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Doing Public Events
Post 2 of 2 on publicity, a.k.a., the author performance
Hello, friends! I’m just getting back from the Wordplay literary festival, hosted last weekend by The Loft in Minneapolis, where I got to read alongside some outstanding SWANA poets. We all have work in issue 24.1 of Mizna, “Myth and Memory,” available here.
The last half of June, I spent a massively productive ten days working on the next novel at the Vermont Studio Center. And folks, it was heartbreaking to see that after last weekend’s flooding, the river inundated entire floors of multiple buildings. If you love this community as much as I do, VSC could really use some donations right now. Or if you’re local and want to help out after the water recedes, every pair of hands is helpful.
“I’m seeing your book EVERYWHERE.” That’s what you want to hear before your book’s on-sale date. And if the publicity campaign is going well, you will. This is not my area of expertise, but thanks to the dedicated work of two publicists and two marketers six months before the novel came out, it must have trickled across the internet enough times that folks in my network saw it more than once—in most-anticipated lists and influencer posts, probably, the kind of online publicity I talked about in Part 1 of this series.
“Are you doing a book tour?” I heard that a lot, too. It’s the kind of publicity that everyone thinks of: the transformation of a disheveled, crumb-covered, pajama-wearing writer into an animated, be-sweatered author smiling at a room full of applauding fans, like a Toastmasters commercial. Publicity is so much more than the book tour, though, and publishers generally prefer to spend the budget on reviews, ads, and newsletter placements that put a title in front of 100,000 people (or more) than on putting your physical self in front of 50 people. That’s why book tours are usually small. I was thrilled to get one. And while those events definitely didn’t reach two million subscribers via a big newsletter, the people I met at readings, conferences, and festivals gave me the most joy. We’ve gone on to pitch panels together, reunite at other events, create online classes, and plan speaking events at universities.
In other words, online publicity is about your book’s birthday bash. In-person events are about making connections that feed your life, and forming these new relationships can be soul-filling and FUN. So why are events also so nerve-wracking?
Maybe you aren’t worried about performing as an author. Or maybe you’re like 90 percent of us who would reverse-mortgage a kidney to pay an Author Body Double© to get to the podium and give incandescent soundbites in the Q&A. I didn’t have time to start that business before The Skin and Its Girl launched, so here’s what I learned by throwing myself into it.
Nerves & Preparation
There’s scientific evidence that bullshitting is an evolutionary advantage; I do not have these genes and I feel gross when I fake it. In the months before publication, as I listened to many podcasts with and about authors, my heart sank. It became clear that writers must have a smooth narrative about their book: a succinct pitch, why they wrote it, and who they are, in relation to the project. It’s as polished as a query letter, except it must contain enough material to fill an hour’s conversation. But here’s what no one told me: Speaking this way is not some talent I tragically lack. It’s just another piece of storytelling that gets honed over time, with intention.
A NYC-based poet I know told me he booked a session with a voice coach before guest-hosting a podcast, because he doesn’t like his voice. It’s good to know what you’re most nervous about, why, and who can help you fix it.
Interviews and Q&A felt like quizzes I did not want to flunk. I ran through likely questions with my editor, agent, and publicists in an hour-long meeting that became a document of seven talking points I ritually glanced through for weeks. Questions and answers ran around and around in my head in the shower, while chopping green onions for dinner, while walking the dog. Gradually, the material felt less external, more limber, even though it inhabited me for weeks. (I wish it didn’t.)
If you use this approach, you can send this document to all your interviewers and event partners. It’s an optional map of things you’re prepared to talk about. Some folks find it helpful; others want to write their own questions. Either way, you (or your publicist) can request the questions in advance. This blew my mind! Not everyone will share them, and sometimes we didn’t ask because it didn’t seem convenient. But it’s as easy as saying, “Hey, it will help to know what you’d like to cover so I can think about responses.” The planning won’t kill the spontaneity, and you’ll be a lot less nervous.
One of the best tips I got was this: “The job is to be present.” To calm my nerves before and during every event, taking a full-body breath alllll the way down to my feet on the floor helped. Honestly, it worked much better than Propranolol, a prescription stage-fright drug that keeps the heart from jackhammering during stressful situations. While the pharmaceutical solution did its job when I took it, I always felt like crap when I tried to go for a run the next day; the very essence of what grounds me and relieves stress. Preparation, presence, and calming breaths worked best. It might take a few tries to figure out your best approach, so give yourself grace.
You can also check out a couple of more in-depth, inspiring posts from: “Creating a Narrative for Yourself,” and, “Being Out in the World with Your Book.”
One of the best tips I got was this: “The job is to be present.”
Questions to Ask a Venue
Ideally, your publicist(s) will suggest the best places for a good reading in your city, but if you have a preferred bookstore, let them know, and they will pitch your event. As with pitching book reviews, the earlier, the better: big stores like Politics & Prose in DC and Powell’s in Portland book at least four months in advance. When approaching the store, be prepared to accurately estimate the number of people likely to show up for your event. A good minimum is 30 or 40. Also, be ready to list a few possible conversation partners, ideally higher-profile writers or experts who can draw a crowd and ask you gracious, smart questions about your work.
Once the venue is arranged, there is still a lot of planning to do. Here are some questions that might be helpful to ask, though some may be irrelevant if the store has approached you with an invitation.
How many people does the organizer expect?
How many copies of the book will be in stock to sell?
Who is the contact person, and will they send you and your publicist a run-of-show document (i.e., a minute-by-minute agenda) beforehand?
How will the event be promoted? Does the store send you “digital assets,” a.k.a. social-media-ready graphics to post online?
Is the event free or ticketed, and does a book come with the ticket?
Is it a hybrid/online event, and if so, will virtual attendees get to ask questions?
What’s the mic and water situation? Will a volunteer give question-askers a mic so you can hear what they’re saying?
How will the signing line be managed? Will there be a store employee writing people’s names on Post-Its so that you can easily spell them right?
If you have any mobility issues, what’s the setup like?
If you’re eager to make the launch a real party (and it’s okay if you don’t since it will add complexity to the day!), is it okay to serve food in the venue? How about alcohol?
Most day-of stuff has a way of sorting itself out organically, so there’s no need to grill your organizer. However, these are a few things I found myself wondering about (or wishing I’d asked about) at various times during the preparations. Venues each have their way of doing things. Generally, I found that the event went best if I trusted their process and what they know is successful for their space and audiences.
Some events—most likely festivals—will compensate you for travel, lodging, or pay an honorarium. This might mean you get a hotel room and a hundred bucks. Considering that launching your first book takes MONTHS of mostly unpaid work, something is better than nothing.
Be sure to thank the venue and organizers by name, connect online, stay engaged afterward, and send a follow-up thank you email. I err on the side of thanking people too much, but my gratitude does tend to runneth over. Many people worked extra hours to make this tour a reality, and I never took it for granted. I even got a little gift or card for my in-person conversation partners, knowing they had spent many (usually uncompensated) hours preparing for their part of the event.
If possible, set up your schedule so that the most un-intimidating events come first, ending with the events you’re most nervous about. The order might look like this:
Recorded virtual events like the one I did for the Epigraph Literary Festival.
If you schedule the podcasts to happen first, you can approach them as a warmup. My first event was a podcast interview with Queer Everything, run by a friend of 25+ years. Although Leena had spent a ton of time preparing great questions and structuring the interview, the vibe was still very “two friends talking.” When I listened to the edited version, I could hear that even my hesitations were barely noticeable. Also, her AI software removed and/ums for a cleaner delivery, and good editing ensured crisp continuity. Later, when I began doing live events, I had a better “muscle memory” for the flow, thanks to those earlier conversations. To my relief, the same questions kept coming up and got easier to riff on. When I got to the event I was most nervous about, I felt prepared and relaxed, and we had a great time.
Remember: Everyone is on your side, and it’s supposed to be fun. The publicist and event organizers will help you because they are invested in everyone having a good time. Audience members show up because they want to see you. AND YOUR BOOK GOT PUBLISHED. IT’S REAL NOW. What could be more joyful than that?
But I get it, new experiences spark all kinds of feelings. Your system will be taxed. So: Set up something nice on the other side of every engagement. Whether it’s drinks with a partner or friend, a great walk, or just some time with a hobby you’ve neglected, you’ll feel less nervous if you have something comfortable waiting for you on the horizon, something that has nothing to do with your book. It’s the sweetest gift you can give yourself.
Anything to add to these tips? Add them in the comments!
Bonus: sign up for my classes at The Loft or tell a friend! Starting Monday, 7/17, I’m teaching a four-session generative workshop and course on “parasitic forms,” i.e., burrowing into your subject from unusual vantages. In August, I’ll teach a one-session class on applying for grants and residencies, and one on troubleshooting the “revise and resubmit” rejection. In November, there’s a four-session workshop on strengthening your first-person narrator.