An author reading is an informal, free event. (As in *free*. Costs you nothing. At all. Sometimes--rare, but not unheard of--there's even free food.) You can plan in advance or just show up on a whim, wearing what you like (most bookshops, however, do require some kind of clothing), and sit anywhere. Bring a date, bring your family, bring your fine self.
The best readings are a heady mix of experience: something like a fast set by a hot band combined with a thought-provoking live media interview and a delicious bedtime story. You can just listen, or you can join in. Most readings happen at bookstores, but not all (I have a particular fondness for reading in bars: books + beer = excellent combination), though for the purposes of this guide I'm going to assume (sigh) that we're talking about bookshops.
Here's how it works.
Get to the bookshop about five minutes early--earlier, if you think it's going to be a popular event. If it's a small bookshop, it will be clear where the reading is to be: rolling shelves will have been pushed to the wall, and there will be rows of chairs set out facing a small table and chair. The audience's chairs are usually the hard, folding kind (so is the writer's, sigh), but that doesn't matter, because if the writer is any good at her job, you'll be transported to another world.
Generally, there will be anywhere from twenty to sixty chairs set out. Sit anywhere. (A lot of people get shy about sitting at the front, but, from my perspective, this doesn't make sense. When I read I don't look at people in the front row more than people at the back. Less, actually. Besides, a reading is like a rock concert. Sitting at the front is cool. You get the best view.) Get comfy. Take off your jacket, loosen your tie. Turn off your cellphone (this is pretty important: I will snarl at you if your phone rings in the middle of a tender, touching bit of dialogue or a tense chase scene). Say hello to your neighbour. Or not. If tea or coffee or water or nibbly foods are available, please help yourself. (Unless it's held in a cafe where the expectation, duh, is that you pay for what you eat.) Gradually the seats will fill up. I'll probably be somewhere in the bookshop at this point, maybe in the cafe, if it's a big store, maybe in the bathroom if it's been a long drive to get there. Maybe you'll see my file folder and pen on that little table facing the audience. If you bump into me in the cafe or bathroom, feel free to smile and say hello, but I might be a bit distracted at this stage, because I'm preparing for the performance.
At about five minutes after the reading is supposed to begin (these things never, ever, start exactly on time), the bookshop's events coordinator will appear at the small table--usually clutching a piece of paper, from which she will then read a few introductory remarks: books published, awards won, how excited they are to have me in their store. At which point I make my appearance, and the audience usually claps. (I like that part.)
I say hello (pretty basic, but you'd be surprised how many writers forget--we can spend so much time alone in our rooms that we can lose sight of how to behave in the world), and then I talk about what to expect from the evening. When I was doing the mini-tour for Stay a couple of years ago, for example, I would get up and say: I'll be reading the first chapter of my latest novel, Stay, which will take twenty-two or twenty-three minutes, and then I'll answer questions. At this point, I also made it clear that while I love reading to an audience (yeah, just call me a ham), what I get the biggest kick from is talking about my work, and finding out what the audience thinks and feels; interacting and connecting. The Q&A session is my favourite part. It's where I as a writer and you as the audience get to know each other. It's very cool.
So, anyway, before I begin the actual reading, I always ask the audience if they can hear what I'm saying, and, if they can't, I find a way to fix that. Sometimes I use a microphone and sometimes I don't. Then I read. And if it's the first chapter of Stay it takes twenty-two or twenty-three minutes.
While I read, some listeners close their eyes. Some stare at the floor. Some stare at me. It doesn't matter. The important thing is for there to not be too many distractions: no one should be talking; no one's cell phone should ring; no one should start tapping their foot on the floor or clicking their ballpoint pen on and off. If you need to cough or clear your throat or wriggle about in your seat, that's fine, but persistent, irritating noise can be distracting for everyone. If you get a coughing fit, or your child starts yelling, then get up and walk away for a minute or two. Get a glass of water, give the child a cuddle. Then come back. If for some reason you need to leave, or to go to the bathroom, just do it with as little fuss as possible.
As I've said, I love to read. I don't read from the physical, published book because a reading is a performance, and what works on the page doesn't always work out loud. A couple of weeks before the reading, I decide which part of the novel I'm going to read from, and then I edit and rewrite that section for clarity and dramatic impact, and then I practise--which is why I can be so specific about how long the reading will take.
When I read, what I hope to do is entertain my listeners. I want them to be transported to the middle of an Appalachian forest, or a SoHo loft, or the Seattle waterfront. Nothing pleases me more than to look up in the middle of my reading and see half the audience with their eyes shut and a faint smile on their face as they walk with my character beside a stream, or to watch tears seam their cheeks as they feel her grief. Then I know it's working.
When I finish the reading, the audience usually claps. I grin and tap together my bits of paper, and drink some water. (At this point, some people do leave: they have to get home and make dinner, or they have to be at work early the next day, or their date is hotter than they expected and they just want to, you know, find a room.) Then I talk for about a minute about the book or the character, and then I ask for questions.
People can be a bit shy at first, but then someone raises their hand and asks, "Where did your character, Aud, come from?" or "Do you have a writing routine?" or "How much of Aud is based on someone you know?" and we're off.
On a good night, the Q&A can go for over an hour and we end up being shut down by the bookshop staff who have lives and want to go live them, but usually it lasts thirty or forty minutes. People ask--and I answer, mostly--questions on everything ranging from my fictional characters, to my career, to my family, to my political views, to my favourite TV shows, to specific points of writing technique. Sometimes my answers are very long and discursive; sometimes brief and focused.
One of the reasons I like this part so much is that I almost always learn something from the questions--some new perspective from which to see my own work or life. The questions force me to consider what I do from someone else's point of view. I find it incredibly useful and, frankly, it's a rush.
After the Q&A, I sign books--either books of mine you already own and have brought with you (sometimes people bring bagsful, sometimes just one battered and treasured copy), or ones you have just bought at the bookshop that evening. But this isn't necessary; you don't have to buy a book. If you do buy one, different stores have different policies. Sometimes you have to pay for the book before getting it signed, sometimes you get it signed first, sometimes they don't care. But basically you bring the books you want signing to my table where you form a line, and I talk to you, and I sign the book/s. I take several minutes with each reader. I'm happy to sign the books with just my name, or with an incription to you, or for someone else if it's a gift.
These individual moments take the most focus for me, as a writer. I pay attention to each and every one of you. I'm hugely curious about who you are and where you come from. Have you read anything by me? Which books? What did you think? Which bits didn't you like? What do you usually read? Why? What do you do to pay the rent? Do you have kids? Do you write? What is it about reading that you like?
This is your opportunity, too, to ask the question or make the comment you were too shy to share in front of everyone else.
So far, I've only been talking about my readings. All readings are not created equal. If you get a bad one your first time out, try not to be discouraged. Give it another go. After all, readings are a bit like movies. Do you like romantic comedy, action adventure, or art films? If you go to see a movie of one genre, and hate it, it doesn't mean you'll hate all films. It doesn't even mean you'll hate all films of that genre; maybe you just saw a particularly bad example. And, sadly, they do exist. The worst reading I've ever attended was by an author whose work I really like. But she hadn't prepared. She read from a work in progress, and she read very badly: a muttery gabble, stopping every few sentences to mumble to herself, "Hmmn. Maybe I should change that part. Or...hmmn. No." After five minutes, I wanted to leave; after ten minutes I wanted to slam her head in a door, repeatedly. These days, in that situation, I'd leave in a heartbeat, but this was one of the first readings I'd ever been to, and I was sitting in the front row. I thought leaving would be disrespectful. Now I think: So what? That author had not respected me and my time; she hadn't prepared; she wasn't giving her best. Fortunately, readings this bad are rare.
There are different kinds of good readings. Other writers prefer a total performance art kind of thing, with fire-eating or singing or juggling. Some don't do Q&A at all. Some treat a reading like a tent revival, trying to convert the audience to rabid fandom. Some attempt to educate, and use slides or audio tapes. Some act more like stand up comics; it's not good, in their eyes, unless the audience is rolling in the aisles.
As I've said, I like to entertain, and to connect.
The venue makes a difference, too. I've found that some readers are more comfortable in a small independent bookshop where they can show up to several readings in a row, gradually get to know the booksellers and other readers. Some prefer big chain stores, where they can remain totally anonymous. I've done readings in all kinds of places: bars and bookshops and schools and hotels, at conferences and conventions, at lunchtime and brunchtime and late at night. It can be hard to predict how things will go, because it's a live event. This is what makes readings so exciting.
Sometimes the author will be great, and the venue, but something like a baseball game will snarl local traffic and only three people show up. This happened to me once, long ago, at a conference. I read for about ten minutes, then looked around the room and asked, "Who wants to go to the bar?" It ended well (and lasted a lot longer than usual [grin]).
Some things you can do to improve the odds of a good reading experience: get there on time in order to get a seat. Check out the author's work via the web before you go (if you hate cruelty to animals, and she reads a whole chapter from her latest novel about how her dog was tortured by a drifter when she was seven, you're not going to have a good time). Call ahead and check with the bookstore the day of the signing (authors sometimes miss their connections at airports, or publicists get their wires crossed about dates). Take a friend who you can talk over the reading with later. Spend some time thinking of a question for the author. It can be simple or complex, about her art or her career or her life (if she thinks it's too personal, she'll say so, politely). As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as a stupid question, as long as you genuinely want to know the answer.
For me, this whole exercise is about connection, me to you and you to me. The best reading is one in which something kindles between audience and writer, where a listener hears something in the author's voice that helps them see or think of the work differently; where an author gets to see and think about her work from a radically new perspective. This thrills me. Often, I take something away from a reading that is used in my next fiction--some question or comment that has sparked a train of thought that would never have occurred to me otherwise. You, the reader, coming to one of these events will probably directly influence my future work. I, the writer, will hopefully give you free and thought-provoking entertainment.
There's also the bookseller to consider. She or he has gone to a great deal of trouble to host one of these events: calling local newspapers, putting together newsletters or email notices, telling customers as they come in, day after day, getting out chairs, pushing back shelves, ordering extra books. And the point is threefold: to establish better relations with the writer and her publisher; to give you, the reader, a great evening; to sell books.
Selling books is, for the bookseller, the ultimate point. It's their job, after all. So while it's not absolutely necessary to buy a book at one of these events, it is a Good Thing. If you choose not to buy one of my books, for whatever reason, please don't spend ten minutes telling me why--but don't feel bad about it, either. If you can't buy the book, you can at least thank me for the reading (hey, manners won't cost you anything). And the next time you buy a book--any book, not just one by me--consider buying it from that bookshop, as a thank you. That way the bookseller will stay in business, and they'll be happy to keep hosting events, which means publishers will keep sending writers like me to different cities, where I will have the opportunity to meet readers like you. Which pleases me no end.