Matthew Dicks is the author of the novels Something Missing and most recently, Unexpectedly, Milo. He will be reading at Water Street this Saturday at 6pm. This is his third and final guest blog for us. Thanks Matt!
I thought I’d end this three-part series on book tours with some advice for readers who plan on attending an author’s appearances, as well as some advice for new authors preparing for their first book tour. But in the spirit of stories, one more story from my current tour.
Not all bookstores are alike. Some treat an author as a visiting dignitary, an emissary from the literary world. They meet and greet, they wine and dine, and provide introductions full of warm and loving adjectives. None of this is necessary, of course, nor is it even expected, but it’s nice when it happens.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was my recent appearance at a big box store. When I arrived at this particular store, I was greeted by a table about twenty feet from the doors, complete with a display of my books and a sign indicating that I would be “speaking and signing” at 2:00. It was 1:45.
After a five-minute search of the store, I eventually found a stock boy who used his walkie-talkie to contact the manager, who appeared five minutes later to greet me. She introduced herself, redirected me to the front of the store, and explained that she had set me up “right here.”
Right here was the same small table displaying my books that I had seen when I walked in. While there was a large space in the rear of the store for speaking engagements, the manager had inexplicably placed me in the shadow of the front doors, in the path of foot traffic.
While deciding how to handle this, I explained that I needed to use the restroom. When I returned a couple minutes later, the manager was gone and a group of a dozen readers had gathered around the table, waiting for me to speak. There were no seats for these people, nor was there any room for the seats either. I explained to my would-be audience that the manager would undoubtedly be back shortly and would arrange for some chairs or move our location entirely.
The manager never returned. At 2:00 a male voice came on the intercom to announce that I was in the store and would be speaking and signing in the front of the building.
The audience looked at me, I looked at the audience. And we all waited for about five more minutes, certain that the manager would return.
Finally, I gave up. At the behest of two impatient readers, we took charge. I turned the table around, moved two tables of books over, and commandeered a dozen chairs from the café. Audience members assisted in this reconfiguration, and by the time that we were done, we had carved out a suitable, though hardly ideal, space for the event.
Oddly enough, this worked out well. The forced teamwork and mutual disgust in the absence of assistance brought me and my audience together as one, all pulling on one chain to make this situation work, and I felt instantly accepted. I spoke for about thirty minutes and then answered questions for about forty-five minutes. And everyone bought a book.
The manager never returned. Not once. After the event was finished, people returned their chairs to the café and left. I saw the manager a couple times, hurrying this way and that, but she never approached me again.
I guess that once you use the restroom, you’re on your own.
Like I have said, you never know what to expect while on a book tour.
So in the spirit of preparing for the unexpected, allow me to offer some tips to readers and authors who might be attending or speaking at a book event soon.
First, for the readers:
1. Don’t be late. In fact, show up early and say hello. Authors are often asked to be 15-30 minutes early for an event, and there’s not much to do during that time. I’m always happy to chat with people prior to speaking, and it makes me feel good knowing that I have a new friend in the audience as I begin reading and telling stories.
2. Ask questions, and please don’t be afraid to ask questions unrelated to the book or even writing in general. As an author, I believe that anything and everything is fair game when it comes to the question-and-answer session, which is my favorite part of an author appearance. Want to know the name of my cat? Want to know what I routinely eat for breakfast? Want to know how my childhood plays a role in my fiction? All these questions are on the table, and a good speaker will be able to turn each of these questions into a story that will entertain the audience and provide a little more insight into the author as a person. Lately I’ve been giving away a prize for the oddest or most intriguing question asked, and I’ve gotten some whoppers!
3. Purchase a book, and if you’ve already bought a copy of the author’s book elsewhere, buy something else. Hosting an author event costs money, and more often than not, these events are free or the price of admission can be applied to a book. While authors are not generally paid for their appearance, bookstores incur marketing and promotional costs, expenses related to travel and lodging, and increased labor costs for the additional employee or employees who assist with the event. Make a purchase and support the store and its continued efforts to bring authors to your community. Hell, make three purchases. These are books that we’re talking about. If you’re attending an author event, you like to read.
And for authors who are just starting out:
1. Remain positive regardless of the circumstances. The story I opened with illustrates this point well. I stayed positive despite the bookstore’s failure to provide me with a suitable space (or even a few chairs), but a potential negative became a positive when the audience members and I joined forced to correct the problem. Whether you are speaking to an army of two hundred or a cluster of just four people, remember that everyone standing in front of you could be a reader for life, and they all deserve your best. And keep in mind that booksellers want to provide authors with large audiences, but sometimes it’s simply not possible. They do their best, so you must do yours, regardless of the circumstances.
2. Make an effort to bring people into the store by promoting the event as well. Use Twitter, Facebook, your website, an email blast or anything else to let potential readers know where you will be speaking. If you want an audience, do your part to ensure that one will be there to listen to you.
3. Bring a trusted friend to your first few appearances, and ask for honest feedback following the appearance. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate your own speaking performance, so having an observer who you trust is extremely beneficial, especially early on in your career.
4. Tell stories. As an author, I assume that you are a good storyteller, so use every opportunity available to you to tell a story. If I was asked about the name of my cat, I’d be sure to include the story about the time I accidentally started the dryer with him inside. If I was asked about what I routinely eat for breakfast, I’d be certain to tell an amusing story about my days of managing McDonald’s restaurants in addition to explaining that my breakfast of choice is an Egg McMuffin. Speak in stories whenever possible, and constantly seek ways of using audience members’ questions as an avenue into a story or personal anecdote.
5. Don’t spend too much time reading from your book. As one who frequently attends author appearances, I can assure you that most audience members are there to hear you talk about yourself and your book. Listening to you read a short, well chosen section of the text is great, but authors who spend even a third of their allotted time reading from their books are surely losing the attention of many audience members. Talk about the process by which you wrote the book. Talk about why you became an author in the first place. Talk about your most recent spat with your wife (provided that she is not in the audience as well). An author appearance is an opportunity for the reader to get to know you. If they like you, they will purchase your book and get to know your story on their own.
6. Tell more stories. I cannot emphasize this enough.
7. Don’t read your comments from a card or a sheet of paper. Speak naturally, make eye contact and smile. Relax. Take a public speaking class if necessary. No one wants to listen to you read a book report.
8. Self-deprecation is an undersold commodity in today’s world. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself and let your audience know how stupid you can be. Nothing is more endearing and amusing than a speaker who is willing to be honest and sincere. You wrote a book, so everyone already knows that you are reasonably intelligent. Do not spend your time trying to prove how smart you are. Instead, make every effort to be yourself.
Unless, of course, you are a jackass. Then pretend that you are someone else.
Good luck, and I hope to see many of you on Saturday, August 21 at 6:00!