Speaking to an audience at a book event

I don’t get asked many questions about being an author, or the process of writing and promoting books. This evening, a fellow writer sent me a letter, and I felt the answer might be of interest to one or two others, so I’ve posted it below . . .

This Friday I’m making my first-ever author appearance at a booksellers convention.  Apparently I’m supposed to give a short reading, followed by dinner and a signing.  I’ve never done anything like this before, and I was wondering if you could offer me some insight into how these sorts of events tend to play out.  In your experience, are there aspects of being a guest presenter that are overwhelming or different from what you would have expected?  Anything I should definitely do, or not do?
The first point that I would make is that you are there to entertain and engage your audience.  Whatever high purpose you may have, you cannot accomplish it if you do not capture their attention by entertaining or engaging them.

A successful author/speaker leaves audiences feeling one of two ways:

This guy is really funny/entertaining – I need to read his book

This guy is really insightful – I need to read his book

Obviously, there is more to speaking than that.  Your audience may go away thinking they need to change this or that in their life, or in their community, or at work . . . whatever.  However, before they can form such an opinion, you must have gained their respect, and for that to happen you must have entertained or engaged them, which takes me back to that original point.

So how do you do that?

Find the two most entertaining passages in your book, and distill a reading that is at most one or one and a half pages.  You may be wise to ask others what those “best passages” are, and if there are differences, select two.  Work out what you say to set the scene up, and use those little passages as your reading.

Tempting as it sounds, do not read more.  More = boring.  As a debut author, you need to read them something so they can get a sense of who you are, in words.  More than a page, though, and even the best prose gets boring when read aloud in a dinner setting.  If this were your second third or fourth book, my advice would be to not read at all; just tell them stories.

When you get up to speak, thank the audience, thank the sponsor.  Say a few words about your book and why you wrote it.

Read the entertaining scenes.

Thank the audience and tell them you will be available to sign books and answer questions out front.

Do the whole think smoothly and quickly, and don’t use a prepared script.

Stand in front of the audience, not behind a podium.  If you don’t have a script, and you are fully dressed, why would you need one?
At the dinner . . .

People will ask you questions, which you should try and answer.  Remember, anyone with a question has made a special effort to seek you out.  No one put them up to it. Consequently, they are going to be predisposed to be friendly and you should not be afraid to answer.  Also, these people are your partners in selling books, so they deserve your best thought.  Give it to them.

When it comes to signing books, I will tell you what I learned from Steve Ross, the president and publisher of Crown when they bought Look Me in the Eye . . .

Books should be signed on the inside title page.  That is the page that has the book’s title.  It’s usually the second or third right side page inside the front cover.  Don’t sign the blank page just inside the cover.

Develop and practice a signature you can do quickly and consistently.   Ideally, it should be different from the signature you use on checks.  I use my initials, not my whole name.

Get a pen that you like, and keep control of it.  If you don’t have a pen, people will hand you any weird thing they have, and signing will be erratic and uncomfortable.  I use a Montblanc rollerball in black.  By using the same pen, I can go back and personalize a book I signed earlier, and it all looks the same.

You will occasionally be asked to sign shirts or bags.  You need a Sharpie Permanent Fine Point for that task.  It’s good to have one of them too.

In closing, I’ll just repeat one important point.  When you speak at an author event, every person in the audience has chosen to come hear you talk.  There were plenty of other places they could be, and they chose to come hear you.

If you believe that, you know you have a duty to give them your very best.

Having made that effort to come see you, the audience is going to be friendly, so you have nothing to fear from getting up there and talking.

Do not swear to excess, and do not spit from the stage.  If members of the audience throw eggs, it’s ok to throw them back, but do not throw rocks.  If they throw rocks, retreat through the rear.

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John Elder Robison
John grew up in the 1960s. He knew he was different, but didn’t know why. His early social and academic failures would be signs of disability today, but back then, they were dismissed as laziness or a bad attitude.
John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison

John grew up in the 1960s. He knew he was different, but didn’t know why. His early social and academic failures would be signs of disability today, but back then, they were dismissed as laziness or a bad attitude.

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