Readings, reinvented

From The Bookseller:

I had been working throughout 2019 on widening out and experimenting with the format of book readings. I took my second novel, Lanny, on the road with two musicians. We did semi-improvised performances, somewhere in between a reading and a gig. Overseas, I re-wrote sections of the book using submitted text from local audiences so the readings became bespoke collaborative one-offs, and the book changed from place to place.

I guess at the root of this is a slight discomfort with the way we put authors on pedestals. I think it’s far more interesting to share the stage. More than that, it’s my basic responsibility. The privilege of having an audience or a readership, the sheer good fortune of that, means one should make every effort to support the work of others and where possible divide any limelight between many voices, many types of work. The old format of author on stage reading from the new book, followed by intelligent questions from a well-prepared chair, followed by audience questions (nine good questions and a mansplain, as the formula goes) can be wonderful, but we have plenty of it. It may be a little tired, and a little limited, as a way of sharing literature. It also perpetuates a fairly simplistic and limited economic model, which can also grate (I love a signing queue as much as the next bookseller) but perhaps not as generative or suitable to our increasingly diversified methods of cultural participation as it needs to be, if we want to keep books and book culture alive and relevant.

To this end we had been planning a project at the Union Chapel called ‘The English Soundwood’. It grew out of a multi-performer project I did when Cheltenham festival kindly invited me to curate events in October 2019. For that first event we had poets, novelists, memoirists and musicians, all performing together. The Union Chapel gig was going to widen it out further to include more musicians, a bigger visual element, audience participation, puppetry, live technological enhancement and so on. And, like everything, this has been postponed.

So this Sunday I will find myself a long way from sharing the stage with others. I will be standing alone in an empty venue, reading not new work, or collaborative work, but old work. In order to support a beloved venue and their extraordinary charity, the Margins Project, I’m reading the whole of my first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, as a livestream. The idea being that even if you hated my first book, you could buy a ticket and not watch the livestream, and you would be supporting a great organisation.

Readings are a funny thing, and I don’t know what it will be like to do a whole book in an empty chapel. I’m not an actor, so I don’t even know where to look, if there’s no audience. And will I lose my voice? Not that my book is very long, but still, when was the last time I spoke for over an hour with no break? Also peering over my shoulder like an intimidating crow, is Cillian Murphy, who very much made the book his own when he starred in Enda Walsh’s stage adaptation in 2018. I can hear him in my head. I can literally see him in the text because he drew all over my paperback copy. So I need to banish him, because nobody wants a cod-Cillian, a faux-Murphy.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG would love to see a robust analysis examining the economics of a reading/book signing for an author who isn’t a noted celebrity.

How much time does it take to prepare?

How much time and how expensive is it to travel to a bookstore, then return home afterwards? (PG understands that travel times may vary, depending on many circumstances, but he does know of at least some traditional publishers that expect non-famous authors to be willing to drive for 1-2 hours each way to appear at a book signing.)

How does the author feel after returning from a 2-4 hour book signing? Refreshed and ready to write? Or exhausted in the way some introverts are after being coerced into interacting with a bunch of strangers who have never heard of them or their books?

What’s the author’s hourly income generated by a book signing, considering time spent preparing, traveling back and forth, sitting behind a table for x hours, packing and unpacking whatever the author is taking to the signing, recovering after the signing is over.

PG thinks more than a few book signings take at least an entire day during which an author could be sitting comfortably at home working, researching, editing, etc.

Serious publishers pay a lot of money buying ads, pumping up the sales force, reaching out to bookstore owners, etc. In addition to advertising and promotion costs the publisher pays to third parties, the publisher is also paying its employees while they’re doing promotions, marketing, pitching store owners, etc., etc.

An author who is also a skilled public speaker or pitchperson might command high speaking fees or receive a generous commission for using those talents in a commercial venture other than promoting her/his book.

While sales commissions vary widely from industry to industry, it isn’t unusual for a commission sales person to receive 30-40% of the amount the employer receives from a customer who purchases goods after being pitched and charmed by a good sales rep.

No professional sales person would spend three or four hours to receive a commission equal to what a traditionally-published author receives from a book-signing at which she sells 25 trade paperbacks.

PG wonders if an author going shopping or running errands wearing a sandwich board might earn more than an author sitting in a bookstore signing books.

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Anyone who is interested in exploring this marketing system can buy the materials necessary here.

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