Thursday, September 20, 2007

To Read or not to Read.

by James O.Born

I attend a lot of writer’s events. The mystery book store near my house, Murder on the Beach, hosts a number of signings which I enjoy. Often I share a venue at various library groups with other authors, from all different genres. Usually I agree to these appearances if I know the other author or I’m a fan.

One of my strengths is public speaking. As part of my duties, I have, from time to time, been a spokesman. I have chaired many a press conference and will admit to saying the wrong thing on occasion. Early in my management career I had a great boss who realized I was a little hesitant about speaking in front of the cameras. He patted me on the back and gave me one of his patented, sly smiles then said, “Don’t sweat it. No matter what you say, they won’t kill and eat you.” It made me chuckle. More importantly it made me realize he was right. Sort of like the old advice to “picture the audience naked” while you’re speaking. Over the years any concern I had about speaking in public faded.

One of the things I generally avoid is reading in front of a crowd. One reason was that with Walking Money I had a hard time finding a passage I could read in front of a crowd without apologizing for the language. Also, I have attended too many events that ground to a halt while an author read their work. I always assume people at a book event can read. I understand the theory that it gives people a taste of how an author writes. I just disagree with it. They can pick up a book and glance through it quickly to get an idea of the style of a book. My preference is to hear about the author and how they write.

This is all a big lead in to the exception to this rule. The weekend before last, British thriller writer Zoe Sharp and her husband, Andy, stayed with us while on the South Florida leg of her tour for Second Shot. We attended a library event together with Christine Kling and Neil Plakcy (Try spell-checking that name) on Sunday which Zoe moderated with great skill. Before hand we discussed reading versus speaking and all opted to speak. Now here is where my whole “speak don’t read” theory gets blown out of the water. I went to Zoe’s signing at Murder on the Beach September 10th. As usual it was a nice event with a friendly crowd. A crowd which I was familiar with because they are the dependable regulars of the store. Zoe spoke, then read the first page of Second Shot. I have no idea if the writing, her speaking ability or her fantastic British accent made the reading the best I had ever heard. The book is super and well written. She is poised in public with a great demeanor. I am even trying to discount the fact that she’s my friend. She was just phenomenal and the reading made it even better.

How’s that for a mixed message today? How do you feel about “readings? What do you want out of an author event?


  1. I don't read at my events, either. One reason is that I can't find a passage to read that doesn't have some sort of offense language. Another is that when I go to events, I don't like to be read to. I can read on my own. Like you, I want to know about the author and how the book came to be.

    That said, I have just started Zoe's SECOND SHOT and it's fabulous so far and since I've met her and heard her great accent, I could make an exception if she wanted to read to me.

  2. I don't like authors to read for one reason: most of them are really really bad at it. I think people come to book signings because they already know the author or at least have heard of them and want to find out more about the person behind the words. Unless the author is an accomplished public speaker, I think they should just talk about the book, their pet hampster, or some non fiction hook that would be interesting to the audience.

  3. I agree with Karen and Patty.

    Unless you're Carl Sandburg or Maya Angelou...don't read your work aloud.

  4. I agree. That said, I did a book fair last week where I was scheduled for a 15 minute reading. I promptly put my book on the lectern and told them that if I did read to them, it would be really, really short because most readings I've been to bore me. So I talked for a few minutes, then they wanted me to read, so I read a couple pages, then I hounded them to ask questions, which they did.

    I'm sure some crowds like readings. Go figure. I did a library event a couple years ago where they had 3 or 4 authors and one of them read the almost entire 30 minutes allotted. I was sitting in the back of the room staring at the ceiling. Her lips were moving but...

    I prefer to interact with the audience. Give them enough talking to get them going. I've even gone so far as to take postcards with my book covers on them and write basic questions on them, put them in an envelope and keep them in my pocket. That way, if the audience is dead (happens sometimes), I'll hand them out at random and ask them to read them to me.

    Hasn't been necessary yet.

    I also did a library talk with Marcus Sakey about 2 weeks ago and he tells the audience right up front, I'll give away a copy of the book to the person with the most interesting question. And he did! (The question was: "Why don't your books have maps on the front? I love maps.") [of course, Marcus could charm the skin off a snake.]

    So, all in all, I think there are better ways to enage with an audience without reading to them.

    Or, maybe, I just have a short attention span when people are reading out loud.

  5. I agree, too, Jim. I've been to some pretty fabulous readings, but you have to *be* fabulous to bring it off. It's almost always better just to talk about something interesting, draw the audience in, leave them wanting more. Sells the book better than a reading. More fun, too!

  6. As a consumer of your wares and an attendee of many book signings, I SO agree that it is pretty boring to have the author reading to us. Tell us how your protaganist came to be, the influences that shape the story and how much you appreciate your readers. :-)

  7. This is an agreeable lot.

    Paul, when you heard Carl Sandburg read did he have a good voice?

    But I will ask you to listen to Zoe and tell me she's not the exception to the rule.

    Next week: Should we strike hecklers in a crowd?

  8. ll read if asked. Otherwise, I just talk, rant, tell jokes, and then take questions as soon as possible.

  9. I'm in agreement.

    Born should never read his work in public.

  10. I don't read either. I've been to a few good ones, but by and large...audience participation is more fun for everyone.

  11. I usually don't like to read, and if I hear someone else read, I like it if the section read is really short, punchy, and to the point. Also self-contained as a little bit of story, without a cliff-hanger.

    I heard Robert Crais read the first page of TWO-MINUTE RULE last year or so, and that was the perfect amount--plus it was a nice enticing little snack o'thought, too.

  12. I read in public, but rarely from my book. They can buy the book. I did a DVD version where I read a scene that didn't make it into the book, one that had a good beginning, middle and end. Then I talked about editing and rewriting.

    Other than that, I agree that Jim Born should never read anything in public, not even the Don't Walk sign.

  13. Ah, yes! Zoe does read well! At signings I never encourage the author to read, unless I've heard her/him before and enjoyed it, and then only if the author asks if he should read. Some are good at it, most are not. Dylan Thomas was great at it.
    While some authors haven't read all that well, they've picked good passages, and that's a saving grace. Sometimes an author will stop reading and I'll shout out, "Keep going! Don't stop now!"

    Authors don't need to sell me their books at a signing: I go with the intention of buying, if for no other reason than they took the time and energy to visit the store. Least I can do is show my appreciation.

    Tom, T.O.

  14. Tom,
    You are a national treasure.


  15. Anyone who has listened to Book TV on a Sunday afternoon knows the answer to this question....most authors shouldn't be reading. A lot of them shouldn't even be talking. I sometimes arrange authors to speak at my library (Jim, you are overdue, and I don't mean your library books!), I find that people really want to know more about the author, his background and how it influences his writing, or even vice versa. They want the opportunity to ask questions and to be able to walk out of the room with the feeling that they have met the writer. If they have some laughs in the process, that's even better.

  16. Having heard Truman Capote read from In Cold Blood it may be compelling, for me it just depends on the author, the book, and the setting.