Ever since the launch of Mobile Libris in 2005, Sharon Preiss's traveling bookstore has sold thousands of books at hundreds of readings in and around New York City. Mobile Libris is our go-to bookseller when we hold readings in bars, churches, classrooms, libraries, and other locations that don't ordinarily sell books. Preiss (above) or one of her twenty or so employees arrives on time with an attractive book display and, most importantly, a good supply of the author's books for sale. With the fall reading season upon us, Sharon agreed to share her observations about readings: What makes them succeed? What can those who give readings do better? Post your questions for Sharon in the comment section and she’ll answer them.
1. Can you identify the key ingredients that make for a successful reading? That is, what can a reader do that will give his or her audience pleasure and make it more likely that they will want to read (and buy) the author's book?
There are so many variables that can affect a reading, it's just about impossible to guarantee a great one. Even things like technical problems, weather, and the temperature of the room make an impression on the audience. The best thing authors can do, though, is concentrate on thing that matters most — their presentation. Rehearse, know your material, time your talk. The better prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will come across as authoritative and confident. If you're feeling good about what you're about to say, you'll speak clearer, slower, louder, with more ease — you'll be taking care of some of the little things that can turn an audience off. You may not be able to stop the snowplows grinding by the window battling the worst blizzard of the year, but you're going to make sure the people who braved the storm to show up will be glad they did.
Also, some of the best events I've been to are those where authors limit their amount of actual reading from the book but talk about the book instead — some background on the subject, what brought them to it, how they researched, what the writing process was. This background stuff really engages and intrigues the audience, piques their interest in the book and doesn't give too much of it away. But that probably applies more to fiction and non-fiction than poetry. With poetry it's always the poems that matter most. A little bit of between-poem chat is good but I've seen audiences get restless and embarrassed for the poet when the talk becomes too revealing or personal. I recommend that if you're in doubt about what to say between poems, just read the poems.
It helps if the audience knows that books will be for sale. If there’s advance publicity, be sure to mention that books will be available for purchase and that the author will sign them. The event host should make such an announcement at the beginning of the event and at its close. And readers: your audience likes it when you sign their books so plan to stick around.
2. What are some of the most common mistakes you have seen authors make, things one might do to turn the audience off or make them lose interest in an otherwise great book?
Rule # 1-10: DON'T GO ON TOO LONG. Really, it's the worst thing you can do. Even if you're absolutely sure your audience wants to hear more, stop. Let 'em buy the book and get the rest of the story there. Seriously. I can't emphasize this enough. I know you think they're dying to hear more. They're not. They're just dying. Adhere to your time limits or be prepared to make lifelong enemies!
Also, think about the difference between being modest versus being self-denegrating. It's pretty awkward to hear readers say how terrible their work is or make excuses about its quality. Even if your doubts about your work are real, assume that people are there because they want to hear you read. Don't apologize for your writing.
3. You've sold books at poetry, fiction, and non-fiction readings. Which kind of audience is most likely to buy the books? Can you speculate why?
I'm not sure genre has much to do with sales, at least at readings. Really, it seems to have more to do with how special the event or the book feels. Take The Best American Poetry, for example. We've sold BAP for the last three years at the annual September launch reading held at the New School [Thursday, September 20, 2012, 7:00 PM. 66 W.12th Street -- ed] People are excited about the book. It's just been published and many people are seeing it for the first time. It's a special event just for that book. Everyone's focus is on showcasing it, presenting it in its best light. It's like a coming out party for the book. Sales are tremendous. Everyone wants a copy. You feel special walking away with one, and you're going to remember the night you bought it. I guess someone who's more of a business person than a book person would call that marketing, but that sounds really crass. I like to think of it more like giving every book its due moment in the spotlight, even if it's just at a small reading at the corner bar. It takes a lot to write a book, and each one is sort of like its own person, with looks and personality and charm. They deserve to be treated special.
4. What is the craziest/funniest/most outrageous/ thing that has happened at a reading?
Our bookseller, Ben, came back from an event at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison and 34th and told us a crazy story about what had just happened there. Normally, the library events are pretty small and uneventful. We generally don't expect to sell a lot of books there and it's just a simple in-and-out for the bookseller. On this particular day we were selling Galileo's Gout by Gerald Weissmann, a doctor and researcher at NYU. Nothing special, really. It's a book, like a few others recent ones I can think of, that examines the relationship of science to politics and calls to question some current US government policies.
Well, I'm not sure exactly why, but the room was packed. Middle of the week, middle of the day, but standing room only and turning people away at the door. The librarians had to push people out of the room and actually lock the door to keep all these unruly professors and doctors from storming in. There was shouting. There was cursing. There was gnashing of teeth and raising of blood pressure. They all wanted to hear Dr. Weissmann, but there was no way they were all going to fit in the room. We sold out of books within short order, and Ben made it out of there without any major injuries. It was quite a scene. That PhD crowd! Totally out of control.