Improving Indie Author Events

By Shane Solar-Doherty

On Monday night I went to a reading at Lorem Ipsum Books, a local used shop, a business I get great pleasure out of supporting. They were hosting Lindsay Hunter and Christian TeBordo, two authors with debut story collections with Featherproof Books, an indie publisher out of Chicago. Featherproof sent Hunter and TeBordo out on a five-stop tour that they dubbed the Road Read tour. Their fourth stop was Lorem Ipsum.

Hunter and TeBordo picked funny and daring stories to read and delivered them well. Their stories were very short, and they were read quickly, which the pace of the stories called for. But the reading only lasted about ten minutes, or to measure it another way, approximately one minute for each audience member in attendance. The audience and the authors were crammed into chairs and stools in a corner of the store. And there was no discussion to wrap things up, the part of a reading that I look forward to the most. In the end, I felt lead on, like I was supposed to anticipate what was to come next. And that’s a quality I admire at the end of a well-written story. It’s not what I expect at the end of a reading.

It reminded me of another reading I attended recently, when HTMLGIANT hosted Grace Krilanovich in a streamed live video to read from her novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, the book that got Krilanovich selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. The format of the reading seemed like it had Krilanovich confused. The new format, which I do believe will be effective after it’s been trialed further, would have baffled me as well; read into a lens, not to an audience. Krilanovich slowly settled into reading to a webcam. And then, when she finally seemed to be getting comfortable, the video went out. And then the audio. It was out for maybe a minute, maybe two, and then it came back, and Krilanovich, clearly flustered, had to collect herself, pick up where she left off in the story, and work back up to that comfort level of reading to an invisible audience. Once she did, the video and audio went out again. This occurred about five times throughout her reading. At another point, a cat walked across her desk while she read. At the end, questions were slow to filter in, and Krilanovich was stuck in a virtual world with no real way to gauge her audience’s reaction to the reading.

In both instances, it seemed like the authors didn’t realize that they were the ones on whom the audiences were relying to lead the events. At readings, the authors have the floor, they control the flow and pace of their own reading, and they lead the discussion afterward. The hosting venue may have a time limit, but within that limit, the authors should be the ones conducting the reading and the dialogue.

I love to support indie bookstores and presses – I have great respect for the books that Featherproof produces and the talented authors they foster – and it makes me cringe to see this type of disorganization. I greatly admire that Lorem Ipsum, Featherproof, Two Dollar Radio (publishers of The Orange Eats Creeps), and HTMLGIANT are consciously representing the alternative to run-of-the-mill literature. But I don’t think that their alternative model should influence how they conduct their readings, or at least not entirely. The fun, quirky stories are great for readings, but the disorganization is unprofessional. If you’re going to send your authors on a reading tour, they should be informed of the details of the host venue, the format, and the time limit. They should know what the circumstances are.

I don’t think it’s an easy feat for a small press to send their authors on a tour. It can be expensive, schedules can change, and publicizing the event can be a challenge. But I also don’t think, once you’ve decided to go through with a reading or a book tour, any of those are excuses for a poorly executed author event. Publishers and bookstores should be in constant communication, discussing the event’s schedule, the setup of the store and how they’re publicizing the event. Both parties can reach out to supportive communities, including local businesses, online literary resources and bloggers, to spread the word about their events. Most importantly, the publisher should prepare and support its authors leading up to the event, and both the publisher and the bookstore should keep the authors informed of the event’s format and the type and size of the audience that the event expects to draw.

I’m always excited when I see indie bookstores and presses joining forces to reach readers of alternative literature. And I want to see them do it well. You never know when an event might introduce a reader to a new author, or even better, a new literary art form. And that’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss out on.

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6 thoughts on “Improving Indie Author Events

  1. gene says:

    word. i agree to an extent but disagree completely when you talk about how the onus of the question and answer portion should be on the authors. i’ve run readings a thousand times over and work at the brookline booksmith where i’ve introduced many a famed author. it’s up to the series or event coordinator to communicate with the authors whether or not there’ll be a question and answer session and this should also be then directly addressed to the audience. i dig the space at lorem ipsum but i think they’re still getting their feet wet w/r/t readings. you could tell because there wasn’t any one person who presented his or herself as the ‘events director’ and also there weren’t any official introductions. if, for instance, there’s a q and a session where one person in the crowd besieges the author with question after question, it’s protocol for the event director to then re-direct the line of questioning. it puts both audience and author at ease by acting as an intermediary w/o a one-to-one confrontation between author and audience. as both frequent reader and organizer/host of numerous events, again, the onus of traffic controller should be on the organizer of the reading.

    all that said, honestly, who cares about professionalism? readings in bookstores are this weird, contemporary platform for authors to sell their books, but it stems from the heyday when readings were in bars and audience and author both were sloshed. i know many an author who hates the current bookstore reading format and wish there was a return to a much more informal way of audience address. and honestly, if you enjoyed the reading, that’s as much as you can ask. if you want to ask questions, how about just going up to someone and asking him or her a question? i’m actually for doing away with the masturbatory format of long bios followed by long readings followed by a half-hearted q and a. when have any of those been interesting?

    lastly, sure grace’s reading had some glitches, but it comes with the territory of pushing the reading through new media. i thought it was great when the cat walked across her keyboard. i told christian and lindsay after their reading that what i most appreciated about their presentation was that it felt sincere, as much as i could gauge that from an audience perspective, and that it was performative and dynamic without the too scrubbed presentation of the over prepared. if i walk away from a reading with that all too rare feeling, then that’s way more meaningful to me as an audience member than wondering when the question portion is going to start.

    • Shane says:

      Gene, thanks for the insights into who regulates the Q & A sessions. Great points about overzealous audience members and their tendency to ambush the discussion, thus creating the need for a moderator.

      I think that if you’re going to have a traditional reading at a bookstore, and you’re going to advertise it the same conventional way readings have been advertised, then what else can the audience expect except for that same old format of intro/reading/discussion? I’m all for embracing alternative structures like heading out to the pub, liquoring up, and eliminating the boundary between reader and audience. A reading tour that takes place exclusively in local bars and is sponsored and publicized by indie bookstores would be a great way to start reshaping the format of the author reading. If authors and publishers alike find this model appealing, then they should be executing, especially the indies that have that freedom to experiment. But when an event is publicized in the standard ways and held in a bookstore, all parties involved should expect a traditional audience that anticipates the traditional structure.

      As for Grace’s reading, sure the cat added character, but damn did Grace look irritated. I’m taking a jab here looking at the reading from Grace’s perspective, but here’s a book she labored over and took the time to market with readings, and then she’s got this creative opportunity to read via live stream, only to have the reading interrupted several times, and, as I said in my post, no real way to gauge her audience’s reaction. Though the format is still fresh, if the reading is stifled by the medium, and the author is clearly effected by glitches and interruptions, is the reading accomplishing its purposes, or is there an alternative structure that can better accomodate the author and his/her audience?

      • Grace K says:

        Hi Shane. Thanks for writing this up. The level of complexity in managing two simultaneous live broadcasts, malfunctioning camera and glitchy comment screens was off the charts for me, I guess it would have flustered anybody. In the future I would just stick to one website from which to take questions. Switching back and forth between Justin.tv and HTML Giant (but only being able to see the video going out on Justin.tv), was nuts, especially because Justin questions weren’t showing up and I had to constantly refresh to see HTML Giant’s. It was chaotic, overwhelming, sure. And that’s not even my cat!
        gk

      • Shane says:

        Hey Grace, thanks for your comment. I definitely would have been flustered myself, and like you said, I think anyone would have.

        It sounds like your reading had a really intricate setup. It’s exciting to see HTMLGIANT and others exploring new ways to deliver author readings while a new literary landscape takes shape. Taking risks is crucial. The hope is that future experiments can find success without all the glitches or brazen felines.

  2. Hey Shane!

    Have you followed any of Amanda Palmer’s (of Dresden Dolls fame) online antics? Since dropping her label, she’s done some very interesting things with Twitter, blogging, and live performances on Ustream. VERY interesting stuff going on there. It’s a whole new relationship between artist and viewers, and I think it takes a new type of artist to make it work.

    When I was at IFFB a few years ago, there was a panel that discussed the digitization of film distribution. They talked about how promoting and making creative artifacts available on the Web tends to be a double edged sword: it makes marketing cheaper, faster, more interesting, and, in some cases more personal. Simultaneously, it tends to put marketing and promotion in the hands of the artists since marketing and distribution firms aren’t dumping as much money into the P&A business anymore for small producers, and everyone seems to be at a loss to figure out how to finance their Lamborghinis via the Web.

    Thus, people like Amanda Palmer– who really gets the whole Web 2.0/ participatory culture thing– are highly empowered while those who don’t get it (or don’t want to get it) are kind of thrown by the wayside.

    • Shane says:

      Jason, thanks for stopping by! I have enormous amounts of respect and admiration for artists like Amanda Palmer who recognize that they can easily take the creative control helm when marketing themselves and their talents. I just checked out her website and some of her videos for the first time — she’s doing some incredible things that I believe artists of all mediums will begin trending toward.

      Another great example is Stephen Elliott, founder of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries. With the help of Electric Literature, Elliott turned The Adderall Diaries into an iPhone app, which his readers can use to read his book, learn about his tour dates, and participate in a plugged-in and ongoing discussion of the book, which Elliott himself chimes in on. Elliott can also keep his readers updated on any news about the book (James Franco just got the rights to adapt the book for the screen) and inform them of books that he’ll be releasing in the future. NYT ran a great article about it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/25/business/media/25link.html?_r=3&ref=technology

      I think this is a really exciting time for artists. Everyone can learn a lot from individuals like Amanda Palmer.

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