Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on Small Press Readings

Michelle Tea reads at the Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh) with Sister Spit, April 23, 2010

1. When organizing a reading of out-of-town emerging writers, put one or two well-liked local writers in the lineup.

I learned this one when I organized my own cross-country reading tour a decade ago, with me, me, me-only on every bill. Friends in each city came out, but unless the venue itself hyped the reading, very few strangers showed up. I’ve seen this more recently from both the organizer side and the audience side—advertising a little-known name doesn’t go half as far as people coming out to see a familiar face or support a friend.

2. If you want to be supportive to those out-of-town writers, there’s various ways you can make them feel welcome and want to return to your city and your reading series.

An audience is the best thing you can offer, but there’s other ways to say “thanks” to that author who traveled on his or her own dime to get to your reading series.

*Is it possible to get a review for their book in your city, in advance of the reading? Can you hook them up with the local newspapers, and/or local book bloggers? At the very least you can have them send around some publicity materials (such as author JPEGs, links to reviews & the book’s webpage), to try to get a blurb or recommended event listing.
*Take them to a good (and affordable) restaurant and give them good chat before the reading
*Take them to a great bar and give them good chat after the reading
*Introduce them to local authors (at dinner, at the reading, at the bar)
*Buy their book
*Take photos during the reading
*Record the reading on audio
*Blog about, photo-blog, or post audio of the reading afterwards (for audio, get the writer's permission)
*Post the photos to Flickr (especially if they came out well) and include the author’s name
*Post photos to Facebook and tag the author

3. If you’re invited to be in a group reading in your own city, don’t slack on inviting your friends and fans.

This is one way a reading gets low turnout—each reader expects that a readymade crowd will be there waiting for them. How? Based on the other readers notifying THEIR friends and fan base. I think that some writers get worried about “annoying their friends” by constant self promotion. But often enough, your friends actually want to see you read, and your false modesty isn’t helping you or anyone else. In fact, if you’re in a group reading, some of your friends might come because they see that you AND another person they’ve been wanting to hear are reading together. But how will they know if you don’t tell them? (Don’t forget to list the other readers on the bill.) The reading organizer is counting on you to help get the word out. You don’t have to send out 15 email announcements, but send out at least one or two. Keep fliers on your person for when you run into people who’d want to know about your reading, and make the announcement at one reading about your next reading. Put in the labor and they will come.

4. For group readings, don’t take up more time than the organizer requests. Especially, don’t take up a LOT more time that the organizer requests.

It’s a bad karma move against your fellow authors on the bill, and when you wake up from your ego-stupor, you’ll realize that the audience didn’t want to listen to you for 24 minutes, either. They came for a group reading, and the best way to keep the event entertaining is to keep things moving at a good pace. If you’ve been asked to read for seven minutes, don’t rebel--just make it the best seven minutes the audience has ever heard. In other words, dare to be remembered for your writing and not how much time you commandeered.

5. Speaking of group readings, do they really need to be more than four or five people?

This one is certainly up for debate, and there are definitely circumstances that might warrant long lists of readers (AWP, or sometimes a book release party). But generally, those readings where I’m expected to sit in a chair and listen to 11 or 13 readers in a row make me feel like I’m being held hostage. Judging from the number of people who leave at intermission or after their friend reads, I don’t think I’m the only one. My vote is that excessive writer lineups are usually a nasty situation to subject the last two readers to, not to mention the audience. Among other things, it makes for bad mingling because everyone’s darting away under cloak of dimmed lights to avoid looking like the jerk who left early.

6. When asking out-of-town writers to a group reading, consider (and communicate) how much time you’ll give them to read.

Would YOU want to travel far in order to read for seven minutes? Probably 15 minutes is about the minimum you should ask out-of-towners to read. Again, certain circumstances like writing conferences or festivals may be an exception.

7. Speaking of out-of-town writers, take a moment to de-mystify your city for them.

Is there an affordable hotel you recommend, is there an area you recommend avoiding, is your city a new stop on the Megabus line? Is there a must-see attraction or a great bookstore in your area? Can you send them a link to a local restaurant blog, is there a regional driving idiosyncrasy they should know about? Etc.

8. So you’re running a reading series: How do you get, grow, and keep an audience?

These things can be a bit of a mystery, whether you’re a performer, an author, a reading series: who succeeds and who stagnates, or who explodes like a supernova and then fades quickly? I can’t pretend to have the secret formula, but here’re some thoughts.

*First ingredient: Good readers. Even something this obvious is tricky, because some series with “open door” policies can attract a really interesting mix of readers and performers inbetween duds, and in those cases, you don’t want to over-curate the lineup. But otherwise, I advocate a healthy degree of quality control so the audience you do get believes that every reading they attend will have something they want—even if they haven’t heard of the writers.

*Think of it as creating a community. Who is your series attracting and why do they keep coming back? Do they like certain publishing houses or sub-genres more than others? Do they appreciate a wide variety of writers or do they want all poetry, or strictly fiction? Are you offering a type of “scene” they want to be involved in that they can’t get anywhere else? Is your audience an extended group of your friends who come for the free beer you secured from that brewery sponsor? Are they foodies who come for the amazing pot luck? Do they come for the hip, unique, or well-known venue you’ve chosen, or the monthly music act that follows the readings?

*Advertise widely. Don’t rely on ONE method to notify your audience—just telling your friends, or just making a Facebook event page. Give people from different walks of life and different areas of your city a chance to discover you (to me, this is part of what the small press is about, at its best). Fliers at coffee shops, bookstores, and college English Departments; announcements on radio stations; asking your friends to forward emails to their friends; listings in the weekly paper and any relevant blogs; pushing for local book reviews; getting onto literary event lists; maintaining a good-looking blog or website for the reading series, etc.

*Get good at the technical side of the readings. Nothing kills the mood of a reading like long delays due to technical difficulties. If your reading requires a microphone and lighting, have someone on hand who knows how to adjust these should something mishap. Lighting should let your writers see what they’re reading, and hopefully flatter them, too.

*Offer consistency. The quality of the readers, the “extras” your audience comes to expect (whether food, music, low cover charge, etc), the reliability of the readings (EVERY month, not taking random months off), the general size and tone of the readings—nothing has to be set in stone, but when what you’re offering is virtually unknown writers, there needs to be something consistent for your audience to return to, and for.

Any experienced readers, reading series hosts, or audience members, feel free to comment with your own thoughts and observations.


Jen said...

Great post, Karen! You're the consummate host whenever I've read in Pittsburgh, and you've been the consummate reader when you've come to Baltimore for the 510 Readings (your family packed the reading to the gills)! I would add that, even if you don't have a book out yet, it's good to network online with other folks in different cities, ie, offer to review books, do interviews, etc. I've seen (and continue to see) people who suddenly have a book published and nowhere to go (and no one to come out and see them) because they spent all their energy promoting their writing and not even just a little time building connections in the community.

Also, if you are a reader, please make every effort to make the reading date we've set up. Nothing burns out goodwill faster when a reader is constantly rescheduling (sort of illness or family emergencies), especially when often there is limited space in the schedule (the 510 Readings is often booked half a year in advance).

Finally, go to other readings of a committed reading series, not just your own reading date (obviously, if you live in the same city, this is much easier). There's nothing we like less than people who read and then never come again. A series is only as successful as its audience, and a good proportion of our audiences are former or future readers.

Laura the Poet said...

Great post. Another great way to get people to attend your reading series is to offer food. Potlucks are great. It feels very community oriented that way.

I love the thoughts about supporting out of town readers. I hadn't thought of those things! Will refer back to this post in the future :)

Jarred McGinnis said...

Very good post. It's amazing how many readings forget that people can go elsewhere (and do). Literature shouldn't be a test of endurance. For our show, The Special Relationship, we focus on getting people who would not normally come to a reading. We invite a mix of people other than poets and writers like film makers, illustrators and comedian. It's all about getting new souls.