Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventures of an e-Book Bookie, 28: THE 4 P’s OF READING YOUR WORK IN PUBLIC

Dreams do come true.

After hard work, persistence, and a little luck your book will be published—it happens to, literally, several thousand authors a year. There are, according to the Book Industry Study Group nearly 400 new books published every day. (I’m not even attempting to guesstimate how many ebooks are published daily...)

So congratulations, you are in print.

The bad news is now you must utilize a skill that strikes discomfort and dread into the bowels of most writers.

Public speaking.

The best way to market your new book is to market yourself as a reader at book fairs, book stores, and all sundry and various literary opportunities and expositions. You can meet your adoring public and read, if not effortlessly at least comfortably, by following the 4 P’s of Reading Your Work in Public.


Don’t just stand up, clear your throat and start reading. Have a Preamble ready and practiced. Greet the throng (“throng” is a joke—be prepared to read respectfully, enthusiastically and energetically to a “crowd” that you could probably pile into a minivan) and thank them for taking time out of their busy lives to attend your reading. Toss out a tidbit about the inspiration (“This is an autobiographical novel”) and a practical aspect of composition (“I wrote it over a three-year period during my lunch hour at work—and lost 23 pounds!”). If the scene you’re reading needs a set-up, provide it succinctly.

Then, take a deep breath: smile, relax and enjoy.


Prepare at least four different passages to read from.


Have them bookmarked, ready and labeled 1,2,3,4. You should have a short and longer (not too long, we’ll talk about that later) program ready. Guaranteed, if you are reading as part of a group, someone will run over their allotted time. If you are prepared you can volunteer to the moderator of the reading (who will be freaking out) that you have a short-but-vivacious reading and will rescue the moment.

You should also be prepared to edit, on the fly, for content. At a reading at a local art gallery I had planned to read a graphic-but-comic sex scene from my novel High Steaks. As I was being introduced a former teacher from my high school entered and sat, proudly, anticipating his protégé’s public moment.

I rose and (ignoring my Preamble advice) said nothing. I just thumbed through my own book, looking for a replacement passage. I found one, stammered and stopped-and-started, and made a fool of myself.

In truth, Archbishop David Shaw (did I mentioned I attended a Catholic high school?) had probably been more embarrassed by a former student’s mumbling and bumbling oration than he’d have been by the sex scene I’d planned on reading; but the fact remains: I hadn’t prepared properly. This reflected on me as an author and, ultimately, on my novel’s quality.

We learn from our mistakes to the extent that we suffer from those mistakes. This was an embarrassing, awkward and stupid experience for me. Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

My friend Linda McCabe prints out the passage she’s reading on cardstock in an 18 point font. I feel comfortable reading from the book but this is a great idea and an indication to the audience just how seriously you take this reading.


A public reading is performance art.

Chose your passage with care. A lively selection that can be performed is the best. Dialog is particularly enjoyable and easy to act out. Give each voice a little twist or twang and leave out the he said, she saids. Consciously practice your parts; accent, dialect, significant pauses (during which you’ll look up and make eye contact with the audience).

Mark your book!

Write Pause or Soft or With Emphasis in the margin.

Also, practice your reading in front of the bathroom mirror. Incorporate several subtle gestures: an opened hand; an uplifted eyebrow at the appropriate moment. Be aware of pace and alter speeds while reading. Change your voice’s volume. This is applicable to non-fiction as well: conclusions should be stated with the proper emphasis.

While practicing in front of the mirror pay attention to your posture and how you hold the book. Grasp the book, with one hand, at the bottom so the title is in plain view at all times. Hold it relaxed with a bent elbow, in front of your chest, not your face. Don’t be a choirboy with two hands clutching the tome and don’t fumble with glasses, massage your scalp or scratch body parts.

You’d be amazed at what you see in that bathroom mirror.

I had a penchant for scratching the right side of my head, unconsciously, while reading aloud.

Reading and speaking in public is stressful. Take heed and spend at least an hour practicing your four passages—while timing them—in front of a mirror.

DO NOT drink coffee for at least an hour before reading. First, you’ll already be somewhat nervous and wired (a natural reaction) and, Second, coffee dries out your mouth and will give you the “smackies”. Have a sip of water before you start and please, don’t bring a water bottle to the table or podium unless you’re giving an hour-long seminar.

You don’t need the charm of George Clooney or forcefulness of Hillary Clinton to read professionally and confidently. But you do have to practice. George and Hillary’s audiences expect perfection and will be disappointed if they are not enthralled. Your audience is expecting, at best, a moderate diversion and will be delighted if you are the least bit prepared and confident.


Arrive early; introduce yourself to the bookstore manager (or whoever’s in charge). Offer to help setting up. Carry a chair; make small talk. If there is a microphone familiarize yourself with its operation beforehand.

Ask where (not if) you can set out business cards and copies of your book. Treat the reading as an opportunity, be grateful and professional and they’ll remember you.

Unless you’re homeless don’t dress like a slob. You are representing your book, your publisher, and yourself. Wearing a tuxedo would surely (for most readings) be inappropriate, but showing up with mis-matched socks and a stained and untucked shirt is rude.

Most importantly: DON’T READ TOO LONG!

I’ve done this and there is a conspicuous, palpable and sickening feeling when you’ve lost the audience. When in doubt, go with a shorter passage and add more pauses and playfulness.

Tease the audience into caring about your characters, then stop.

You’ll have some fun and maybe sell a few books.


What did the Indians say when they saw the pilgrims coming?

“Great, boat people.”


  1. Rob,

    Yes, I print out my intended speech using 18 point font so I can read it easily. Rather than having sheets of paper stapled together, I take the time to tape that printed copy to the card stock. I think it looks classier than reading from a book or riffling through papers.

    I also make sure that the time allotted for my talk includes any prefatory comments I make before reading of my selection. I have seen far too many writers spend minutes introducing their work as if that time didn't really count.

    It does. If you are given five minutes to read, that means five minutes total. If you yammer for four minutes, then you only have one minute to speak.


    Make yourself look good. Prepare ahead of time. Rehearse, time yourself with your *brief* intro and breathe life into your reading.

    Your audience will thank you for it.