What Makes a Good Book Launch? What Makes a Good Reading?

I had a great time reading poetry at Palmerston North City Library, as part of the Stand Up Poetry series (forthcoming readers in that series: Glenn Colquhoun, Harvey Molloy, Helen Heath), a week ago. I enjoyed the open mike session that preceded my reading, I was happy with my own performance, the feedback was good, and I sold plenty of my books. Earlier this year, I had an equally good time reading in Christchurch (despite a heavy cold).

But that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve done readings where the crowd was small, unresponsive, and discinclined to buy my books or any other part of the deal – readings that left me wondering “what am I doing here?”

And if readings are important, especially to poets and small-press authors, launches are even more so. Sales at a launch can make or break the financial success of a poetry book; besides which, the launch is a ritual which marks the entry of your book into the world.

I’ve been at launches where people were queuing to buy the books from the sales table, such as the launch for Helen Rickerby‘s second book of poetry, My Iron Spine, last year. I’ve been at others where the author sits, embarrassed, behind the sales and signing table, while the audience slink, just as embarrassedly, towards the exit.

Why? What makes some launches and readings a great experience for everyone involved, and others a depressing and often humiliating failure?

I wish I knew, because then I could bottle the formula. But here’s a few thoughts on what makes a good book event:

  • Warmth! If it’s a welcoming temperature at the event and cold outside, participants won’t want to leave.
  • A friendly, inclusive atmosphere. Literary cliques, leave your affiliations at the door. Everyone should feel free to mingle, or not mingle if they prefer.
  • The most likely people to buy your book at a launch are friends and colleagues, so make sure you invite them, encourage them to come, and be nice to them when they turn up.
  • This is a tough one, since it’s hard to predict numbers – but it’s good to have a space where there’s enough room for people to move around, but not so much that they feel isolated.
  • The ideal sales table/area has room for a face-out display of the book(s) for sale; it’s also best if it’s somewhere where it’s always in easy view, rather than being tucked away in the back of the room where people have to make a special effort to find it.
  • If you’re in charge of book sales, make sure you bring plenty of change, and, if you can manage it, an EFTPOS machine.
  • At a launch, don’t wait too long before starting, keep the speeches short (something Harvey Molloy did very well at the launch of Moonshot). Don’t don’t rush people out after the formal part of the launch finishes – encourage them to linger and talk. Food and drink help!
  • Promote the event every which way you can, without spamming people.

Every reading I’ve done has been a different length and in different circumstances, but I’m finding that what works best for me is to embed the poems in a loose narrative -starting with some autobiographical poems, and then going on to others that are united by theme. That approach makes me more relaxed, and seems to make the audience more relaxed as well.

While I do include some serious poems, I generally make sure to start with shorter and simpler poems, sprinkle the reading with humour, and end with a couple of poems that have plenty of energy. That way, everyone finishes on a high.

I might apply this approach to the next reading I do and fall flat on my face – but I hope not.

What works for you (as a writer or as a guest) at book launches and readings?

10 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Book Launch? What Makes a Good Reading?

  1. As a guest I've been thinkign about 2 wonderful spellbinding readings I've been to in the last couple of years. One was Glenn Colquhoun reading Tuwhare in a tribute type thing with a wonderful documentary about Hone as well. These was just this awesome connection happening.The other was Alan Roddick who read some Brasch poems at Caselberg House (right next to the old Brasch crib on Otago Peninsula). Alan was a superb reader but again there was a physical connection to the place. Both were transportign experiences

  2. I think venue is important. Unity Books does a great launch. Yes – short speeches plenty of wine and friends 🙂

  3. Tim, I think a good reading is one in which the poet talks to the audience. Of course the poetry is important but it's not enough. The audience is trying to get a sense of you and you can't be too timid or reserved. It's good to tell little stories about yourself and your poems. The reading also has to make sense–it has to be shaped and orchestrated for the audience. And it's good not to fumble looking for poems too much. I know that the readings have gone well up there so I'm following some good poets.

  4. Great post Tim! Over the last few years, as I’ve done more launches (both my own and for Seraph Press books) and more readings, I’ve been thinking about both these things quite a bit.I agree about launches – it’s more important to have your friends, family, work colleagues, people who care about you there than the local literati. It’s nice to have them there too of course, but the best launches I’ve been to/had have been ones that are warm, supportive and enthusiastic.Pick a venue that will be friendly, and also if it has things for people to look at if they aren’t mingling, all the better! I’ve tended to go for galleries rather than bookshops for my launches – partly out of cost – a Unity launch doesn’t come cheap, because they have to actually pay there staff, while my books-table man (Sean) comes for free. Also, I do the catering – usually with the help of my mum, and other people. I quite enjoy the home-madeness of that.I like to give the launch goers a discount on the recommended retail price, so they feel like it’s worth buying the book on the night. Sometimes at book launches there are other incentives – at one of Harvey McQueen’s launches everyone who bought the book got a kowhai seedling (which has now grown into quite a shrub).In terms of readings, I could write a whole post about that, which this comment is fast turning into! Basically, I think you should try to make it easy for people to listen to you. I usually start with something that I think will grab people – usually something with a bit of humour, and not too long. Then I’ll move on to more serious darker or longer poems. Quite often I’ll bring it back up again at the end. Readings, like books, have a kind of a rhythm.I’m also not of the monotone reading school – that can work for some people, but I mostly find it boring and hard to listen to. I try to vary my tone and speed and loudness (as appropriate:)).And I agree with Harvey’s comments about talking to audience. I saw musician Amanda Palmer perform earlier this year, and she was amazing. What was so good about her though wasn’t just that I enjoyed her music, it was that she connected with the audience. She wasn’t just performing to a bunch of people she’d rather ignore, as many people do, she was trying to engage with this bunch of people. As a shy person, that can be quite hard, but I think it’s rewarding for everyone.Phew!

  5. Wow, what great comments – thank you so much, Pauline, Helen H, Harvey, Johanna and Helen R. There's nothing I disagree with here, and a fair amount of consensus on what works.Finding a suitable venue is an issue near the top of my mind at the moment, as Christchurch writer Helen Lowe and I are jointly planning a writing event on the 17th of September, when she comes up to Wellington for the Spinning Gold children's book festival. The problem we're having at the moment is finding a suitable venue that we can afford. I hadn't thought of galleries, Helen – definitely worth checking out!

  6. A PS to the first comment: Glenn Colquhoun is a marvellous performer, in a style I will never be able to emulate. That's why I've tried to develop a more anecdotal, story-telling approach, as Harvey and Helen Rickerby suggest, and the kind of reading trajectory that Helen also suggests – I know I can do that well, whereas the oratorical approach of Glenn Colquhoun would sound silly coming from me.

  7. I had my first launch last night, and it was amazing. I think the audience engagement thing is important, but it's also important not to force it – My work is a bit out there, and i was really amazed at how into it people were getting. It seems the average Christchurcher is far more open to avant-gardism than a lot of folk i have had the displeasure of meeting in the art scene, or in cyberspace (present company excluded, of course).And a comfortable bar makes a good venue as well – often bookshops or galleries can feel a bit formal, and things run well when nicely lubricated.

  8. Ross, congratulations – I'm pleased to hear it went well. It would be good to catch up (and check out your chapbook) the next time I'm in Christchurch – I'm not yet sure when that will be, though.

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