Readings are Passe? Authors Weigh In

Nobody reads at readings anymore? That's what this Wall Street Journal article tells me. From the article:

"We were just losing our audiences," said Ms. Jennings, the owner of Rainy Day Books, an independent bookstore in Kansas City, Kan. Finally, several years ago she made a decision: The shop would sponsor only author events that featured a conversation or a minilecture, a PowerPoint presentation or perhaps a slide show, all followed by a question-and-answer session and—at most—the recitation of a paragraph or two from the book to illustrate a point. "I tell publicists 'it's no longer a reading,'" Ms. Jennings said. "If they want their authors to come here, they'll go along with it."

The article insists that people are really there for the Q&A, a point with which I’m sympathetic. But what do other authors think? On author Meg Waite Clayton's blog, she gives an 8 step recipe for author readings. The reading itself is confined to Step Number 6: The Smallest Dash of Actual Reading. “The truth is, most people past the age of five prefer to read themselves rather than be read to. And writers don’t often make great readers; that’s why others are paid to read our audio books.”

I recently heard bestselling author Chris Bohjalian read from his new novel Night Strangers, and it was great fun. The length of his reading was 14 minutes, which I only know because he announced it as such before he began to read. I asked him about the brevity of the reading portion, and he said that he didn’t feel that the tradition has become lost. Only shortened. "First of all, book tours are much longer now than even ten years ago and readers often get the book in the first 48 hours it is on sale. That means by week two, a lot of people at my readings have already finished the book. So, it makes no sense to read for 40 minutes. Second, readings have become, in my opinion, more entertaining and less pretentious. I think that can only benefit literature.”
The uptight parts of me are piqued to hear booksellers (booksellers!) lean away from the actual texts. But on the other hand, I too would rather an author spent his or her time on material that I can’t get between a book’s two covers. Recently bookseller Jen Northington made some suggestions right here on Blurb is a Verb about how best to make your bookstore event sing. I think I’m going to go re-read that now…


  1. Great post! I certainly think it's changing, isn't it? Readings at my MFA program killed me after a while. And since I narrate audiobooks, it's especially difficult to listen to a bad reader, even if they wrote the work themselves. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. An "Author Q&A" is more interactive, appealing and inviting than an author reading for an hour. If I ever publish a book that has wide distribution, I'd certainly look at providing an entertaining experience, rather than just a reading. Maybe, you know, a tap routine and jazz hands. Hmm. On second thought...

  2. readings? I've published 2 chapbooks and about 100 poems. I'm never asked to read and don'texpect to be asked.

  3. Yes, Tanya, jazz hands! ;-)

    Anonymous--that's the spirit. Wait...

  4. 40 minutes? I'd be out of my mind with boredom. 20 minutes is the max, and 10 is better. The readings I've attended stick with the latter. It's the conversation with the author we come for.

    I'm in the voice-over business, too, and I agree with Tanya--it's harder to listen to some than to others, so of course it can vary with a person's talent for reading out loud. You can tell who likes doing it and who's terrified, who has practiced (it's a performance!) and who hasn't.

  5. See, now, 14 minutes even sounds WAY too long to me. I think that's how long Gregory Maguire read, or between 15 and 20 minutes, and it seemed never ending, even though what he was reading was interesting. I like an author to talk about the book, read for 5 minutes, tops, and then take questions. Simply sitting still and listening to someone read for 40 minutes (or 10), is just too passive, and you're going to lose people to their smartphones.