Manner of Speaking: How to Do a Book Reading

Manner of Speaking: How to Do a Book Reading

Tricks of the trade that help writers sell books.

By Neil Chethik

At the Happy Ending Bar on New York City’s Lower East Side, authors are invited twice a month to read from their work. There’s a catch: Anyone who reads must take a “public risk” before they start. Joshua Henkin, author of the novel Matrimony, recalls his moment on the Happy Ending stage: “I danced. I did the Time Warp from the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show I must say, the books sold well that night.”

Not every author is willing to boogie for book sales. But Henkin is certainly among the majority who knows that the traditional book reading – an author dryly intoning from his or her manuscript – doesn’t cut it anymore. With hundreds of thousands of new books published around the world each year, authors who want to sell their books have to seek out their audiences and make a memorable impression.

“People don’t come to hear a lecture from me,” says Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. “They want to connect with me as a person. They want to know: How did he decide to write this book? How did he go about writing it? What surprised him most? A great way of selling a product is to give people a look behind the scenes of how it was made.”

I recently interviewed Henkin, Eig, and a half-dozen other well-respected writers to find out whether it’s still worthwhile for authors to do readings and signings, and if so, how best to conduct these kinds of events. Here is their consensus: 

Limit bookstore signings. Almost every author has a story of a bookstore signing where a couple of people – or none at all – showed up. Michele Weldon, author of Everyman News: The Changing American Front Page, recalls one bookstore event: “There had been no publicity; there were no ads or signs in the store. One guy showed up. We ended up talking face-to-face for a while.” Weldon says she’s had much more success speaking at conferences or seminars attended by people with a specific interest in her subject.

Nancy Redd, author of Body Drama, also is leery of bookstore signings. She suggests that authors do such signings only in their home town. Hometown newspapers will proudly announce the event, and authors can stack the audience with friends and family. But unless you’re a celebrity, she says, forget about bookstore events in distant cities. “You’ve got to put pride aside and go for the targeted audience; surround yourself with people who appreciate your topic,” she says. 

Talk more, read less. It’s very difficult to read aloud without putting an audience to sleep, says Dan Millman, author of more than a dozen books, including Way of the Peaceful Warrior. He is most successful, Millman says, when he focuses his presentations on his personal story or philosophy. “I may be in the minority in that I never use notes,” he says. “I find that it breaks the connection [with the audience]. I just try to open myself to my audience, and then I open my mouth.”

And, Millman adds, he tries to close his mouth sooner than later. Authors tend to agree that unless a speaker has committed to a long presentation, 20 minutes is long enough for author remarks. “Short is sweet,” Millman says. “Better to have the audience wanting more than looking at their watches.” 

If you must read aloud from your book, choose your excerpt carefully. “I always read the most personal stuff,” Redd says. “The more that people see you’re keeping it real, the more connection you create.” In Body Drama, Redd takes a candid look at women’s bodies; the author says she usually reads an excerpt about how she has struggled to come to terms with her own body.

Nate Kenyon, author of Bloodstone, a horror/thriller novel, says he chooses his reading passages for maximum impact. “What I like to do is start off with some lighthearted discussion,” he says. Then, “I’ll dive into [an excerpt that’s] really creepy. There’s something about loosening up a crowd and getting them laughing, and then hitting them with a really intense scene, that just seems to work.”

Lauren Fox, who wrote the novel Still Life with Husband, said she likes to read “short, self-enclosed scenes. It helps if they’re near the beginning of the book so they set up the main conflicts in the novel...I think if you can find a way to underscore the most compelling hook in your book’s plot, you’ll have the most success.” 

Use vocal variety. Matrimony author Henkin says he finds that a “deadpan voice” works best for his readings, but he’s the exception. Other authors say they choose excerpts where they can express their vocal range.

“Tap into the emotion of the reading,” advises Anne Louise Bannon, who is a speaking coach in addition to being the author of the mystery Tyger, Tyger. “Audiences aren’t affected by reasoned discourse,” Bannon contends. “They’re affected when they’re hit in the gut. Find the emotional elements in your book, and read them aloud with passion.” 

Take questions from the audience. “Q-and-A is by far the most interesting part” of any reading, Henkin says. “Audiences want to know about your process. It’s voyeuristic – in a good way.”

Virtually all of the other authors agreed. For Bloodstone author Kenyon, the question–and–response session “is the time to really shine. Stay light and fun, laugh a lot, be as relaxed as possible.” 

Consider these guerilla sales tactics. Most authors, after many readings and presentations, tend to develop unique book-selling techniques. Kenyon, for example, says that when he’s at a book table after a presentation, he’ll often engage in small talk with people who stop to take a look. Then, while opening a copy of his book to the title page, he’ll ask, “Who can I make it out to?” He observes: “It’s like the decision has been taken out of their hands, and they simply give you a name and end up buying the book!”

Millman, meanwhile, who writes fiction and nonfiction, notices that it helps his sales when he holds up a copy of his book during his talk and then circulates it through the audience. “If they’ve touched the book, looked at its cover, held it in their hands,” they’re often moved to buy it, he says. “Ultimately, though, you can’t make someone buy a book. Each book has to sell itself.”

 Neil Chethik,author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale, is a member of the Downtown Lunch Bunch Toastmasters club in Lexington, Kentucky.