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"Overcoming Fear: Harnessing the Power of Live Readings" - A Guest Post by Jon Tobey

Updated: May 28


Reading your work to a live audience is a skill that takes practice. Do not, as I did my first time, show up cold and expect to be successful. You want to nail your first attempt to this audience of potential buyers and win over new fans. Getting a good reputation as an entertaining reader will lead to increased sales and future readings. It is also a multidimensional marketing event that has loads of potential once you start exploring it.

The first question, of course, is this: How do you get a reading? This should be part of your business plan. Usually, if a bookstore is carrying your work, they’ll be delighted to have you read. But don’t be passive about it. Ask. Maybe your local library would be interested. Many have writers’ groups, especially around NaNoWriMo. If not, donate your book and ask if the library would be amenable to a reading. Or teach a NaNoWriMo seminar. Getting more readers is their business, and so they are likely going to be open to having readers read to their patrons.

Recently, I’ve noticed a real trend in wineries, breweries, and bars. These businesses are looking for ways to keep people at their establishments beyond the initial reasons consumers visit, namely their tasty beverages. I saw Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country (which got made into an HBO series) at a local winery. The entry fee covered a glass of wine and a copy of Ruff’s latest book. After the reading, I went up to the promoter and promptly booked a reading for a book I edited and published. Again, don’t be passive. Look for places that might benefit from your product, and then actively self-promote your book and your ability to hold a reading. A reading, like your book, is a product. It is a form of entertainment that you can offer to these establishments that will cost them nothing and potentially attract patrons to their venues.

In my case, I write a lot of fly-fishing short stories. I read fairly often at local clubs and shops. Often all I need to do is mention that I do this to a club member, and they graciously contact the chair of the entertainment committee, which follows with me getting a gig. This happened to me recently. A fellow I fished with called and told me I was on for a reading at his club next month. If you make the job easy for the venues in which you wish to read, you’ll likely be able to make reading for them an event you can do annually, if not more frequently. I have such an agreement in several places around where I live.

Getting a good reputation as an entertaining reader will lead to increased sales and future readings.

The first reading I did was a reading I did alongside a group of other fly-fishing authors. I often go to readings at these clubs where I’m an audience member, and if I know the author, I have them promote me to the club. I do likewise. And it doesn’t have to be just authors you promote; I recently got my editor a speaking gig at the club where I read.

The best advice is to work your network. Write knitting cozies? Hit up local knitting clubs. In a writers’ circle? Mine them for events. (Even if you don’t get to read, supporting other authors and studying them is a free education.) Is there a school that has a focus similar to your genre? Drop them a line. For me, it was a thirty second search to find every fly-fishing club in North America so I could acquire their emails.

More and more people are thinking outside the box when seeking entertainment for their restaurants, bars, and clubs. While getting published and marketed in a saturated market makes it hard to stand out, for live events all you have to do is make is easy for the owners and managers of your targeted establishment, and you’ll likely be able to book the reading opportunity you’re seeking.

Self-publish? Offer a page in your book about readings. Have a newsletter? Cover past and upcoming events. I went to a trade show with a copy of my book. I met several bookstore owners and editors. The following year, I was on their speakers list. Again, from a writer’s perspective this might seem like a difficult task. But from the event planners’ perspective your proposal might be a godsend.


Another thing you should do is have business cards at the ready. Make sure you’re reachable. You are going to meet a lot of people who, if you do a good job, will market for you. Make sure the book title is on your card, your phone number, and email, and your website, if you have one.

Being an introvert is no excuse for not seeking out opportunities to read your work. I'm an introvert. Most authors are. Being a reader is a role you must play to market your work. You need to figure out how to make it work. Reading my own stuff chokes me up, and after talking to other writers, this seems to be a pretty common thing. I sometimes practice an upcoming reading for a good month. But I still have stories I cannot read aloud. You don’t want to discover you can’t read a particular piece when you are in front of a mike.

So, practice, practice, practice. Read to sympathetic loved ones who will critique you. (And btw, reading aloud will strengthen your story, because you will most definitely edit it after hearing it. Mark Twain used to read his day’s work to his family every night, after which he would edit it.) Nothing is more boring than somebody reading in monotone and/or not looking up at the audience to whom he or she is reading. Make sure to use your voice to expose the voice of your story. Get the rhythm of it. Connect with your audience. If I feel I’m losing the audience, I will often will break the fourth wall and explain something or comment on something for clarity. I’ll say something like, “You see, this is funny because . . .”, which almost always pulls my audience back in.

Over the course of my career, I've tried reading long pieces and excerpts from my works. For me, because I'm not promoting a book but mostly read short stories, excerpts generally bomb. But when I read from a non-fiction book I was involved with, I may read twenty excerpts in an hour, which normally goes well. These days I generally read one piece up to three thousand words, as well as some of my shorter pieces. Since I'm pretty well known to my audience, sometimes I have my listeners vote. When Matt Ruff read, he read from his book. He synopsized the book before he read, and he gave a preface to each section as well.


Oftentimes, the actual reading is not what the audience is most interested in, because they can buy the book and read it for themselves. What they’re really interested in is discussing the book. So be open to reading less and to talking more. In Matt Ruff’s case they wanted to know how he felt about the changes HBO made to his story. I was especially interested, in these days of cancel culture, how he dealt with the fact that as a white author, he wrote a book about black characters. I wondered if he got any backlash from that fact.

Another key element of a reading is to make sure you know your audience. I was a regular at a club when I read a pretty wicked story to the audience in attendance that evening. The story stunned them because it was simply too challenging. Needless to say, I have not been invited back. Now fly-fishing clubs are largely elderly white dudes and a few wives, so I should've played it safe. But in a fit of hubris, I wanted to read that story in particular, as it was my latest. (I’ve written about the lack of diversity in fly-fishing.) Unlike clubs, stores are generally younger, and I believe that that story would've played well in that environment. From time to time, at stores, my audiences have been more than half female. When that happens, I make sure to read pieces that women have liked or commented on in the past. So remember to know your audience, including any subgroups within that audience, and read what you believe that audience wants. You’re there for them, and they’re there for you—not your pet project.

Another tip is that if you are reading under a spotlight, you’re not going to be able to see the crowd, which sucks. This is especially likely to happen when you’re reading in a pub. If that’s the case, make sure to pause and look up every so often. Make eye contact if you can, and try to read the room as you go along. You may think people came for the story, but you still have to adjust to this new form of entertainment being presented to the pub’s guests. If all they wanted was to read a story, they would've stayed home and read it by the fire. But they showed up. It’s possible they showed because they wanted to meet you. Part of reading is that it's theater. What I do is I keep my finger (or a pen, as I make corrections as I go) on the page to hold my place. This allows me to look up and smile before returning to the page. Note: this is especially important if you read humor. When you give the joke a moment to sink, you allow the audience to laugh with you. You should do the same for any high points or dramatic moments in your work.

Before going on, make sure to test the mic. Make sure you are the right distance from it. Do a few mic tests, and ask the people in the back if they can hear you. (This is also a great way to get them to be quiet.) Along those lines, it's probably a function of my age, but I think it's incredibly rude for people to be on their phones while I'm reading. I find it a huge distraction. When I see it, I wonder why people are even there. I ask people to put their phones away until I'm done. This is the hardest part of the reading for me, and it shouldn't be. You can also have the hosts make this request for you when they’re announcing you.

Sometimes people will pay you to read. That’s something you should ask if it's not offered upfront. This will let you write off whatever expenses you have when reading. I was shocked the first time a fly club offered to pay me, but it turns out that they have budgets for such things. If your book is not included in the event price, make sure to bring copies along. Matt Ruff’s latest book, Destroyer of Worlds, was in the event price. But he brought the prequel along to sell as well. This brings up another point you need to think about: who gets the proceeds from your book sales? Do you wholesale them to the people who host you, or do you sell them directly to the consumer? Which means if you sell direct, you need a way to take payment in this cashless world or you need to put in the promotion you will have books for sale and the forms of payment you’ll be accepting. If it’s cash, most people will stop by an ATM, so make sure you have ample change, though many people will gift you the difference. Personally, when I go to fly-fishing shops, I sell my work wholesale to the store. When I visit clubs, I sell direct to the consumer. But there have been miscommunications in this area, so I make sure to deal with these things upfront.

Before going on, make sure to test the mic. Make sure you are the right distance from it. Do a few mic tests, and ask the people in the back if they can hear you.

An important factor in readings is to make sure you know how long you have to read, and if you start late because of logistics, just tell them you plan on reading your full hour. Don't let the venue cut you short. Remember, this is your performance. This happens all the time to me, and it happened to a friend I went to see give a talk. Hosts tend to blather, and club business can be interminable, so make sure to stand your ground from the get go. If you get booked for an hour, get your hour. Just make sure to keep an eye on the clock. Reading live always takes longer than you think it will, even if you’ve practiced.

After your reading, make sure you have time for a Q&A session. People at these events love to interact. Again, it’s you who are the product at these events, while the story is often secondary. People love meeting somebody they believe to be “famous.” Matt Ruff answered questions for longer than he read, and he went well over his allotted time.

One of the questions I ask audiences is if there are other writers in the room. There always are. In my experience, this leads to fascinating discussions. At my last reading, one gentleman had read not only my fly-fishing canon, but all my other work, and he had fascinating things to say about all of it. He basically sold work I had not even put out there for sale. The lesson here is that other people talking about and asking questions about your work can be a very powerful sales tool. It also has me thinking of editing and collecting those works into one book.

And make sure to set aside time to autograph body parts. I mean, you never know. As writers, we’re not really in this for the money, are we?

As part of my preparation, I print the stories and excerpts I'm going to read, make a script for the evening that I’ll follow, including the intro jokes, and I give them away at the end. It costs me nothing, and people seem to love it.


Also, don’t forget to pass around a clipboard before you start your reading. It’s a good way to get new subscribers signing up for your newsletter. Tell them what’s in the works, and when to expect your newsletter in their inbox. Currently, I’m collecting emails for a Kickstarter.

You should try to close the evening with an offer to return, especially if you’re reading at a local watering hole or club. Again, the goal is to make the booking agent’s job as easy as possible. You’re already there, so make sure to get the absolute most out of your appearance for your business.

Last but not least, make sure somebody takes you drinking afterwards. Whenever I read, I always ask the magic question: So, who is taking me drinking after this and who is taking me fishing? At my last reading, the venue actually put these requests into my contract. They also paid my travel expenses and put me up for the night. I went fishing with a fellow from the club and made a good friend on top of it. If drinking is not your thing, don’t pass up a chance to make a deeper connection with someone anyway. Go to dinner. Bake a cake with your cozy clientele. Like everything on this list, it never hurts to ask.

Remember, in the end, just have fun with it. This is your moment. The audience is there because they want more of you, so give them a show. Leave your modesty at the door, and embrace your success. You deserve it.

Author jon tobey black and white photo
Author Jon Tobey

Jon Tobey is a short story writer who has been published over two dozen times. He is currently editing several of his novels. He won OWAA's funniest article in 2020 and has been a runner up in the Traver Awards. His main milieu is fly fishing noir, into which he folds the genres of romance, comedy, horror, science fiction, magic realism, mystery, ghost stories and anything else his fevered brain can come up with. He thinks about story theory a lot. You can read his musings on Storycrafting here 

Overcoming Fear: Harnessing the Power of Live Readings is Jon Tobey's most recent post.

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2 commentaires

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28 mai
Noté 5 étoiles sur 5.

I hate public speaking. I get about as nervous as you can get and have trouble looking up at whoever is there.

Jon Tobey
Jon Tobey
29 mai
En réponse à

Well, it's part of marketing, so I can only say: practice, practice, practice.

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