How to Give a Successful Poetry Reading (and Sell Books)

poetry-readingNinety-five percent of all books of poetry are sold at poetry readings, and that is where you will sell most of yours. For a poet, self-published or otherwise, readings are not only desirable, they are essential. Readings are — or should be — full-scale, carefully planned performances at which you and your work are the stars. Unfortunately, these powerful marketing events are often poorly planned or not planned at all, and that is a great waste.

At a reading, you have everything going for you. The audience is always friendly and well-disposed toward you. They have, after all, chosen to come to this place to meet you and listen to you read your own work. Some are writers themselves, some are lovers of writing, and some are friends who have come along to show their support for you. All are positive listeners. They are here because they want to talk books, hear about books, meet at least one successful poet (you), and exchange ideas about the craft of writing.

Your audience deserves a good show and you, as author of the work being read, certainly deserve one. More than that, you need it. But unless you take charge and make it happen, neither you nor your audience is likely to enjoy the occasion. For the sad fact is that readings can be deadly dull. This is quite a paradox. A writer uses language to achieve the most intense communication possible, and yet most readings are all too often devoid of any life at all, let alone passion.

The challenge is to make your own readings something different, something above and beyond the ordinary. Think of a favorite play. When inexperienced people sit around in a circle and read the text in low‑key voices, the sparks do not fly, the tinder does not catch, and the fire does not begin to burn. But let experienced actors utter those same words in the context of a production and the heart begins to race. Something important is happening, and the spectators are caught up in it.

You need to convert your readings, insofar as you can, into a performance that will catch your listeners up in the same way. Your writing is art. But your reading of it is — must be — showbiz.

The psychologists talk about “mindset.” They use these words to refer to the mental and emotional expectation in individuals and groups that predisposes them to react to what they see and hear in a particular way. This is one of the great secrets of show business. A typical rock music concert provides a wonderful example. What is the reality of it? Rather unattractive young performers stalk about the stage with unpleasant expressions on their faces, shouting bad lyrics to worse music. The music itself is performed by musicians of more energy than talent. Yet thousands of spectators stand, cheer, and generally carry on as though in utter ecstasy of artistic enjoyment. They are experiencing what they expect to experience.

If you want your audience to listen to you and to react enthusiastically to your verse (and buy your book), you’ve got to work to create an environment that encourages them to do so.

Most people don’t know what to do at, say, a poetry reading-including the poet. At a basketball game, when a player makes an unbelievably deft move and scores a key basket, you stand up and cheer. But when a poet turns out a near perfect line or passes through one of those “sudden rightnesses” that great poetry is made of, what’s to do? Shout “Yeah!” as they do at jazz concerts? Exactly. That is precisely the kind of reaction one should encourage. Yet the atmosphere of most readings is more like that of afternoon tea at the Ladies’ Missionary Society. Any show of real emotion seems out of place. The atmosphere is not one of freedom but of inhibition.

You’ve got to change all that. It may be a tall order, but you can do it. As you do more and more readings-of your own poetry and perhaps even the poetry of others-you will get better and better at it and have more and more fun. Those who come will truly enjoy themselves, and will foster a reputation and positive public visibility for you that will be an asset for years to come. When you watch a live show on television-a comedy show like the Tonight Show or even a quiz show-the host always walks out to thunderous applause as the show begins. How, you may ask, could a cold audience reach such a pitch of enthusiasm in so short a time? The answer is that the audience is not cold at all. For an hour or more it has been warmed up, carefully primed for the moment you have just witnessed.

How can you warm your audience up? Here are some random ideas that will illustrate the kind of thing that I am talking about. These fit my personality. Others will occur to you that fit yours.

  • Kick things off in a light vein, establishing a tone of fun and relaxed interplay for the evening. You might try something like a humorous introduction to the kinds of silence that universally befall writers at their readings. Then you may suggest what you think can be done about it and lead the audience in practicing boos and cheers and in using their noisemakers.
  • Read surefire zingers from other writers-parts of Whitman’s Song of Myself, for instance. Such poetry can be fairly shouted out at an audience and ought to be greeted with shouts of approval and choruses of “Right-on’s.” Lead the cheers yourself. Also include some dismal stuff that you can all hiss and boo and generally carry on
  • Ask questions of your audience. Point at them. Jump up and down and yell at them if necessary, but get them involved.
  • Develop your own patter.

A stand-up performer continually talks to the audience, whetting its appetite, building its interest, heightening its reaction to the next part of the act. When I was a boy I loved to go down to the “stage shows” that they used to put on at the old Bijou theatre in downtown Savannah. My favorites were the performances of the sleight-of-hand magicians. These old-time troupers would stand alone on the stage, perhaps with the help of a single assistant, sometimes with no help at all. They would surround the act of magic with constant talk. They would tell in all seriousness how they discovered the next marvel in the mysterious east. They would make us keenly aware of the difficulties of accomplishing a particularly complicated feat, so that we appreciated it all the more when it actually happened. They would entertain and amuse us with anecdotes and stories as the evening wore on. A writer is a magician, too-a magician of words-and effective patter is just as necessary to his own act as to any other. What kind of patter? You will discover bits and pieces of it as you gain experience. For instance:

  • Introduce each reading fully.
  • Tell stories that let the audience see you as a human being struggling to find expression for a feeling, emotion, idea, or experience that is particularly important to you.
  • Tell them about the problems you encountered and how you solved them.
  • You may find it useful to provide copies of any difficult pieces you are going to read or of any that you are going to use as examples in your talk.
  • Understand that when you skip this patter and proceed to read your material without the necessary introduction the reading is over before the audience has even begun to focus its attention on the piece you are reading. You lose the audience before you begin. The reading of a lyric poem or a paragraph or two of prose is a little like the Kentucky Derby. The race itself is over in a matter of minutes. It’s the preliminaries that make the Derby the event that it is.
  • Sprinkle your presentation with talk of other poets that you know and their own challenges and triumphs.
  • Tell humorous-or otherwise-stories of how you got started and how you first got published.

The more personal and direct your patter, the more warmly involved your listeners become and the more effective your reading will be.

As you do more and more readings, your patter will become more and more effective. Try new things, keep the ones that work best and discard the others.

Everything I say in this entry, all the techniques I recommend, will work. I know this because I have used them all. Most important, however, is the principal of the thing: a literary reading must be treated as a performance.

Whatever you do, your fame and name will spread, and, if you work persistently to schedule readings and then do them with drama and flair, you will begin a gratifying career of writing, publishing and selling your books. And-wonder of wonders-you may even begin to make money. The fact that you treat your readings as performances will put you in a class apart. During the reading, you will have created a spirited and pleased group of new friends. When the performance is over, many of them will gather around the “back of the room” table where you have spread out your books to continue the fun and stretch the evening as much as possible.

Now it’s time to sell some books.

Thomas A. Williams, PhD, is the author of The Self-Publishers Bible, from which this article is an excerpt. More at his websites http://www.publishingentrepreneur.com (see free downloads) and http://www.PubMart.com. Tom Williams is one of the country’s leading authorities on the publishing, self-publishing, and marketing of books. In addition to his work as writing and editing mentor, he is expert in book design and typography. Dr. Williams is available to give seminars and workshops to writer’s clubs and at book festivals. He can be reached at (912) 352-0404 (he answers his own phone!) or by email at bookpub@comcast.net.

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