Best Practices for Giving a Book Reading (from the trenches)

I am a little over a week away from my book signing/reading on October 26!  PROSPECT OF MY ARRIVAL is my debut novel.  I've had a poetry book and two plays published.  But having my first novel launched feels big and special.  So for the past month, I've been attending other people's book signings to gather best practices.  What works.  What doesn't.  And now I can share my lessons learned with you.

And I'm buddhist so I've been chanting that everyone who comes to the event will be glad they did.  First let me describe the five readings I attended.  Then I'll tell you what lessons can be learned.  Preparing for a reading, I don't get nervous so much as stressed.  But with the right planning and prep, things always work out great.

Reading 1.  This author had a big crowd of about 50.  The writer was a college writing teacher so she had a lot of her peers there.  There was no microphone or podium, and the author did not project especially well.  What I thought could have been better was her reading selection.  She was a short story writer so it's natural she'd read one of her stories.  But the story ran 25 minutes which I thought went long.  The reading might have been better if she's read a few excerpts from different parts of stories.  And maybe if she chatted a bit more with the audience.  This was followed by Q&A.

Reading 2.  This author had a respectable crowd in a non-book-store setting.  She was a journalist reading from her nonfiction book about a songwriter.  Of special interest, she had a live singer/guitarist on hand to perform key songs to illustrate her lecture.  That was novel and worked well.  The author had a podium but no mike.  When she looked  down to read, her voice was lost a bit.

Reading 3.  This event was by far the slickest.  It wasn't a traditional author reading, but more a performance by four writers reading 10 minute true stories related to September 11th, and four other writers reading 2 minute shorties.  The 2 minute readings were surprisingly compelling because they left you hanging and were intriguing.  All the tech was slick from the lighting to mikes to some musical underscoring.  It was a $20 ticket event with a large audience.  The most riveting long storytellers were the non-actors who'd written compelling narratives and read from the heart.  I think that's the lesson here.  Be present when you read.  Look into the eyes of your audience.  Let them feel you.

Reading 4.  This was a reading by three authors with three new books.  Oddly, there was very little audience considering there were three authors involved.  Low score here on the authors' marketing outreach.  While some of the writers wrote well, none of them compelled me.  One author seemed to lose his train of thought at one point.  He turned to the audience and said, "Well, what do you guys think?"  I think these authors could have done more prep work and marketing.

Reading 5.   This last reading had a small crowd, but the writer gave a simple, sincere reading.  To be fair, she was from out of town.  Sarah Schulman read from her novel THE MERE FUTURE which is a witty, touching look at the future thru the eyes of a New York lesbian, a world in which everyone works in marketing.  One unusual thing, she also read from a new nonfiction book related to her activism.  Many in the audience were activists.  That pulled the focus of the audience discussion away from the novel.  But in the end, I thought this reading was most successful.  The author had written an interesting book.  There was no mike or podium, but she read sincerely and comfortably.


1.  Never count on a venue to draw your audience.
I don't care how popular a bookstore is, I always assume it's my job to bring the audience with me.  Of course this is much harder to do if you are reading in a place not your home town.  But I'm reading in Chicago.  I started out asking my friends on facebook if they'd be interested in attending my book signing even before I had a date.  Then I formalized things with an Evite and the details.  I currently have 51 confirmed.

2.  Do your homework and preparation.
Before your reading, you should find out the logistics.  Will there be a podium, microphone, how will the selling of books get handled, what promotion will the venue do of your event, what promotion can the author do?  If you know there is not going to be a microphone, remember to project.  I like to rehearse out loud what I'm going to read and I can practice projecting since I won't have a mike.  For my reading, I'm planning to use some musical underscoring.  So I checked out where the electrical outlets were for my boom box; I have a friend who will run the music.  I got to look at the podium which is not terribly sturdy but should be ok.  I've kept in contact with the bookstore owner to check on details, let her know when book reviews come out.

3.  Choose a reading selection that will make your audience want to pick up your book.
Nobody's gonna buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.  Likewise don't read too much of your book.  Give them a taste.  Tantalize them.  I hate long, boring readings and I hope I never give one.  It'll be the end of the day and attention spans will be short.  I'm planning to read about four excerpts from my novel for a total of about 20 minutes.  Then do a short Q&A.  Then sign and sell some books.  After the book event, we're planning to head over to a nearby restaurant in walking distance.  That way people won't linger too long in the bookstore (the store closes at 9pm), and I can continue to sign books there if needed.  And it's always good to have clear plans in advance for an after party for those who want to hang out later.  To me it's always important to read a range of pieces to give the potential reader the best taste of the scope of the book.  Mix up short and long pieces.  Happy, sad, scary pieces, etc.

4.  Make it fun.
I always try to read a funny excerpt toward the beginning.  Since I have experience as a performance poet, I'm used to reading poetry to music.  I find that, in small doses, music can add some atmosphere and theatricality.  Breaks things up so it's not all just words spoken.  Think of how Ira Glass brilliantly uses music on his radio show "This American Life."  I know who will introduce me and I'll encourage her to keep my intro short and sweet.  I once heard an author introduction that went almost half an hour.  That ultimately cut into the author's reading time.  I don't like to read one excerpt right after after another.  I like to chat a bit between excerpts.  Tell anecdotes.  Talk about my book cover and why I chose it.  I'm going to arrive at the bookstore early to make sure things are set up well and I can chill out.  It should be a good time!


This is the little podium
that I'll read from at
Women & Children First
bookstore in Chicago.

So let me hear from you.  Was this a helpful, useful post?


  1. Very good ideas here. The last reading I gave, I used powerpoint for the first time. Powerpoint is by now the cliche of cliches, but I used it more as an illustrative backdrop than any sort of communication tool. It worked in a way similar, I think, to the way music would work. A good mood-setter.

    Ron Ebest

  2. Hi Ron, thanks for visiting my blog. Please subscribe if you like by entering your email in the "Follow my blog" slot. That's interesting that you used powerpoint. Was that to accompany a novel reading? Did you uses images and text. I like multimedia.

  3. Great article, Dwight! I posted a link to your blog on my own blog and will be following your progress with interest. Of all the writer's I know, you have a talent for promoting your work, however because you also write daring and novel works of literature it is very hard for the publishing establishment to hang your work on a comfortable peg.

  4. Hey Ellen, thanks for much for reading my post and leaving a message. And for following my journey! Yeah, my writing might not fit into a simple niche. But I have faith that there are readers out there who will be moved by my quirky tales and embrace me. My book is undergoing the kindle conversion process, so I will soon be prepping that for its e-launch. I'm still having fun so that's good. I'll soon need to start revisions on the first rough draft of my second novel The Hope Store too.

  5. Very helpful! Do you have any updates? I've got a novel for young readers out and it's challenging to entertain both kids and adults.

  6. Hi Jen, to update you on my reading in October -- it was a smash. About 55 people attended. 45 books sold. I read three excerpts from my novel; two with some background music. My patter between excerpts got a lot of laughs so I was at the top of of my game. Afterwards about 20 of us went for dinner nearby.

    I've never done a reading for young readers. What's your novel and its subject?


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