Check the Chairs: 15 Tips on Setting up Successful Readings

I invited all the authors on stage for Q and A at the end of Saturday’s reading, which featured Liz Scott, Scott Sparling, Kate Gray, Jackie Shannon Hollis and Stevan Allred. Nice turnout, yes?

Have you always wanted to share your writing with the public? Or dreamed of standing on stage and reading from your novel-in-progress? Anyone can set up a reading and invite an audience. You don’t even need a book to sell–but if you do have one, events are a great way to energize people around your work and make new fans.

I’m still new to this, as I’ve only hosted two readings since Brave on the Page launched October 8, but I have had great turnouts and results. On of my friends told me to expect fewer than forty people; the only reading she had attended with more featured a superstar local writer. Well, due to the community-oriented nature of this book, we had ninety people at our launch party and fifty at our Saturday event. Amazing!

Here are fifteen tips I’ve learned so far about setting up readings, whether or not they’re focused around a book:

Jackie Shannon Hollis read from her memoir in progress at Saturday’s event at Backspace in Northwest Portland.

1. Find out where readings are regularly held in your community. But those places are only some of the options. Feel free to approach your favorite coffee shop, bar, bookstore or hangout and ask if they’d be willing to host you. It never hurts to ask. After all, you’ll be bringing in customers. Or look at rental fees for community centers and other public spaces.

2. If you rent a place, it’s okay to have a suggested donation basket to offset your costs. I haven’t done this yet but I will next time. The book sales from my launch party all went to cover expenses, but I had figured that and was fine with throwing a party for my contributors and the community.

3. If you want a big turnout, ask multiple authors to read so they can invite their friends and social networks. That way it won’t just be you spreading the word–and you can invite all the readers up on stage for Q and A at the end.

4. Think about the authors you know in terms of voice and content. Whose work would complement each others? At our reading on Saturday at Backspace, I really focused on that and the result was really cohesive and lovely. Even though four readers ended up reading essays or selections from their memoirs, and one read fiction, each piece was emotionally vibrant and told with strong, carefully chosen language.

Stevan Allred, one of Saturday’s readers, poses with the poster for our Backspace event.

5. Give your authors an estimate of pages and/or minutes you want them to speak. One double spaced page takes between one and two minutes to read out loud. You probably don’t want to go over an hour, and depending on the venue 30-45 minutes might be just right. When you’re estimating how long you want your event to run, assume two minutes per page, plus time for introductions and Q and A. I had each author introduce the next reader, and if they didn’t know each other, I sent some bio information and website information along to help.

6. If you’re going to have multiple readings, as I’m doing to celebrate Brave on the Page, you don’t have to read at every one, unless you want to. I found joy in introducing the event and then moderating the Q and A; it’s nice to move the spotlight around.

7. Estimate the size of your audience and let the venue staff know. (See #8.)

The stage at Backspace is really lovely, and we organized chairs to maximize the seating for our audience. Here Liz Scott reads from her memoir in progress.

8. Scout the location out ahead of time. I didn’t do this with Backspace and I was thrown by the cafe layout and lack of chairs when I first walked in. So many people were already sitting at tables, eating and drinking coffee. After some confusion, I found out we could get more chairs and line them up in front of the stage, which solved the problem. (And that wasn’t my first experience with a chair shortage. At my launch reading, I told the event coordinator we’d be expecting 80 to 100 people. Turns out that message hadn’t spread to the on-site volunteer, and we ended up with an epic chair quest, which included reaching out to the pastor of the church across the street to lend us some of his. It ended up being a memorable and funny experience, with bestselling middle grade author Bart King schlepping folding chairs across the street for us, but it was also terrifying in those minutes before we had a solution.)

9. Bring a support staff person. You want somebody who can take charge of solving problems, or find a staff person at the location to fix an issue. I’m not great at that kind of thing, but my husband is. (Thanks, Jonathan!) Your job as host is to make sure your readers are comfortable and to mingle with the audience–not to move chairs (as my hubby told me several times at both my readings). If you rent a hall and want to provide refreshments, bring two or three support people to set up the buffet, refill platters and clean up.

10. If you have a book or product to sell, figure out how you’re going to accept payments. The square is free and an easy way to take credit card payments and also keep track of cash sales. If you need wifi to run the square, make sure it’s available in advance and log into the network before your first customer hands you a credit card.

11. If you have a sales table, think about displaying other marketing material–announcements of future events, postcards, bookmarks, business cards, whatever you have. Offering a simple mailing list for email announcements of future events is crucial. I haven’t yet researched what to do with my mailing list; likely I’ll write another post about that when I figure it out!

12. Promote your reading. Make up little flyers (you can get six to a page) and hand them out to friends. Post the details on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, your blog–whatever social media you use. (Admittedly, I’m not on Facebook, and I may have to join just for the purpose of easily letting people know about events.) Send emails to writer friends, people who live near the event location, anyone who might be interested.

13. Don’t forget the local media. Especially if you’re selling a book, it’s imperative that you bring in new audience members, not just your friends and family and blog readers, who already know about your achievement. Send news releases to the local weekly entertainment newspapers, the daily newspaper and any community newspapers or newsletters that cover your venue. Make sure you give several weeks’ advance notice. And remember that not everything you send will end up in the paper. We had coverage in the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week for Saturday’s reading–in the form of two nice calendar listings. I was disappointed we didn’t get into the Oregonian, but maybe my chosen venue wasn’t big enough for their standards.

Remember to check the batteries on your camera (and external flash, if you have one) or you might end up with pictures like this by the end of the event. This is me, on the left, with my dear friend, travel writer Crystal Wood. (And yes, she’s interviewed in Brave on the Page.)

14. Take lots of pictures or have someone run a camera for you. Not all will turn out, especially if you have a big hall that eats up flash. After the event, make sure you email the authors photos of themselves to share with their social networks and as a thank you for participating. It’s not necessary, but it’s a nice way to wrap up the event.

15. Thank the people who staff the location you’re using. Then thank them again. (You might want to be invited back!)

Have you set up a reading? What am I missing? Or have you gotten up on stage to read? Should I write a post about preparing for an event like this and conquering nerves? Or about sending press releases?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Check the Chairs: 15 Tips on Setting up Successful Readings

  1. I think the last two points are really important. I was reading an article about Taylor Swift a while back, and every time she appears on a radio program (and she appears on a lot of radio programs) she sends a handwritten thank you note afterwards. I’ll bet she’s in the minority.

    I thought, based on the first photograph, that one of your rules was going to be to always do readings in a place with a disco ball. 🙂

    • Wow, I love the idea of a celebrity sending a handwritten note. It takes so many people to put on a successful event.

      The disco ball was very fun; turns out, according to one author’s teen son, Backspace is the hippest place in Portland. He was very impressed that we had an event there!

  2. Emma says:

    You’re doing a terrific job.

    • Thanks, Emma! As I confessed during Saturday’s Q and A, I really like this kind of thing–especially because I can shine the spotlight on great local authors who I respect and admire.

  3. onmounthood says:

    Great post, Laura, and very helpful. The one thing I would add, and this is kind of a no-brainer, but if an author’s presentation includes something like a slideshow, always make sure you have your own equipment even if the venue offers the use of its own equipment. A lot of the places I’ve done readings (and slideshows) have much better projectors and AV gear than I do, but those aren’t always compatible with my laptop, etc… I learned the hard way at one event, when I had been told that the venue had all the right cables that would connect my laptop to their projector. When I got there, sure enough, they didn’t have the right one. Luckily someone else at the place did, but it added a lot of unnecessary stress and confusion. I learned my lesson though . . .

    • Jon, that’s an excellent addition. Thanks for sharing! I’ve never done an event with technology but I can imagine the panic if a promised cable turned out to be incompatible right before the event started. Glad you got it figured out!

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    Those all sound like great tips. And I think the photo of you and your friend would make a fun gravatar. 😉 Thus speaks she who still hides behind the shades!

  5. susielindau says:

    These are such great tips! Thank you so much for sharing. I can’t wait until I have a book to promote!

  6. Laura, I love that you have this particular issue to deal with … means you are a giant step ahead of the game !! I’ll wait until the day comes to have such an event and save your tips 🙂

  7. Sophie Bayard says:

    Wow, what a collection of useful information to share! Congratulations on your successful readings! I love the photo too!

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