How to Not Bomb at a Reading

by Douglas Light

The reading was at a Laundromat. It was myself and a twenty-five-year-old woman who felt she’d experienced enough life for five memoirs. The place was packed, 60 or so people. Unfortunately, most of the crowd was there to do their laundry, and not for the reading.

My first novel East Fifth Bliss had just come out--or rather, it hadn’t come out. You see, two week prior to its scheduled launch, the publisher informed me that the release was pushed back six months. So I had no book to promote at the reading. What I did have was a bunch of whirling washers and clattering driers to compete with, and a crackly microphone that kept cutting out.

But I soldiered on, reading a lyrical, sweet passage from my novel that no one could buy yet.

Gauging the audience as I read, I noted their interest fast fading. Too many distractions. The passage I’d picked was wrong for the crowd, wrong for the evening. I started losing my confidence and rushed the piece. I mangled lines and words, lost my place. Standing before a crowd and failing was miserable. But the worst came just as I was coming to the climactic passage. From the back of the Laundromat, an obese woman with a basket full of wet underwear yelled, “Don’t you people have anything better to do?”

Sadly, I did. I had a ton of better things to do than bomb at a reading.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve given numerous readings across America to promote my novel and my story collection Girls in Trouble. Many of the reading were good--others not so good. But I’ve learned a great deal on the elements of preparing for, and having, a successful reading. There are three steps that I’ve found invaluable. They are:
  1. Set goals for the reading.
  2. Gauge the audience.
  3. Fulfill your contract.
Setting goals. It might sound odd: What are the goals of your reading? But from my experience, if you want to come away feeling “That was a successful reading!” then you need to establish goals and expectations. And you need to be realistic.

Set too high a goal and you’ll come away dejected. Unrealistic expectations always end in disappointment.

Having no goals at all can be just as bad.

This was the case for me when I did a reading at a literary festival in New Jersey to a crowd of over four hundred. I read well, got compliments, and even sold some books, but I came away feeling disappointed. I can’t tell you what I expected--and that was the problem. I hadn’t set expectations, or my expectations were vague, something like, “Oh, I want this to be a brilliant reading!” What does brilliant mean? How do you measure that?  I had set no tangible benchmark so I had nothing to measure brilliant against.

Now on the other hand, I set up a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Vestal, New York, which by strict numbers was a total waste of my time. The store hadn’t advertised the event, and all my notices, invites, and PR produced zero results. The manager in charge of the reading quit a week before my reading. The woman who’d taken over for her blustered as best she could, but she honestly knew nothing about my event. So come starting time, there was only one chair filled--and that was my wife. I ended up walking around the store, even went out into the parking lot, and invited people to the reading. I got five. But that reading ended up being one of my better ones. I connected with those five people, had a great reading, and then sat with them afterward and discussed my novel. Each bought a novel. One woman bought one as a birthday gift for her sister.

So what are some of the things you need to keep in mind when establishing your goals? One, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing the reading. Be honest. Is it to sell books, to get your name out, to impress a boyfriend or girlfriend? Understand that and then you can set realistic expectations. 

If you’re reading to promote a book, how many copies do you want to sell? 100 sounds great, but five to ten is probably more realistic. Got some new work that you want a big publisher or powerful agent to hear and say, “I’ve got to have her book”?  Great. But to make it a reality is something else altogether; first off, you’ve got to get that publisher or agent to attend your reading.

By establishing and understanding goals, you can manage your expectations, which leads to a more positive event.

So you’ve established your goal. Now you need to decide which story or poem or excerpt you’re going to read. But deciding what to read is like having a dinner party--it’s a good thing to know who’ll be sitting at the table, and, if possible, what their preferences are.  Nothing’s more awkward then serving steak to a crowd of vegans.

So you have to gauge the audience before you read.

I’m always impressed with how my friend Clay McLeod Chapman, author of Rest Area and Miss Corpus,approaches a reading. When he and I did an event together at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City, I asked what he planned on reading. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I have to see what the crowd is like.” He had three different pieces prepared, each different in tone, length, feeling, and pacing. If the crowd turned out to be a bit cagey from the free wine being served, he’d fire off a spicy piece. If the crowd proved thoughtful and attentive, he’d read a piece that fit the mood.

Know the crowd, understand the mood--it seems like common sense, but it’s something we often don’t consider. We read what we want the audience to hear.

But if you read a piece that’s not suited to the audience or the evening, then you can come away feeling the event was a failure. So if you’re scheduled to read in a bar known for its punk music and two-for-one tequila shots, then know that people’s attention span will probably be short. If you’re reading at a library, then the crowd will most likely be attentive and thoughtful. If you’re one of two people reading, then you’ll have a bit more time to read. One of twelve readers, a shorter piece is probably better.

Also, get a good feel for the venue you’re reading at, the size of the space, the sound system (if there is one), and the lighting (can you even see the page you’re reading from?). And keep in mind that your performance begins not with your first word, but the moment you get up from you chair to make your way to the stage.

Which brings me to the final point: Fulfilling your contract. What does that mean, fulfilling your contract? Someone asks you to read a story or poem on Friday night at the local coffee shop. There’s no contract, right?

But there is a contract, even if it isn’t written out. It’s a contract with the audience, and it’s the same contract you enter when a reader picks up a story or poem or novel of yours to read. The contract states: “In exchange for your time and attention, I’m going to entertain and enlighten you.” It’s that simple. You entertain, you enlighten. But once you stop entertaining or enlightening, once you lose the audience’s attention, bore them, read too long, or mumble too much, then you’ve broken the contract. It’s null and void.

So how do you ensure that you uphold your end of the deal? For one, put on a good reading. That means practice and practice and practice before getting up. Also, know the difference between the printed word and the spoken word. Not all things on page sound good being read aloud. And recognize that, as humans, our attention span is very short. Don’t read more than the time allotted you. If you’re given ten minutes, read for eight. Given eight minutes, read for five. Less is more.

And finally, be fearless. Never be afraid to bomb, because it is going to happen, no matter how good you are. Learn from the experience, so then when you establish goals, gauge the audience, and fulfill your contract for the next reading, you’ll pave the way toward a successful and satisfying experience.