Let’s talk “po-biz” again. In my little newsletters, I have said over and over again how important it is to do readings. You connect with an audience, hear your errors, connect with other writers, and generally there is some food involved or at least access to good books. If you are practicing your reading skills, you are also getting better in this area. Listening to the the readings of others is a good practice. How does that person capture the attention of the crowd? How does the reader maintain it? What intonations are used within the reading? How does modulating the voice help or hurt the work?
Here’s the thing: it is a rare treat to be invited to do a reading. If you have done a reading and those who are organizing them know you, you are more likely to be called upon for a feature. For that reason, it’s good for poets to go to and read at open mics. There are also open mics for fiction and nonfiction folks, some of them even pay you, if the audience votes that way. When I first moved to New York, I read at an open mic at Bar 13. After that first open mic reading, I was offered a feature at the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase. Roger Bonair-Agard and Oscar Bermeo saw something in me. It was 2003, and over the year that I lived in New York, I was constantly going to open mics and, from there, getting offered featured reading spots. I was also receiving supportive feedback. The open mic route is one way to get connected to features, but it is dependent on connecting with the organizers through your work.
The bookstore route doesn’t really work this way. Some bookstores host open mics or they have writing workshops. If there’s one nearby you, go, but be careful of the writing workshops. I once went to one in Las Vegas where I expected a community of writers sharing their work and offering constructive feedback. What I got was a writer surrounded by others, waiting for her to give her wisdom. It didn’t feel like a community to me. The work of those at the table was not being reviewed. It felt like I had walked into a fan club, one that met every month with the same agenda. I didn’t go back.
If you want to do readings and you don’t have an agent, you need to have a reading proposal template. This should be less than 5 pages long. You need:
- A good intro letter that shows you have a relationship with the bookstore or area. This is where you do and show your research. The intro should be no more than 3 paragraphs long: a paragraph saying who you are and what you want, a paragraph that explains your connection, and a short one liner indicating what you have included in this packet
- bio and photo. I personally like an informal photo as my bio pic, but I’m a poet. I’m allowed to be quirky. If you are a nonfiction writer writing about the corporate life, you may have a different image.
- links: links to audio, video, recent publications, publicity. No more than 4. It isn’t a problem if you don’t have this yet. You will. Now you know where it goes.
- a short work sample. For poems, 3 poems. I would say, focus on the short and especially powerful. For fiction or nonfiction, a short excerpt of a larger work. No more than 2 pages long.
Once you have your reading proposal template, you can adapt to the venue as needed. It’s always a good idea to call first. I’m totally awkward on the phone with people I don’t know. I absolutely hate calling anyone other than my parents and two of my siblings. I don’t even talk to all of my brothers and sisters on the phone. That’s how awkward and weird I am about it. Still, I put my anxiety aside and call bookstores and venues to talk about my idea a little, if there’s an events person around, or just get the contact information and name of the events organizer. Most bookstores or venues have that designated person. It goes a long way to know that person’s name when you are writing your letter.
I know I also say this ALL the time, but I think it’s also good to read with several people. In my opinion 3-4 people is the right amount. Each person gets 15-20 minutes. There is time for transitions. All in all, you are talking about an event that runs 1 hour and 15 minutes with intros, readings, and transitions. That also gives you time to mingle before and after the reading and not cut into another event’s time. I always propose a 2-hour event.
If you are reading with other people, reach out and ask for their bios, photos and a short work sample. All the bios and photos go on one page, alphabetically, and then the work sample follows in the order of the bios with a heading indicating who the author is. You can, of course, keep the bio, photo, and work sample together for each person. Just another format.
Share the reading proposal template with everyone’s information. If you are part of a small collective of writers, then you can use that reading proposal for certain venues and someone else can take the lead on other venues. If you or someone in the group has a new book or a recent publication, be sure to mention that in your letter. Acting as your own agent to get readings takes time. You have to follow up, if you get a response with more information and, if you don’t get a response, to see if the schedule is just booked or they need more information.
Another important consideration is timing. If you are proposing an event, it is a rare place that will book anything less than 6 months out. One reading, to which I was invited, was on my calendar for over two years! Sometimes, if you have a relationship with the bookstore or venue, they will work with you to fill an empty block of time in the under 6 months range or even under 3 months. Again, that is VERY rare. When it happens, treasure it. Have a card ready when you leave. Be kind and appreciative. A haughty writer is not always invited back, no matter how many books that person has sold.
One last thing: snacks. You have the reading booked, and it’s with fellow writers or not, consider bringing light refreshments. Clear it with the venue first, and spend no more than $20. If you are reading with others, you can go as high as $30 and split the cost. I learned this from Alexandra Mattraw, how valuable it is to take care of your audience when they are spending time with you. A few bottles of wine, a bottle of water, and some cheese and crackers. People are more likely to mingle if they are satisfied in their hearts, minds, and bellies. Even if you don’t sell books, you will learn from your audience. They will tell you what caught their attention about your reading or your work. Listen. For a few snacks, they are giving you priceless information, which may impact your future readings, revisions, and even the final manuscript, if it’s not already published.