How to Survive Your First Live Reading or Book Selling Event


Psst! Hey you! Yeah, you there! The writer! C'mere a sec and lemme talk to you!

I heard through a reliable grapevine that you've been invited to read at an event later this year? Or you've been invited to sign copies of your book at a Con next month? Or you've been invited to do something that involves you going before a crowd of people and saying those mighty words: I am Writer! Hear me Rawr!

(And if this hasn't happened to you already, have no fear: it will. All writers, at some point in their careers, will be called upon to do Something Scary in Public, and it will be completely terrifying and out of your comfort zone. Trust me.)

I hear you're looking for tips on how to survive this dreaded event. Well, it just so happens you've come to (okay, been summoned to) the right place. Back in June I attended my first EVER reading. I had to get up on stage in front of a large handful of people and read a short story, and I had to do it without puking on their shoes and sparking the dreaded Puke Chain Reaction that Stephen King described in "The Body." (Boom-baba-boom-baba-boom-baba-BOOM!)

Every public event is an opportunity to forge new relationships, make new friends, and introduce a whole bunch of people to your work.

I survived. In fact, I even had a good time! So I'll share my experience with you, and what I did to make it through, as well as some great advice I received along the way.

Keep it short, funny, or sexy

A far more experience writer (my pal, Richard Thomas) gave me this advice the week before I read. It works whether you're reading a story, a poem, or doing any sort of public speaking.

Keep it short, funny, or sexy. That's it. But it makes so much sense!

Think about it this way: remember when you graduated high school, and the valedictorian stood before the gathered crowd with the importance of such a lofty title weighing heavy on her shoulders? Remember how she spoke for what felt like an hour about all the amazing opportunities facing you, the graduating class, and about the impact you would make upon our world?

Yeah. Me neither.

The longer you talk to a crowd about heavy and serious topics, the more likely they are to drown you out. Cell phones will come out. People will whisper to their neighbors.

But if you make them laugh, turn them on, or at the very least keep your time before them to a minimum, you'll hold them in the palm of your hand. They'll remember you, and honestly, that's all you're doing this for anyway. You want to make the audience remember you at least long enough to find your table or go to Amazon and purchase your book(s).

Me? I kept it short. I'm not a sexy writer, and clearly I'm not funny. Thus, I had to go short. I chose the shortest story I had. It was sad and it was heavy, but it was all over in about eight minutes. No one had time to get bored, or lose interest. In those eight short (okay, to me they felt like they took forever) minutes, no one even moved. It was magic.

Practice, practice, practice

If you're reading a story, the very best thing you can do is to read it aloud before the event. Me? I read mine dozens of times. I read it to my dogs. To my cats. It wasn't appropriate to read to my daughter or else I'd have read it to her, too. Reading out loud before I got up on stage let me do things like edit places where I stumbled so I wouldn't stumble anymore. It let me write little notes on where to pause, where to wait. It also got me used to the way the words flowed.

And, since my story was sad, reading it multiple times helped me get through it on stage without crying. Seriously. The first few times I read it out loud, I kept getting choked up, which is not what you want to do in front of your audience. By practicing (and practicing...and practicing), I was able to make it past those parts and read it straight through with a steady voice. Had I not practiced, I'd have been a blubbering idiot up on stage, and I'm just not attractive with mascara running down my face.

Be a superhero: wear a costume

This may sound a little silly, but I mean it. Wear a costume. Have a special article of clothing, a special way of dressing, that is specific to performing in public. 

Me? I do the 50s thing when I go in front of people. I wear fancy dresses and heels. I curl my hair. I wear red lipstick. 

The thing is, as I put on these clothes, this costume, it gets me in the correct mind-frame. When I stand in front of people to read them stories or try to sell my books, I'm not just little old Leah Rhyne. No. I am a Writer. I need to be outgoing and brave and talkative — things which, on a regular day, I'm not. So the costume's just a reminder: I am Writer. Be brave.

You don't have to dress like me to do this (though I'd love to see some of you fellas in red lipstick!), but you can find something to cue your brain to get ready to go. It could be a cool hat, your nerdiest t-shirt, whatever. As long as it's something you wear specifically for public speaking events, it'll help.

Go first if you can

If it's your first time reading in front of people, you're going to be nervous. There's no sense in denying it. And sitting there while other writers stand before you and kill it with their amazing stories will only enhance your nervousness.

Thus, if you have the option, go first! Get it over with! Pull off that band-aid! Yank out the splinter! Do any other cliche you can to just get it done as quickly as you can! 

You'll thank me for it when the writer beside you, the one who goes fourth, is chewing his fingernails down to little nubs while you're already done, relaxing with your tasty beverage.

Bring treats

This is more for bookselling events than reading events,and it may also sound silly, but it works for me. Whenever I have a table set up for selling books, I bring treats. Cookies, cupcakes, candy...doesn't matter. Having something free to offer at your table makes people stop and talk to you, giving you a chance to talk about your books, your stories, your poetry. And the more people stop by your space, the more people will likely fork over the money to purchase your wares. 

And finally, don't be ashamed to have a drink

I won't lie. Before I read my story out loud in a bar back in June, I had two glasses of wine with dinner. I also, mostly, forgot to eat, so that wine went straight to my head. I had to make Rob Hart drive my car to the event venue. I was by no means drunk, but I was definitely not completely sober. But guess what! That's okay! Sometimes you need to do something to take the edge off, at least a little bit. I mean, don't get up there smash-faced (they'll remember you for all the WRONG reasons if you do), but a drink or two can help you to relax and have a good time. 

Because you want to have a good time at events! If you're having a good time, the people around you will too! Be friendly. Smile. Laugh. Every public event is an opportunity to forge new relationships, make new friends, and introduce a whole bunch of people to your work. So even though the prospect of talking in front of a crowd may be terrifying, you should go ahead and do it anyway.

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore January 13, 2015 - 8:09am

The Dress and me. Woot!

I've done quite a few readings, and not one of them went drinkless beforehand. A couple of them, too many. I'll second going first if you can. Another tip is to read off a backlit device. Some events are held in very poor lighting, and you never really know until you get there. I use a teleprompter app for my iPad with a large font and the scrolling speed preset, which I just nudge a tick as needed (bring paper backup, of course). While your voice will sound better the higher-up you hold your reading material, people tend to take pictures at these things, so don't do it right in front of your face; hold it off to the side.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. July 30, 2014 - 4:33am

I love this picture of us. :D Thanks for adding your voice to the advice!!! You're, as always, the BEST!!!

nataliewilson67's picture
nataliewilson67 December 15, 2014 - 11:35pm

Very beautifully you have described the survival. Its a great honour that you have the opportunity in your pocket. I appreciate your talent. The tips are really interesting and I bet you everybody do have this type nervousness at first till you get used to. I loved reading your blog. Thanks for posting such innovative concept. Do post more. Reading loudly will really help you to overcome your fear. Corporate Event Ideas NYC