Monday, 24 April 2017

How to Give a Reading: The Bashful Writer’s Guide

By Melodie Campbell

It’s a fact: when I read from my work in public, I sell books.  When I don’t read, I don’t sell.  This may seem obvious.  If you are not on the New York Times bestseller’s list, then many of the people in the library, bookstore or conference audience might be hearing about you for the first time.  If you give them a taste of the story and your style, they will be more apt to buy your book, rather than if you just drone on and on about your author life and why you wrote the darn thing in the first place.

 “But I hate reading in public.  I’m a writer, dammit!  Not a performing seal.”


Yes, it’s a cruel world.  Writing is a solitary process.  To write a book, you need to sit alone at a computer for several hundred hours.  This is not the natural environment for an extrovert.

So we cheerfully accept that many writers would label themselves introverts.  And now I am telling you to get out there and flaunt your stuff on stage! 

Fact is, I am not as young as my author photo would suggest.  (I love that photo.  I looked like that for approximately 10 minutes back in 2015.)  Point being, I’ve been writing since the 1990s.  In those days, I could hide behind a computer screen.  I was writing comedy at the time.  All I had to do was ship my work off to my agent, who would sell it and forward me lovely cheques.  The odd time (very rare) I had to show up in person at an event to pick up an award.  That was the entire extent of my public appearances.


In the past 12 months, I have made 26 in-person appearances at libraries, bookstores and conferences.  I have been on national live radio, and at least a dozen international blogs.  My publishers expect this.
In 2017, we are two people:  the Writer and the Author.  The Writer creates the product.  The Author is the personality who helps to promote it.  Yes, even if you are with a traditional publisher, you will be expected to put your Author side forward.


Recently, I appeared with other Crime Writers of Canada authors at the Ontario Library Conference.  We were given two minutes to pitch our latest book to an audience of library purchasing managers.  (First point: Two Minutes.  That’s not a lot of time to introduce your book and give a flavour of it.   

We were timed.  ALWAYS time yourself before you go to events, and aim to be shorter than the time allowed.  I use the timer on my stove and read out loud, just like I would at the event.  Don’t risk being cut off before the end of your reading.)

Here’s what I read, for The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter.  What I read is in italics.  I’ve put my comments in brackets.  Remember to print out your two minute presentation.  Don’t read from the book itself. Turning pages is awkward. Shuffling between your book and paper intro is awkward. Put the whole thing together as one document, and use a large, easy to read font size.  I use Times Roman 16.


“Even old mobsters retire eventually…don’t they?”

(My opening line is a hook that says something about the book and hopefully intrigues the audience.)
The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is book 5 in the award-winning Goddaughter series that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine calls ‘Hilarious!’

(I’ve quickly placed the book in the series and slipped in that endorsement from Ellery Queen.)

Gina Gallo is a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one.  Her bumbling mob family never gets it right.  This time, she’s getting ready for her Christmas wedding.  But then she’s robbed, cousin Jimmy has a heart attack, and someone in The Hammer has hijacked a truck full of booze.  What’s going on?  Gina knows bootlegging used to be a family business, but they stopped that in the 30s.  Didn’t they? …Here’s an excerpt:

(The first sentence of the blurb introduces the protagonist.  The second sentence gives backstory, as this is a series book.  The rest of the paragraph sounds like the back cover blurb, only shorter.  We want to give enough so the audience can get a fix on what the book will be about.  But we don’t have much time, so every sentence is chosen carefully.  Note as well that the way the blurb is written reflects the way the book is written.  It’s quick and fun…almost campy.  If my book was one with gravitas, I wouldn’t have written the blurb this way.)


In my writing classes, we say: don’t waste your opening on something that doesn’t draw the reader into your story. It’s the same when doing a reading in public.  I find it best to read a short section with dialogue and action.  Include your protagonist.  You want to give the audience a clear picture of the sort of thing they will get to read when they buy your book.  If it’s a comedy, read something fun.  If it’s a thriller…you get the picture.  Here’s the excerpt I chose for this event:

Man, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was get home, have a quick supper and take a long bath. That wasn’t asking too much, was it?
The gods hate me.
“Well, well. Look who’s here,” said a familiar voice.
Crap. It was Spence. The creepy guy who once had a crush on me in high school. Now a cop in The Hammer and my personal nemesis. Could this week get any worse?
“Gina Gallo, the girl with the longest confession. Who just happened to be involved in a gunfight in Hagersville. What a coincidence.”
Gulp. “What are you doing here, Spence?”
“Following up on that gunfight. You were seen. I figured you’d turn up here eventually,” he said.
“What gunfight? Don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t the wild west.” I forced a smile. “Besides, I don’t even own a gun.”
“Then what about these bullet holes here in your fender?”
“What?” I hoofed it around to where he was standing. Holy crap. There were three holes in the back passenger-side fender
 “Freakin’ hell!” I said, throwing my arms in the air. “They shot up my car!” Now I was mad.

(This excerpt is less than 200 words, but it gives you a taste of the protagonist’s personality.  This is a crime book, so the excerpt also refers to a crime.  The way it is written is typical of the book.  And it hopefully ends on a note that will have readers wanting to know what happens next.)

I always find it best to include two characters in my chosen excerpt.  That way, you can show conflict.  Novels are about conflict, remember.  In a short reading, it’s tough to include more than two characters and not confuse people.


Don’t just let your voice trail off after you read the excerpt!  You want to wrap up your talk professionally. Here’s what I said:

The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is out this month and is available at Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, and online at all the usual suspects.  Thank you!


Two minutes is tough.  I prefer three.  But if given a choice, don’t go over five minutes, unless you are an exceptional reader.  Especially don’t go over 5 minutes, if you are one of several people reading at the event.  Research tells us that the very best speakers can keep our attention for at most 45 minutes.  You’ve been to those events where the speaker goes on and on.  Keep your reading short, bright, and smile at the end.


This year, I had the honour of interviewing Peter James, bestselling thriller author from England, in front of a large audience.  Peter was given the choice of reading an excerpt before the interview, or after.  He chose to read before.  I made a note of that.  He also read his excerpt louder and more dramatically than I had heard anyone read anything before.  I swear the very walls of the room vibrated.  The audience loved it.

Now, I have taught public speaking at the college level.  I am pretty comfortable at the podium.  But apparently you can teach an old dog a few things.  I learned from Peter James that you need to approach this as an actor does, before you set out to read from your work.  You need to practice.  You need to get excited about your own story.  Your voice is your ticket to book sales.


If you hate reading in public, it’s probably because you don’t do it very well.  Invest some time in doing it better.  Join Toastmasters.  Become a good public speaker.  Take an acting class.  Learn to modulate and project.  ENUNCIATE.  Practice reading in front of a mirror.  I read to Frankenpoodle.  He loves it. 

Okay, I can hear you whining from here. Yet another thing to put in your author basket, along with bleeping social media marketing.  But here’s the thing: you’re in it for the long haul, right?  It’s worth it.

NIGHTMARE TOWN: What to do if no one shows up for your reading.

It happens to everyone, even the bestsellers.  Linwood Barclay told me this story.  He had a reading and signing at a Canadian big box bookstore.  About 60 chairs were set up for it.  He wandered the store until ten minutes before his reading, and noticed only one person was seated in the audience.  So he sat down behind the fellow to wait for others to come.  They didn’t. A few minutes after the start time, Linwood tapped the fellow on the back and said, “I guess the author isn’t coming.”

My own story involves a Grade 12 English class and a teacher strike.  Two days before I was to present at the local library, the field trip coming to see me was canceled.  “Don’t worry,” said the librarian.  “I’ll still get people there.”  When I arrived to give my talk, instead of fifty keen teenagers, there were five people in the audience, and they were all pushing walkers.  Right in the middle of my reading, just when I was reaching the exciting part, a shaky voice blurted out: “When does the movie start?”

Here’s the thing:  You WILL get a small audience at times.  So small, they can fit in one chair.  I know one author who suggested that he and the lone reader at his event leave the joint and catch a coffee together.  The reader was delighted for the one on one attention.  That’s the way to develop a life-long fan.

Whether there is one person or fifty in your audience, you need to give them your very best.  Only three people?  Smile, and say, “Oh good!  There’s only a few of us.  I can make this more intimate.”  Your audience will be delighted.

You never know where a reading will lead…

I was reading from one of my crime comedies (The Goddaughter’s Revenge) at a retired teachers’ association a few years ago.  One of the teachers in the audience had links to a Toronto daily newspaper.  She bought the book, liked it, and from that connection, I was interviewed in the paper.  A producer from Sirius XM radio read the newspaper article, checked my website, and emailed to invite me on his show.

Even if you don’t sell many books at a specific event, you never know how the connections made there might lead to something else.

Leave a Takeaway

Put your bookmark on each chair in the audience before the event begins.  Ensure your website is on the bookmark, and if it isn’t, leave a business card there as well.  Make it easy for people to find you and your book.

Final advice:  Get out there!  Take every opportunity you can to read from your books. Enjoy being the centre of attention and a minor celebrity for a short time.  It’s one of the few perks of being an author. (We’re sure not in it for the money.)

About Melodie Campbell
The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.”  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis Award, and eight more awards for crime fiction. She is the former executive director of Crime Writers of Canada.

(The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter cover)
The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is a miniature gem, the work of an author at the absolute top of her game.”  Don Graves, Canadian Mystery Reviews

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