A couple of weeks ago, Matthew Dicks suggested on The Huffington Post that author events be divided into four categories — signings, readings, book talks and author talks — and plainly marketed as such.
It’s a great idea firmly planted in a premise of audience engagement that has been floating around the performing arts for a while now: a show’s success greatly depends on the audience’s expectations going in.
If you met or surpass expectations, the audience will leave happy. If you don’t meet their expectations, the audience will be disappointed.
And you can’t tell an audience member to expect one thing and deliver another.
So I’m all for clear identification of book-related events. It will make for happier readers.
Except for Booktopia in the spring and the Brattleboro Literary Festival last fall, most of the author events I attend take place at our local independent bookstore.
I’ve learned that the evenings will be a combination of a reading, usually for about 30 minutes, and then an author talk with questions.
Usually an author excels at one or the other of these, but rarely both.
One new author read quite well (She made her book sound better than the novel actually was) but struggled to answer even the most basic questions. She was clearly nervous, shifting from foot to foot so often that it made me dizzy and offering non-answers that made little sense.
Another author frequently stumbled while reading, messing up words, correcting himself and losing his place, but was charming and interesting during the Q&A session and while signing books afterwards.
The streakiness of the authors at these events doesn’t bother me because I’ve come to expect them.
But while my expectations of the authors are well managed, my expectation of my own performance at these events is set rather high. I want to be the best audience member in the room and, hopefully, the author’s best audience member ever.
It started back in November, when I went to see W.D. Wetherell read/speak at the bookstore.
He was a particularly eloquent reader and when he concluded that portion of the evening, I was greatly anticipating reading his book.
Then, unlike many of his counterparts, he was also an engaging speaker. He spoke extensively about his writing process and gave articulate answers to the questions people asked.
Even the dumb ones.
I found myself sitting forward on my seat, paying close attention and nodding in agreement.
When I approached the author for his signature in the novel I had just purchased, he told me that he had noticed how attentive I was and that he really appreciated it.
“My eyes kept returning to you because you seemed so interested,” he said.
While it is a small store and the audience is never more than 40 or 50 people, I was kind of proud that he noticed my engagement.
Now when I attend book events, no matter which of the four forms they take, I go out of my way to give a repeat performance.
I don’t fidget or shift in my seat. I stare intently at the author, sometimes tilting my head to one side and slightly knitting my brow to give the appearance of extreme concentration on their words.
So far no one else had commented on my attentiveness and I’ve probably freaked a few of them out with the intensity of my stare.
But at least I’m listening, which is better than the elderly lady who sat next to me the last time. She fell asleep five minutes into the reading.
Maybe if the bookstore had taken Matthew Dick’s advice and clearly marketed the event as a reading, she would have known to stay home to take her nap.