I had a great time reading poetry at Palmerston North City Library, as part of the Stand Up Poetry series (forthcoming readers in that series: Glenn Colquhoun, Harvey Molloy, Helen Heath), a week ago. I enjoyed the open mike session that preceded my reading, I was happy with my own performance, the feedback was good, and I sold plenty of my books. Earlier this year, I had an equally good time reading in Christchurch (despite a heavy cold).
But that hasn't always been the case. I've done readings where the crowd was small, unresponsive, and discinclined to buy my books or any other part of the deal – readings that left me wondering "what am I doing here?"
And if readings are important, especially to poets and small-press authors, launches are even more so. Sales at a launch can make or break the financial success of a poetry book; besides which, the launch is a ritual which marks the entry of your book into the world.
I've been at launches where people were queuing to buy the books from the sales table, such as the launch for Helen Rickerby's second book of poetry, My Iron Spine, last year. I've been at others where the author sits, embarrassed, behind the sales and signing table, while the audience slink, just as embarrassedly, towards the exit.
Why? What makes some launches and readings a great experience for everyone involved, and others a depressing and often humiliating failure?
I wish I knew, because then I could bottle the formula. But here's a few thoughts on what makes a good book event:
- Warmth! If it's a welcoming temperature at the event and cold outside, participants won't want to leave.
- A friendly, inclusive atmosphere. Literary cliques, leave your affiliations at the door. Everyone should feel free to mingle, or not mingle if they prefer.
- The most likely people to buy your book at a launch are friends and colleagues, so make sure you invite them, encourage them to come, and be nice to them when they turn up.
- This is a tough one, since it's hard to predict numbers - but it's good to have a space where there's enough room for people to move around, but not so much that they feel isolated.
- The ideal sales table/area has room for a face-out display of the book(s) for sale; it's also best if it's somewhere where it's always in easy view, rather than being tucked away in the back of the room where people have to make a special effort to find it.
- If you're in charge of book sales, make sure you bring plenty of change, and, if you can manage it, an EFTPOS machine.
- At a launch, don't wait too long before starting, keep the speeches short (something Harvey Molloy did very well at the launch of Moonshot). Don't don't rush people out after the formal part of the launch finishes – encourage them to linger and talk. Food and drink help!
- Promote the event every which way you can, without spamming people.
Every reading I've done has been a different length and in different circumstances, but I'm finding that what works best for me is to embed the poems in a loose narrative -starting with some autobiographical poems, and then going on to others that are united by theme. That approach makes me more relaxed, and seems to make the audience more relaxed as well.
While I do include some serious poems, I generally make sure to start with shorter and simpler poems, sprinkle the reading with humour, and end with a couple of poems that have plenty of energy. That way, everyone finishes on a high.
I might apply this approach to the next reading I do and fall flat on my face - but I hope not.
What works for you (as a writer or as a guest) at book launches and readings?