if crowds terrify you?
What if it's rainy and only two people show up?
What if you find reading aloud embarrassing, or hate your voice?
And why are you travelling far and wide to sell maybe 5 or 10 copies of your book? What's the point of all that effort?
I'm sure there are authors who don't bother with readings at bookstores or elsewhere because it's usually not financially viable. Unless you're already well known or have a million motivated friends in every major city, you're not likely to sell enough books to cover your costs. But most writers I know value these events for more than selling books.
This past Monday, I did a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Williamsburg with Susan Bernhard (Winter Loon) and James Charlesworth (The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill). We had all traveled from afar to be there. At 7pm there was one person in the audience (Susan's husband).
Happily, people did start flowing in and taking up seats, and we had a wonderful, interested, attentive crowd. There's never any guarantee, though, especially if you do multiple readings in the same city. So what makes these events worth it?
1) They have taught me about overcoming my fears
Navigating crowds can be hard. Readings require a certain authoritativeness combined with an approachable style. You have to think on your feet. You have to make small talk. You have to find a way to come across as human, not just another author shilling for her book. You have to read your own words aloud in a voice that doesn't suggest you think you're the best thing since sliced bread. Learning how to do these uncomfortable things stretches us in important ways. It's important to keep learning and growing.
2) The act of sharing in this way makes me feel connected to the human race
Even if only a small gaggle of people turn up, talking with readers about my books is a privilege and a joy. Those earnest, upturned faces. The questions about craft and character. It's totally invigorating to talk face-to-face with people who care about storytelling. A woman recently came up to me at an event, shaking, to tell me that my novel changed her life. Seriously. I will never forget that moment. That feeling of connection, of having done something meaningful, is one I'll store inside for those times when I need the extra energy (and there are plenty of those times). You can have hundreds of good reviews on Amazon, but connecting with someone excited about your work IRL is the bomb.
3) Bookstores remind me to slow down
As the onslaught of news, disposable trivia and fleeting images continues to innundate us, it's good to be reminded that there are people like us who also care about taking the time to explore the essential conundrum of being human. Bookstore empolyees and volunteers, and people who leave the comfort of their homes to hear writers talk about their work, are truly inspiring. Bookstores are places we can feel at home--and at peace--when we often feel out of place elsewhere. Writing and publishing books is about finding readers, and reveling in every step in that process: the pain and joy of the writing itself; the drive to dream up and market a viable 'product;' the connection we forge with others. Readings remind us of each valuable moment when we're otherwise too busy trying to leapfrog over the small stuff so we can get to... well, where?
Here's to braving the elements and going to readings and supporting local authors! Turn up, ask questions--and buy some books for yourself, your family and your friends. You'll make some poor author's day.
Katrins's book is an Amazon Charts and Washington Post Bestseller--find out more here.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann