Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

One last thing about reading to an audience: bring a big box of graceful resignation. Because sometimes, no matter how wonderful your work is, no one shows up. Or, perhaps worse, three people show up and you’re reading to a room set up with chairs for thirty, and you can’t say “I’m sorry, this is below my threshold of audience numbers, so I’m not reading today,” because that’s unfair to the three people who did show up. Even if two of them are your parents.

Look: this happens to everyone. Odds are that even the Gods of Successful Writing, early in their careers, had author appearances where the author outnumbered the audience. Don’t despair. The fact that you are not yet the sort of household name that drives audiences to leave their homes and forsake a nice walk in the sunshine, or a game of D&D, or the kid’s softball game, or a myriad of other leisure activities, means… well, just that. And you knew that coming in, right? So, how to prepare and what to do.

First: if you are asked if you want to do a signing at a bookstore, ask if you can do a reading instead. There is nothing so demoralizing as sitting a table with a stack of your books and people walking by, ignoring you. If you read, there’s a good chance that your voice will draw people, that a phrase will catch the ear and bring an auditor from the Philately section. Signings are for authors who already have a following. Even at conventions, signings can be a touchy thing (ask me to tell you sometime about the convention where, because everything was arranged alphabetically, I was seated between Terry Pratchett and Kim Stanley Robinson. On either side of me, lines that stretched out to infinity, and in the middle, me. With crickets).

Second: if there are only a handful of people sitting in the audience, read anyway. It’s fine to say, “I’m going to wait a few minutes to start, in case more people show up.” But don’t wait the full allotted reading time, and don’t behave as if the people in the audience aren’t enough for you. Read.  And do your best possible job at it. These people took the time to come see you. If you treat them courteously and give them your best, they walk away as your ambassadors.

Third: don’t take it personally. Okay, that may not be possible. You have brought your work and yourself out into a public forum, and no one showed up, and that stings. But: see above about all the competing activities your audience has to forego in order to show up for you. If you’re reading at a convention, you may be scheduled against one of those Gods of Successful Writing, or the Guest of Honor interview, or the unscheduled appearance in the hallway of [insert name of current genre film actor]. And some people–even your best friend since second grade–just don’t enjoy readings and won’t show up and it’s not you it really is them.

What about if you are in a group reading and it’s clear that one of the other readers is the one who people are there to hear? It’s not unreasonable to ask to read before that person, so that their audience can be introduced to your work. If you do read after them and you note that much of the audience is getting up to go (and the first reader doesn’t have the class to say “I’d glad you came to hear my work–but don’t go yet, we have another writer here, and I’m very interested to hear her read…”) you can pipe up and say it yourself. Don’t sound pathetic. Just “I hope you’ll stay and listen to my reading too,” is fine. And if they don’t?

This is where the box of graceful resignation comes in handy. I have, on one occasion, read to the other writer, who was the only one who stayed. You could do that. Or, as a friend of mine has done on more than one occasion, you could turn it into an informal meet-the-author by saying something like, “Hey, we’re a small group. Y’all wanna go to the bar?” And maybe you read and maybe you don’t, but perhaps you’ve made fans for life. And in the end, reading to an audience is an act of self-promotion, and how you handle a disappointment can be a part of that.

All of the things I’ve mentioned here, and in earlier posts on this topic, are pretty much common sense. And some of them might not work for you. But remember: in the end, reading to an audience should be fun. It should be exciting, a chance to see how your work affects others in the wild. And if it’s not fun, not exciting, maybe this is not the best way to promote your work or yourself as a writer.

Now go have fun.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience — 8 Comments

  1. I had a 10 AM reading on a Sunday morning at a con. I advertised that I would serve coffee. Had a full house. My local coffee roaster will put up 1 oz coffee packets with your business card printed on the foil for about $1 a packet (less if you buy more than 100) I gave those away too. Full house.

  2. Yup. Both gentlemen were very sweet; before the door opened Sir Terry leaned over and said “I don’t think I know you, do I?” I agreed that was so, and we shook hands. Last moment his hands were not filled with pens and books.

  3. Such experiences aren’t limited to writers. Every musician (amateur or professional) who’s performed an actual concert has similar stories. There was one convention I had a set in the half hour right before a talk by J. Michael Straczynski. I had three people attend. Even the primary sound guy abandoned me to get in line for JMS. But I survived; I think someone even thanked me for playing one of their favorite songs. (And I even managed to dash the two blocks from the convention center to the hotel and sneak into the back of JMS’ talk.)

  4. I am a great fan of the group reading for improving the odds of a decent audience. In my experience at conventions, very few people get up and leave after the biggest name there reads — maybe only because they want to hang around to talk to that person afterwards, but I’ll take that.

    Also, I have gone to group readings that included my friends and ended up buying a book by this other person I never heard of who happened to be reading with them.

  5. As a writer, I’m with Nancy Jane in liking group readings. I’ve only done a couple, but it was nice having a decent-ish audience. 🙂

    As someone who used to work conventions, and who ran the autograph area at (the last) San Jose WorldCon, I’ll say that I was so happy to have a bunch of lesser-known writers in (almost) every session I can’t even tell you. :/

    One of the biggest problems with autographing is finding space for the long, winding lines that form in front of the mega-popular writers. We were set up at one end of one of the big exhibit halls, the one where the fan tables and fan exhibits and commercial exhibits and the obligatory display of hundreds of photos of SF people from years past, and displays of past Hugo statues and old program books and cetera were. I lucked out, because, as I was told, the guy who was responsible for selling commercial exhibit space for most of the lead-up to the convention didn’t do a very good job. Someone else took over in the last few months, but by then it was too late. So that particular exhibit hall was much more loosely packed than had been planned for.

    As it was, we had barely enough space for lines. You need a certain amount of space (I think it’s ten feet, but it’s been a while and I wouldn’t swear to it; something like that) of fire lane between any things that are going to be in the way for a while. That includes exhibit tables, and people standing in front of exhibit tables, and lines that are going to be there pretty much the entire time the room is open. So if you have a line going up an aisle between two rows of fan tables, say, and there’s often a row of people standing up against the tables on either side, the aisle between the two facing tables needs to be like twenty-five feet wide.

    [table][person][10′ of space][line][10′ of space][person][table]

    For the table on the far end, the line could run against the wall, and then it only needed ten feet of fire lane on one side. And of course, we needed that ten-foot space between the first 3-4 people in line and the rest of the line, for the fire lane running across the front of the tables, for pretty much the same reason you don’t drive into an intersection if there isn’t space for you to completely clear it.

    Seriously, if everyone had lines like Terry Pratchett or Connie Willis or Lois McMaster Bujold, frex., we could’ve only let like three people sign at a time, unless someone far higher up in the organization than I was wanted to take responsibility for rolling the Fire Marshal dice and maybe having the whole show shut down. Only a small fraction of the writers attending would have a chance to sign at all, at least as a scheduled event.

    A lot of conventions do roll those dice, by the way, and they often get away with it. The way the room would’ve probably been set if they’d sold as many commercial exhibit spaces as they’d wanted to, we wouldn’t have had those two 25′ aisles to run lines up (along with the one narrower-but-okay aisle on the end). I’d probably have gritted my teeth and tried to make it work, but I’m frankly glad I didn’t have to. It only takes one surprise walk-through to bring the whole thing crashing down on your head. Getting shut down on Saturday and having most of your attendees demand refunds? Yeah, I’ll pass. :/

    I’ve been to some conventions that put Autographs into one large room by themselves, with plenty of space for lines, most of which was empty most of the time. That’s the best way to do it, of course, but most conventions don’t have that kind of space to burn.

    So on behalf of con staffers everywhere, we very much appreciate that a lot of writers don’t have huge lines show up for autographs. [wry smile]