Recently I described the format of my typical (and I think ideal) author talk. Today I offer a few specific suggestions on how to guarantee success at an author talk of this kind.
1. One of the criticisms of my author talk format is that not everyone has a bushel of stories to tell about their books, and in these cases, reading from the book is required in order to fill the time. I do not believe this to be the case. I believe that everyone has a story to tell.
While I have admittedly led a less-than-conventional life, I believe that everyone has stories waiting to be told. When I prepare to compete in a Moth storytelling competition, the first thing I do is ask ten of my closest friends for stories that might fit the assigned topic, because I forget many of my story-worthy moments and discard others as not interesting enough.
Do the same. Ask your friends and family what stories might be appropriate for your book talk, and remember that the connection between the story and the book need not have to be very strong. If it's a highly entertaining story, the connection between it and the book can almost be indiscernible. People love a good story, regardless of the context.
Even if it were true, however, and you didn't have a single story worth telling (which is ridiculous to even consider), I still don't think that filling the time by reading large portions of your book is ever a good idea.
If you're writing a personal narrative in the spirit of David Sedaris, sure. You're telling personal stories anyway.
If you're reading from a memoir, perhaps. But rather than reading long blocks of text, pick and choose carefully. Bite sized bits are best.
If you've written fiction? No. Find a better way to fill the time.
2. Remember that people love to read and listen to stories about work. Pulling back the curtain on your experience in the publishing world is often fertile grounds for storytelling.
3. When you're finished with a book talk, write down all the questions that the audience asked, or better yet, have a friend attend your talk and do this for you. Questions from the audience often serve as excellent prompts for future stories, and they can often guide you in terms of what your future audiences will want to hear.
One of the questions I get quite often asks how and when I decided to become a writer. The answer to this question is actually an interesting and amusing story from my days in high school, but I would have never thought to include this story in any of my talks had I not been asked the question so often.
When you answer a question with a story or anecdote that an audience seems to like, don't wait for someone to ask you the right question in order to tell it again. Find a way to weave that story into every talk.
4. Do not read from notes. Speak extemporaneously.
As unfair as it may be, audiences expect authors to be effective, engaging public speakers, even though we spend much of our time alone and in our heads. Reading word-for-word from a script (which I have seen this done at least a half dozen times) will only cause the audience to question your abilities as a storyteller. More importantly, watching someone read from a script is never entertaining. Better to stumble, stutter, mutter, and speak from the heart than to simply read from a set of note cards.
5. Don't be afraid to form a partnership with another author. There is nothing wrong with sharing the stage. Not only does this double your prospective audience and introduce you to a new set of readers, but it can also be very helpful for a less experienced, less effective public speaker.
In the past, I have partnered with an author who is an excellent writer but less effective at public speaking. While she has many interesting stories to share, she finds it difficult to weave these stories seamlessly into her talk. She becomes nervous onstage and requires a moment or two to formulate her thoughts before answering questions from the audience.
When we work together, I serve as a moderator of sorts, sharing my own stories but also providing openings that allow her to tell her stories as well. I answer questions from the audience first in order to provide her the time she needs to think, and I prompt her with questions of my own that I know will engender interesting and amusing responses from her. The format works quite well, and together, we are able to draw a fairly large number of people to our events, making our talks enormously successful.
5. A partnership between a traditionally published author and a self-published author can also be highly beneficial to both parties.
Self-published authors often have a difficult time arranging appearances in bookstores and libraries, but if they are partnered with a more traditionally published author, bookstores and libraries can sometimes be convinced to sponsor a joint event.
In return for helping these authors gain access to these venues, traditionally published authors will often find themselves with considerably larger audiences than what they are normally accustomed to. Self-published authors are people who have to aggressively sell their books and will often pound the pavement incessantly in order to ensure that there is a decent-sized audience at an event. A traditionally published author can take advantage of this entrepreneurial spirit while helping out a fellow writer.
6. A day or two before an appearance, ask your social media contacts if there are any questions that they would like answered at my event, even if they will not be in attendance.
I write these questions on note cards and will use them to initiate the question-and-answer session if needed. Having them in my pocket means that I am guaranteed to have 3-5 questions that I can use is my audience is less than forthcoming in terms of questions, and because I was able to choose them, they are questions that I know will provide me with interesting stories to tell.
7. There is always one crazy person at every author talk. Be prepared.
These are people who will attempt to monopolize your time, thrust half-written manuscripts into your hand, and tell you stories about the conspiracy behind their failure to publish. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Crazy comes in many varieties. When you encounter these people, I try to be as direct and polite as possible. Explain your obligation to be fair with your time. With luck, your host will help redirect this person away from you.
8. Be prepared for no audience.
Over the course of six years and more than 150 author talks, it's happened to me only once. Of course, it was the one time the bookstore asked me to bring a friend to interview me, which made the experience even more awkward. But I have been lucky. I know authors who have experienced a complete absence of an audience often enough to send chills down the spine of the most hardened book tour veteran.
Even when you have an audience, it may be just two or three people.
When this happens to you, be positive. Blame no one. Use the opportunity to get to know the bookstore staff on a personal level. Booksellers and librarians can be your best friends, and a little bit of grace and decency can go a long way. If you're in a bookstore, offer to sign stock. Ask for book recommendations. Maybe even purchase a book. Be thankful for the opportunity, even if the results were less than unexpected.
9. Remember that the publishing and book business is a small and insular world.
Reputations can be made and ruined overnight. If you act like a petulant jerk or an entitled jackass, word will spread quickly. Treat readers, booksellers, and librarians well, and they will enthusiastically support your work.
My agent once told me that one of my greatest assets is my reputation for being cooperative, collaborative, and kind. "It makes selling your books a lot easier."
Simply put, don't be a demanding jerk face author. They exist, and we all know who they are.
10. Bring business cards or bookmarks to every author talk. Provide people with a way to stay in touch with you after the talk. And invite readers to email you with questions that they may have been too shy to ask.
11. It's always better to be self-deprecating than self-aggrandizing. Save all your success stories for your parents and grandparents. Author talks are the time to roll out the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of your life. Nothing helps an author connect to an audience better than a reminder that he or she can be just as stupid or ridiculous as everyone else. These stories also tend to be the ones that make people laugh, and laughter is the greatest gift that you can give an audience.
Maya Angelou once said: "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel."
Make them feel happy to have spent an hour with you, and you will have made fans for life.