Columns > Published on April 11th, 2016

What An Author Reading Is And Why You Should Go To One

Last week I went to an author reading with my partner, PoonMasterFlex. That's her chosen nickname, by the way. For the sake of this column, I'll just call her "Flex." It's shorter, less fratty, and I live in fear of the kinds of Google searches this column might pop up under if the term "PoonMasterFlex" is overused.

Flex and I were walking to the reading, and when we were about halfway there, she said, "So...what's going to happen? How does this work?"

And that's when I realized, Oh yeah, going to readings isn't something that everyone does for fun and leisure. 

But it's something everyone totally should do for fun and leisure.

I also realized that going to a thing for the first time can be a little harrowing. You don't know what to expect, you don't know how to behave. This isn't a problem for me personally because I know how to behave in any uncomfortable situation: drunk. However, I understand this doesn't work for everyone, especially uptight people who care about their health, safety, and the opinions of others ("Who was that drunk guy and why did he keep calling his girlfriend "Poon Master Flex?").

That's why we're putting out this author reading FAQ. Consider this your guide to the Why's and How's of an author reading. By the time you finish this, you'll know exactly what to expect.

If you've never been to an author reading before, you're in the right place. Sort of. The REAL right place is at an author reading, but this column is a good first step.

If you've been to many author readings, take heart. You'll still learn something.

Q. How should I prepare myself?

A. Good news, you do not have to prep for an author reading. At all. It's good if you go see an author you like, but hell, you can see an author you love and have a boring time, and you can see an author you hate and have a great time. It kinda depends on the author's personality.

But it's not a class. You don't have to read the author's entire oeuvre before you go. You don't have to read anything, frankly. There's no quiz. There's no priority seating for people who can answer author trivia or something. 

Q. How Should I Dress?

A. I asked this question recently during a first trip to a musical theater production. The answer I got was a snarky "Nobody's going to be looking at you", but that didn't answer the real question. What should I wear so I look like someone who has done this before? What allows me to blend in? Will I be embarrassed when I wear my "Sleeves Are Bullshit" tank top because I stand out, or because three other dudes are wearing the same thing?

Casual dress is totally fine for a reading. It's kinda like going to the art museum. If you don't like to go to the art museum, if you choose to bore yourself more like the common man as opposed to boring yourself like an academic, wear what you would wear to sit-down dinner at a very average place. You can't go wrong with jeans and a shirt that is free of logos and slogans.

Q. What time should I arrive?

A. If the reading starts at 7 PM, plan to be there at 6:45. Once the reading begins, it'll be fairly quiet in the room, one person speaking, so it's really noticeable when you walk in late. Also, chances are any introductions will be brief, so it's not like a movie where there will be previews and you can scoot by with a huge bucket of popcorn.

Q. Wait, there's huge buckets of popcorn?

A. Sadly, no. However, I've sent Random House SEVERAL letters on this topic, and I'll let you know about any progress we make. #FreeTheKernels

Go to a live event, buy something, and bring two friends. You're supporting the arts WAY more than some jerk who gets an Arthur tote bag by donating to PBS.

Q. What Do I Do When I Get There?

A. You'll probably be faced with a bunch of chairs. Very likely empty chairs because the written word is dead. My advice is to pick something in the second or third row, if possible. This is the voice of experience talking. The reason you want to go front-ish is because if very few people show up, an agent or bookstore employee is likely to try and move the group to the front of the room, and if you're already kinda at the front, you're spared sitting up at the REAL front.

Q. Wait. There's a chance that not very many people will be there?

A. There's a chance. But, I'll say that the authors I've seen have never commented on a crowd being too small in anything but a joke-y manner. Authors are smart, and they know that YOU came to see them, so what would be the good in berating you? More than bands or other performers, authors seem pretty pumped to have people in the room, and you're still gonna get a great show.

Q. Okay. I'm In My Seat, Everything's Cool, Now What?

A. Everything is NOT cool. Turn off your phone. I mean off, off. Not vibrate. Off. You don't need notifications. You're not a doctor. Or, maybe you ARE a doctor, but in that case you should ignore the above fashion advice and wear your lab coat and a stethoscope around your neck. That way, if you have to answer the phone, everyone will be like, "Well, he's clearly a doctor or very crazy, so either way, best that he answers the phone call from the hospital or message from a demon that somehow lives in his phone, whatever the case may be."

Q. Okay, okay. Geez. My phone's off. Now what happens?

A. Typically, someone will come up and introduce the author. Then the author will take the podium and read to you. Oftentimes an author will read something from the book they are currently promoting or another piece that may or may not be published. Many authors will also read multiple pieces, especially if the author is a poet. The reading portion typically lasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 minutes.

Q. Whoa, poetry? Nobody mentioned poetry. Are there any special rules with poetry? Do I snap my fingers?

A. You can. The big thing with poetry, normal etiquette is to not clap or whatever between each poem. Because the poems are likely to be so short, you'd spend half the time clapping and waiting for the clapping to stop. However, if something really moves you, it's okay to clap. It's not strictly verboten to clap, but it's also not required between each poem. 

Q. So...the authors just reads? Out loud? What if I get bored?

A. This can happen. This can totally happen. Hey, sometimes a great writer isn't the most engaging person to be in a room with. But whatever you do, don't leave. Walking out on a speaking author is tough. The author is going to see it, and there's a good chance the author has friends and family in the room.

I recommend playing the New Best Friend Game. This is a game I've invented whenever I attend sporting events, which happens every so often and always results in boredom. The game goes like this:

You look around the room, and based on looks alone, pick your new best friend. The person you'll have to hang out with every Saturday for the next year. Choose carefully, and make sure you've got good reasons worked out. Do you want your best friend to be handsomer than you? Do you want to hang out with that lady because she has a good-sized handbag that'd be handy when you steal silverware? 

By the time you've imagined you and your new best friend running out of a restaurant with a handbag full of those seafood forks that look like tridents, the reading will be over.

Q. The author reads, they finish up...then what? We just silently stand and shuffle out?

Readings are almost always free. It's a great cheap date that doesn't make you look cheap.

A. After the reading portion, there's usually a Q&A. This almost always goes very slowly at first, and then picks up speed as more people get brave and ask questions, or as the author's responses prompt more questions. This is often the best part of the night. Especially because it's almost guaranteed that some weirdo will ask a weird question or make a weird statement. For example, the time I saw Chuck Klosterman read and an audience member claimed that Lewis and Clark were the first people to discover bears. Have you ever seen someone be confronted with a crazy statement and have to deal with it nicely in front of a group of strangers? THIS is high drama, folks.

Q. Can I ask a question during the Q&A?

A. Certainly! However, I will caution against asking one of these questions. You'll out yourself as a noob.

1) What are your influences? (Just Google it or ask, "What have you read lately and really liked?" instead.)

2) What advice do you have for a starting writer? (99% of the time, some form of "actually write stuff.")

3) Did you know that Lewis and Clark were the first people to discover bears? (Not really a question, also outs you as a weirdo.)

Q. Now the official part is over. Can I get an autograph?

A. Totally. Unless the author pre-signed, you can totally get the autograph, plus a little face time with the author.

When it's signing time, a line will form, you'll wait in the line, and then the author will say hello, personalize the book to you, and you'll have about 5-10 seconds to chat with the author. My advice is to think about something you might want to say ahead of time. You'd be surprised how much pressure you'll feel when you're standing in front of an author.

Q. If the reading is at a bookstore, do I have to buy a book to get it signed?

A. You are, almost all the time, welcome to bring books from home, however the bookstore really appreciates it if you buy one from them. The more books the author moves, the better the chances the bookstore will host that author again. I will say, however, most authors get very excited to sign worn books that have clearly been loved.

Q. Can I take pictures!?

A. This totally depends on the author, but most are down for it. Just ask politely, "Would it be alright if I took a picture with you?" Also, try and have your camera 100% ready to rock before its your turn. That speeds it up for everyone waiting behind you.

Q. I got my reading, I got my autograph, now what?

A. Well, this depends a lot on the size of the reading. At smaller readings, you'll often find that the author and a small group of folks will head to a bar or some other spot to hang out for a while afterward. At big, gigantic readings, you go home and think about what a great time you had. Either way, I recommend booze. 

Q. Alright, I know HOW to behave, but WHY should I bother?

A. Going to readings is a great way to support authors. Think about the music industry. The way you support bands you love in is to go to live shows and buy a t-shirt. That's how they make money these days. You can do the same thing for an author. Go to a live event, buy something, and bring two friends. You're supporting the arts WAY more than some jerk who gets an Arthur tote bag by donating to PBS.

Q. Supporting the arts? No, no, hippie. What's in it for me?

A. Readings are almost always free. It's a great cheap date that doesn't make you look cheap, and it's a win-win date because it'll either be great and you'll have a good time together, or it'll be a train wreck and you can talk about it after. Once in a while you'll have to buy a ticket for someone like a Stephen King, but even those events are generally around $30, and with that price you get a copy of his new book.

Q. Alright, I'm sold. What are some good starter readings?

A. Multi-author readings are great. If someone stinks, you don't have to wait very long to hear someone else. Things keep moving, and chances are you'll find a new author you like and/or make a new friend.

Readings in bars are another good start. Generally, bar readings are a little more beginner-friendly. Because, well, they're in a bar. Readers who work in bars expect to have to compete for attention a bit. And you can have a drink out in the open instead of hiding bourbon in a Mountain Dew can. Check out a Noir at the Bar near you!

If you're of the easily-bored variety, of course, a Chuck Palahniuk reading is not to be missed. Way more excitement and movement than most.

Q. How Do I Find A Reading?

A. Check your closest bookstores and colleges. Those spots are likely to have visiting authors. Oh, and your local library is your ticket to authorstravaganza!

If those options don't apply, ask a bookworm friend. They'll know.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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