April 1, 2015

What makes a successful reading: an experienced-based addendum


Josh Cook reads at Brooklyn's WORD bookstore.

Josh Cook reads at Brooklyn’s WORD bookstore.

Click here to read Josh Cook’s first piece about preparing for readings

It’s one thing to prepare for readings and quite another to give them. For the most part, I think my preparations worked out pretty well. The responses to my performances (mostly coming from friends and family, but still one does take what one is able to get) were positive and I personally felt like I did the best  I could. But there is always room to improve. On the other side of my first author tour, I learned a few things that I would add to my list of preparations.

Be Venue Agnostic

For a while, I considered including a PowerPoint of some kind into my performance as a way to make it something other than just a guy reading. When done well, regardless of the source content, a performance incorporating some kind of extra visual component can be entertaining and compelling, but ultimately, I decided my time was best spent developing and practicing a more traditional reading/performance. And, of course, not all stores can accommodate a screen and projector. But even if you’ve planned a “read from the book” performance, it’s important to ensure that you are comfortable in any performance setting. I’m most comfortable at a podium with enough space to gesture and the audience in front of me, so I have room to project and flail and the like, and sometimes I had that. But sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I was seated, sometimes the front row could see up my nose, and once the audience sat in a 180 degree semi-circle around me, which, given how you’re supposed to make eye contact while performing, threw me off a bit.

But, bookstores are, first and foremost, stores and so their space will be designed to sell books. Some stores have enough space in the right shape to have or create a “stage,” but not all stores do. They’ll do their absolute best to create the best performance space they can, but “absolute best” doesn’t including knocking down walls and building stages. So, whatever you have prepared, will need to be flexible enough fit into whatever performance space you’ve got.

 Tell the Host Everything You Plan to Do

So, I had this whole spiel planned for closing out my events which went a little something like this: “Everyone involved in books knows that in a perfect world, books would be free, but in our world, the bookstore has to keep the lights on, make rent, and pay its employees. So tonight, if you like having a bookstore in your community, especially one that hosts events, make a purchase. It doesn’t have to be my book. Even if you hope I never write another word again, get a classic you somehow missed, or a copy of your favorite book to give to a friend who hasn’t read it yet, or even a postcard. You know, use this as an opportunity to connect with someone you haven’t talked to in a decade. And you’ll keep this bookstore and everything it offers in your community.” But I almost never delivered it. After the last question, the hosts, all being very good hosts, moved everything along to the signing, because that is what happens after the last question. You abbreviate, as much as possible, the “is someone else going to ask a question?” awkward silence and definitively transition the event so no one is looking around wondering what’s happening. That’s how I handle the end of events I host. So, even if your event does not involve a t-shirt cannon, you need to be clear about everything you want to do, even if, or especially because, your hosts might tell you, it’s a terrible idea.

It’s Not That Guy’s Fault He’s the Only One There

You may not know this, but I’m not famous. So not every event was well attended (though, I haven’t had less than four yet, which for a small press debut is pretty damn good). One venue, that had set up a podium gave me the option of doing something else, but, it occurred to me, the six people there, came to see a reading, so I gave them a reading. Of course, I wanted to pack every room I appeared in, but even though I didn’t the people attending took time out of their day, when they could have been doing pretty much anything else, to hear me. They put in some effort. They gave me their time. So I made sure to give them the best performance I could.

The Difference Between Alone & Lonely

At my last reading, one of the booksellers asked me what the coolest part of publishing a book was. It took me a little while to circle to an answer, because there is just so much of my life bound up in the book. (Like, you know, all of it.) But I eventually got there and it connected with something that had been in my head for a while after the release of my book. And though, it doesn’t really connect with giving readings, it’s something I feel important to share.

Ultimately, one writes alone. It’s just the writer, the desk, the computer, the notebook, the word. There is no other person between the writer and the page. That alone moment of writing makes it easy to think of writing as lonely, but it’s doesn’t have to be. So many people in my life were as excited (maybe even more excited) as I was when the book was published. The people in my life felt proud, felt happy, felt a kind of ownership over the book. One’s community, for good or bad, is like water; because it constantly surrounds us, we forget its even there. Publishing a book gave me the gift of seeing and appreciating the water. And that’s amazing. I might be alone when I write, but I am not lonely when I write. I am part of a family, part of a circle of friends, part of a community, part of a society. The coolest thing about publishing a book and going on a reading tour: learning the difference between writing alone and writing lonely and how lucky I am to be the former.


Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.