Unlike all those times you go to concerts, baseball games or monster truck rallies, when you go to a reading at a bookstore you have to...
Unlike all those times you go to concerts, baseball games or monster truck rallies, when you go to a reading at a bookstore you have to be on your best behavior.
I’m not saying this just to audience members (who are usually saints among saints), but also to the authors themselves. I work at Powell’s Books in Portland and have been organizing and hosting events for almost nine years, and I’ve seen my share of terribleness on both sides of the microphone. Here’s some tips on what NOT to do at literary events.
Don’t bring weird gifts. A few years back, a fan gave David Sedaris a hideous sculpture of a naked person. How he was going to take this on an airplane was probably not considered. After the reading, Mr. Sedaris kindly asked me to dispose of the statue and some of the other “gifts” he had received, including home-baked foods (suspicious), vanity press books (sad) and a T-shirt (I’ve noticed that people who give authors T-shirts are usually affiliated with some kooky political group).
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When we hosted Jane Fonda last year, one man gave her snapshots of himself standing next to her, posed with a shy but excited grin. (In the photo, Fonda doesn’t seem to know he’s there, she’s looking off in a totally different direction). Those photos were left behind, along with a postcard from someone who wrote, “I apologize for my offensive behavior. Please forgive me.”
Don’t be a prima donna. One popular and prolific children’s book author gave our event hosts a lashing after finding out that we were selling some of his books used (uh, we are a new AND used bookstore). The next day we told his publicist we didn’t want him back.
Authors should remember that booksellers are the ones selling their books (and we can return them if we feel like it). One spiritual author of international repute has treated our staff like his personal servants on more than one occasion. As a result, you’ll never see an employee recommend his books. The lesson here is: Don’t be a jerk.
Don’t be easily offended. At Eric Bogosian’s hilarious reading last year, he started off by describing his morning TV appearance that day. He made a snarky comment about some older ladies in the studio audience. As he was about to read from his book, a woman in the front row got up and stormed out, leaving a note at the podium.
Bogosian grabbed the note and inquired to the lady about it. She shouted something back to him about how he shouldn’t make fun of old ladies. Bogosian read the note to the audience, who laughed uncomfortably.
Don’t smoke at your reading. For one thing, it’s probably against the law in 48 states, and for another, it stinks up the books. Legs McNeil — I’m looking at you, pal.
Don’t draw undue attention to yourself: People came to see the author talk about his/her book, not to watch you brush your long, stinky hair. And please don’t break out your lunchbox and root around for that bag of chips.
One of the worst attention-getters recently was an older gentleman who wore short shorts and sat in the front row, directly in front of the female author. You’re not at the doctor’s office.
Don’t go on forever. This is one the most common mistakes of the author and probably one of the reasons why more people don’t go to literary events. Listening to someone read for longer than 15 minutes can be like watching C-SPAN. There are only a handful of folks who are capable of entertaining an audience for that long.
Sometimes it’s best to get the Q&A going before folks start dozing. Be mindful of when the store is closing. When it gets to the book signing part, don’t gab to every fan for five minutes.
Phrase your question into a question. Some audience questions sound more like philosophical rants with a question mark tacked on somewhere (often in the middle). Think before you speak is the general rule here.
While on the topic of questions, please know that bookstore employees will laugh audibly if you ask about the writer’s preference between pen and pencil or Mac and PC.
One guy who comes to many of the readings I host has been dubbed “The Green Hat Guy.” He usually lingers around until the end and then wanders up when the author is about to leave. With his hat pulled down to his eyelids, he’ll whisper some question that sometimes seems oddly confrontational. Although he is mostly harmless, his behavior has been weird enough to earn him a nickname.
Don’t show up drunk. We had the pleasure of having two authors who were reading together both show up drunk one night. Apparently they had been fighting for the whole tour and a gasket finally blew. The tension was apparent.
Don’t show up drunk. Yeah, it goes both ways. We don’t want the stench of burped beer on our books and we don’t want to clean up your puke when Chuck Palahniuk gets to that gross part in a story.