Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Literary readings: Do you have to do them?

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Picking up from where I left off about book launches, today I’m talking about whether writers really need to read from their work to promote it.

Books are sometimes (often?) tricky things to sell. There is major competition out there and figuring out how to stand out, how to get someone to walk into a bookstore and say, “I want to buy THAT author’s book” is a big question.

Doing readings is a big part of book promotion and a lot of publishers ask their writers to make appearances at literary nights and, if you’re lucky, festivals and other events.

But doing public readings isn’t everyone’s comfort zone. There was a time when I used to really encourage other writers to push into this territory regardless: “Make yourself do it. Practice your readings. Think of it as a performance. Do it for the audience.”

And in some ways, I think that’s still valid advice for some writers.

But I don’t think it applies to everyone.

I started doing open mics when I was 17. I did them because I wanted to. I wanted to go to poetry readings and hear other people’s work. I wanted to share my own. I wanted that sense of community that can come through writing and actively sought it out.

And for years I kept at it. I’ve even fronted two bands since then that, instead of singing, did spoken word.

It’s still a dream of mine to make a spoken word record. (Note to self: Get on that, already!)

But I did it all because I wanted to. I wanted to present my poetry in front of an audience, not just on paper. I wanted to perform and I wanted to experiment. I felt inspired by the possibilities of what poetry could do in front of an audience.

I’ve seen some amazing readings and performances from other writers. I’ve bought their books. There are readings I still think about years after seeing them because they left such an impression.

And then there are the authors I’ve met who were very open about their hesitations about doing readings: “I’m not good in front of people.” “I’m not comfortable.” “I would rather people read my work than hear it.”

And so here is something that writers have struggled with for years: How do you translate something that is meant to be experienced on the page into something that an audience is going to listen to?

How do you do your book justice when you are worried about stammering over a sentence, or adjusting a mic that you can’t seem to get in the right place, or when you can’t keep your hands or your voice from quivering once you get up in front of people?

Do you have to do readings? Is this really the only way to get a book out there?

I say no.

Promotion has to feel right to you. Yes, you should want to get your work out there, but if you’re not presenting it in a way that makes you feel proud or excited, or that affirms your efforts in any way, then it’s probably not serving you to go down that route.

You also have to think about what it means to you do a reading. Often, the community of people who goes to literary nights is small though devoted. Are they the audience for your book? Maybe, and maybe not.

It definitely doesn’t hurt to go to some readings as an audience member and get to know what’s out there and what’s happening, but it also doesn’t hurt to ask yourself whether it’s a place where you see your own work being nourished.

You also need to be realistic about what readings will do for you, and how active of a participant you want to be once you start getting out there. The world is a big place. You could do a reading in Toronto and sell nothing. Or you could sell 10 copies of your book, which would be a great night.

That’s how readings go. You might not sell a thing. You might meet some great people, though, and hear some great work and be part of a wonderful event all around. But it’s not always going to lead to sales. I have travelled some long distances sometimes (I'm looking at you, New York City) without selling a single book.

And if you think about how big the world is, well, think about how many readings it would take to get your book out there, copy by copy, night by night, especially if you think about how small literary circles can be from city to city.

Not such a feasible plan, unless you already have an audience that’s clamouring to hear you wherever you go.

And if you’re not feeling like you’re into what you’re doing, if reading from your book isn’t fun or isn’t inspiring to you and you just don’t want to be there, then don’t push at it.

If you’re not connecting with the audience, don’t force it to happen. You can build community simply by being an audience member at other people’s readings, or by finding other opportunities where you can support and meet other writers and readers.

Sure, you can make your publisher happy and give reading in public a try at least. That way you can make an informed opinion about whether you like or it not. If you have fun that can be enough.

But if you hate it, you can also come up with other ways to promote your work that feel truer to you.

And it will make your publisher happy, too, to know that even if you're not into doing some readings, you are willing to push the book in other ways. It's in everyone's best interest to use the right ways to promote something rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach.

That might be doing some guest blogs, or a signing at a bookstore. Or, if you do like the idea of doing readings but aren’t into public speaking, you could try making some of your own YouTube videos.

My friend and author Jason E. Hodges does his own spoken word videos in a very simple but effective way, and he makes them all at home on his computer.

So if you want to say no to readings – if it’s not fun and it’s not right for you – consider this the permission slip you’ve been waiting for.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth

Liz Worth is a Toronto-based author. Her first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, was the first to give an in-depth account of Toronto’s early punk scene. She has also released a poetry collection called Amphetamine Heart and a novel called PostApoc. You can reach her at, on Facebook or Twitter.

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Go to Liz Worth’s Author Page