Making the Reading Circuit Scene—
All By Yourself
When my first collection of stories was published by a university press, I knew that—no matter how supportive and nice my publishers would be (and they have been very nice)—I would be pretty much on my own once I had the finished book in hand. University presses, like universities themselves, have very limited funds. No matter. I’ll read anywhere to anybody at any time, I said. Selling the first printing of book should be no problem. . . I said. So, I started gathering the names and numbers of book stores around the country. That’s easy enough to do. Try bookweb and New Pages. Then I figured I’d need a press kit to send to the stores. So I had a hundred 8 x 10 head-shots duplicated for a press kit. My first mistake. Virtually everything having to do with PR these days is virtual. So I had to digitize my official author’s photo. (Those one-hundred blow-ups are still sitting in my closet.)
A press kit, by the way, is a package that includes your photo, your one paragraph bio, an official summary paragraph about your work, and “clippings,” if you have them—reviews or mentions of your work from newspapers and magazines. As it turned out, I had occasion to send out only a few press kits (and I was too sheepish to include that huge head-shot of my smiling face because suddenly it seemed too Hollywood). I did mail letters and bios with my book to those stores that insisted on seeing the book. Most of my correspondence with book stores, however, was online. So, if you’re not familiar with photo files and email attachments, you’ll want to learn about them.
Because I’m a low-maintenance writer—asking no fees, no accommodations, and no transportation—I was convinced that I would be able to read just about anywhere as long as the book store had a free night. This, I learned, is a typical, self-absorbed writerly misconception because, once you examine the situation, it’s easy to see that hosting a reading is no simple matter for most book stores if both the store and the author hope to make it a success. First of all, no store can support readings every night of the week. Most hold one or two readings weekly. What is more, as low maintenance as you might be as an author, the store nevertheless has to publicize the event—through its newsletter and online mailings, for starters—and then someone at the store has to take charge of that event, watching over it and you. That person is usually the book store Events Manager or Program Director or Reading Coordinator. And that person, I learned, is swamped with requests from authors for reading dates.
Many Coordinators want to see your book before they commit to a date. And it is a little like dating because there’s so much tentative interaction before you secure a commitment. That’s why you never want to send a book blindly to a store. Always make contact with the Coordinator first to let her/him know it’s coming and to be sure that this store hosts the kind of reading that you seek. Some stores, for instance, hold readings only by authors of non-fiction. After you send your book to the store (and you should always send first-class, priority, or express--with confirmation), give the Coordinator a couple of weeks, at least, to open the mail because Events Coordinators get lots of mail.
A follow-up call or email should be brief: Just checking in to see if you got the book. . . .Thank you for your time and consideration . Usually they haven’t had time to look at it yet. You should include with your book a brief (two paragraph) letter of introduction that explains what you seek: a date for a reading in the months of X, Y, or Z. The more flexible you are with the calendar, the more you help the Coordinator make a favorable decision. For California readings, I had to change my travel plans three times—pushing the dates further back—in order to accommodate the big-market book stores’ schedules. Some stores schedule their readings six months in advance.
Attach a brief bio (one paragraph) to the letter, along with any reviews you may have received. You might mention in your letter than you can bring books with you, if the store does not want the trouble of ordering them. If you’re particularly ambitious, you may also mention that, if the store does order your book, you’d be willing to buy back whatever the store doesn’t sell at the reading. The store will always keep a few copies but may not want to sit on twenty. Once a store agrees to host your reading, it will want to know two concrete bits of information: who your distributor is and what discount the store gets. The name of the distributor will tell them how quickly they could receive your book after ordering. Book stores typically buy books from distributors at a discount of about 30%. You yourself will probably get a 50% discount directly from your publisher. Authors of small press books very quickly accommodate themselves to toting a box of their books with them on a reading tour just in case the order does not arrive at the book store. No book store has taken my offer to buy back what it has not sold.
If you don’t know the name of the store’s Events Coordinator, call up the store and ask. Also make sure you get the correct title for the Coordinator, who may in fact be a Director. If titles didn’t count, they wouldn’t exist. And ask how to spell the person’s name. Attention to such details will demonstrate that you’re willing to take as much care with their work as you request they take with yours. You can often find all of this information at the book store’s website. There, too, you may find the store’s preference for queries. Many request an email query. If you submit an email query, you are free to include your bio and your publisher’s press release as separate attachments. I include also two of my best reviews. That’s four attachments already. While I like to give the Coordinator some options, I don’t want to look like an avalanche.
One way to introduce yourself to prospective stores, even before you try contacting an Events Coordinator, is through the press release your publisher sends out to announce your book. Although your publisher can’t send a press release to every book store in the country, it can send announcements to book stores you have selected in areas of the country in which you hope to read. Obviously this takes planning on your part. Here are a few other obvious observations that bear mention: never book two readings in the same town during the same week because you will only incur the wrath of both book stores and embarrass yourself with a compromised turn-out at each. Follow up your confirmation the week before you arrive with a call to the Coordinator, just to be on the safe side and to make his/her life easier. It’s a good idea to send a thank-you note to the Coordinator and staff after the event to underscore your gratitude and to establish a relationship. No doubt you’ll want to read there again.
As for return engagements, if you do hit it big with the next book, try to return to the little stores that showed you support during the first round. Loyalty counts. Generally I seek out independent book stores because they are more likely to show interest in small press books. However, it’s not a forgone conclusion that independent stores want to support independent presses. Nor should we assume that a chain store, like a Barnes and Noble or a Borders, will be uninterested. I found a lot of support among the chain stores in certain markets, especially those markets that did not have independent stores.
Before I relate an unpleasant anecdote, let me hasten to note that most Coordinators at both big chain stores and independent stores were wonderful to work with—book lovers who earnestly want to support new talent. I had the best luck in less-saturated markets, like North Carolina and Wisconsin. I had the least success in the big cities (I didn’t even try New York). Not until I phoned book stores in California did I realize how tough the reading circuit can be. As a former professional musician, I’ve had a lot of experience booking gigs over the phone and talking with some of humanity’s classic assholes (e.g., club owners, union reps., and musicians’ agents).
When I began contacting book store Reading Coordinators in Big City markets, I thought I was a struggling musician again. I’m thick-skinned, mind you, but I was unprepared for the callous treatment I received from some of these people. One Coordinator of a Prestigious Independent California store sounded mildly interested when I spoke with him on the phone. By this time I had come to understand that I had about three minutes to make a pitch—like pitching for a movie deal—and so I impressed upon him that I was born in California and that I had friends who would show up at my reading and that I gave a good reading . . . . (Try saying all of this smoothly, casually, without sounding desperate.) He told me to send him the book. So I did. Then I waited. And waited. I queried with an email. And then another. Now, I’m no glutton for punishment and I will not foist myself upon someone who clearly does not welcome my company. But he had sounded interested and he had invited me to send him my book. So he was obliged to respond, I thought.
When I got him on the phone finally and re-introduced myself, he said, “Who?”
“Ron Tanner, you know, fiction writer—short stories--you asked me to send you my book—we talked on the phone a couple of months ago.”
“I’ve never talked to you before,” he said flatly.
I swallowed a deep breath. “You didn’t get my book? I sent it first class.”
“I’ve never seen your book.”
“It’s a book of short stories,” I explained, then offered the briefest spiel I could. “I was hoping you could find space on your calendar for a reading. I’d be happy to share the bill with another writer.”
This was another tack I had learned: a double reading gives the store a better promise of a decent turn-out, especially for small-press writers like me.
The Coordinator sighed like a beset impresario. Then he said: “Give me three good reasons why I should host a reading by you.”
Although I had grown accustomed to making my pitch, his demand stunned me, it was so heartless. Who are you that you would treat a person this way? I wanted to blurt. Instead, I stumbled through three clearly unconvincing reasons why he should consider hosting me.
Then, he said with mild distaste, “Send me the book, I’ll take a look.”
Really, you’ll take a look? I knew that he would not. More likely, he would hand the book off to an underling who was used to receiving his leavings and maybe, in contempt, had gotten into the habit of dumping his donations at the nearest used-book store for resale.
But I sent him the book anyway. Okay, I am a glutton for punishment. I did not call him back, however.
Another Coordinator at another Prestigious Independent book store gave me the third degree:
“Is it self published?”
“What’s the press?”
“Has it been reviewed?”
“Do you have affiliations in the area?”
Affiliations, in the case, means: can you pack the house?
Yet another, after hearing my pitch, simply said, “We can’t do anything for you.”
Other Coordinators at other prestigious independent stores were very professional and made clear that their calendars could support only so many writers. I can hardly complain about being bumped by, say, Jane Smiley or Bob Sacchochis. Book stores are in the business of selling books, after all. And small press books generally do not sell as well as big-press books. My point here is two-fold: ours is a market-driven economy, let us not forget. But this economy welcomes free-enterprise. Therefore, small-press authors, let us be enterprising. For instance: one of my California writing friends arranged, most generously, to hold a reception for me at his favorite independent book store. He served wine and hors d‘oeuvres, invited all of his friends—a very supportive group of artists and art-boosters--and I sold more books there than at any other reading that year.
Obviously, it helps to know somebody in the town where you’re reading. In another city, a college town I was passing through while visiting my mother nearby, I arranged to read in a funky independent used book store that had tremendous neighborhood support. Since the town’s university was closed for the winter break, this seemed the best place to try. Unfortunately, despite the book store’s promotion in its widely-circulated newsletter, no one showed up, and so my mother and I wandered the aisles soliciting book browsers for a reading. Nobody was interested.
In Chicago, my audience at Barbara’s Books was mostly fellow writers (thank you, David, Joyce, Barry, Sharon, Julie, and Bruce). But one stranger showed up too, listened attentively, then bought five of my books as Christmas gifts. I wanted to shower her with free t-shirts and baseball caps and tickets to the opera—premiums I have since fancied I should carry for anybody who buys my book. At another city, I read to an audience of two fellow writers, which was quite nice. Quality, not quantity, I reminded myself. Here’s a lesson I learned as a musician: no matter how small the turn-out—and even when you think no one is listening—you have to play like it matters. You will be a better musician as a result, you will feel better about yourself, and you may bring one more listener to your music because you never know who is within earshot.
At another reading at a small independent store, one listener seemed very receptive to my reading and even asked questions afterwards. But she didn’t buy a book. At first I was confounded, but then it occurred to me that she might not have been able to afford a book, that the reading for her was an entertainment, and that I should be thankful that she took the time to listen. Maybe she will buy my book eventually; maybe she will recommend it to someone; and then again maybe not. I should not assume that listeners are obliged to buy what I offer; nor should I assume that listening in and of itself is not enough. It is enough. Isn’t that why we write, in order that others will listen?
The one advantage that small-press books have over most big-press books is that they stay in print, which allows the small-press author to keep reading in the hope of a promising return. Call your local writer’s club or group and see if it would be interested in a visit. Query local and regional book fairs, where you could sit on a panel discussion because, even if you can’t read, you can make your presence known and this might lead to a reading. Try organizing an omnibus reading event with one or more fellow writers—a barbecue read-out, say—to which friends could invite friends and acquaintances you haven’t met. Whatever the event, be sure to call the local non-profit radio station to see if you can get an event announcement on the air; and contact the local paper for the same. One thing we know for sure: if you don’t do it, nobody else will.
This reality does not have to feel oppressive. Yes, the reading circuit for a small-press author can make me (and perhaps you too) feel like the little hardware store in the shadow of Home Depot. Sure, the competition is fierce. Still, I remind myself that, as fine a store as it is, not everyone shops at Home Depot. So I’m printing cards, building a website, and going once again on the road to win my readers, store by store, seat by seat, one book at a time.
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