I go to poetry and fiction readings all the time. I host them, go to open mics, and often headline them. I do it for a lot of reasons. First, I want to promote my books. I write fiction, crime, and poetry, and it’s part of my job to sell the things. You can never and should never expect your publisher to do that for you. That’s not the job of the publisher. But I also go because I like them. They’re fun, and I love discovering new poets.
I’ve been going long enough to see a lot of people make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t want there to be any confusion here. I’m not going to make fun of anyone but myself in this post. All of these are mistakes that I have made at readings. A lot of people make them, but all of the examples are me. Here they are, The Rules for Reading Your Work Out Loud:
1. Don’t go longer than the organizer has asked you to go. You might have the best work in the world, but there’s only so much attention any one person has. The chairs are uncomfortable (always), and everyone has been working all day. Often the organizer has the space for a very limited duration because of insurance or the venue is going to close.
By the way, it’s generally a good idea to go too short. If people wished you’d read more, they’re likely to buy your books.
2. Time your bathroom visit. The very worst mistake was going to the bathroom a minute before the reading and then using the sink in the bathroom that splashed me in a strange place. Damn you Borders bathroom! Luckily I had tucked in my shirt, and I was able to untuck. I don’t know if anyone saw, but no one mentioned it.
3. Please don’t tell the crowd not to clap until the end. This is a common thing for a lot of readers to say, but it comes off like you’re saying that your work is amazing and that the crowd is going to waste a lot of time in needless adoration.
4. Thank the organizers.
5. Read the crowd and listen to the other readers. The last person who read right before you wrote about heartbreak and loss. People loved it. Be careful what you read.
6. Don’t swear or read about sex until you have read the crowd. Don’t read about sex if there is a well-used children’s section.
7. If you are the headliner, pay attention to the open mics. You should anyway, but you’re likely to be nervous about your headline reading and trying to deal with your nerves in way that people do, thinking about other things, joking with friends. You’re doing it innocently, but to everyone else it looks like you’re yawning and making fun of the readers. Flagellate yourself if you do this.
8. Humor should ONLY be self-deprecating. If you joke about yourself, that’s all right, but I’ve made the mistake of teasing friends and poking fun at students the way I would in the classroom or when we’re just hanging out. What comes off to you as friendly banter could be seen as a public attack -- if not by your friends, then by the audience members.
9. Read loudly and slowly. I’m a fast talker normally.
10. After the reading, chat with people. Listen to what they have to say. Be respectful. If you’re going to make a sale, this is when it’s going to happen, but that’s not the most important reason. By entering a reading, you have joined a community. Now is the moment when you enter into that community.