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How to Read

So, let’s say you’ve got an actual audience for your reading. Fantastic!

Now what?

In other words, I’m wondering if anyone in le Chambre Rouge has tackled the issue of being the best public reader one can be.

Not all writers, after all, are natural performers…or, in many cases, even adequate readers of their own work. For many, there’s a reason they’ve chosen a gig that allows them to work at home (or a local coffee shop), in relative solitude; to be able to make a living sans co-workers, supervisors, meetings and those oh-so-fun office parties.

But then they get published. And the fortunate ones get a promotion budget as well, and do tours of media and big chain stores. Others may be able to finagle an indie bookstore or two to host a reading. Whatever, they’ll have to stand at a podium and address, entertain and, hopefully, sell books to whoever shows up.

All right, enough of this “they” business. Let’s say it’s you. And let’s say you are not Michelle Richmond or Fae Myenne Ng, the two most recent authors I saw at bookstores here in San Francisco—Michelle at the spacious Books Inc. in the Opera Plaza; Fae at the intimate Book Passage in the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.

They are both adept and accomplished in front of bookstore crowds, and they did some things that, if I can recapture them accurately, amount to a concise set of tips for better readings. And, I must admit, some of what follows comes from my several decades in broadcasting and promotional work behind seven or eight books.

  • BUY THEIR LOYALTY: Granted, the Richmond reading, for No One I Know, was her premiere event—a “book launch,” she called it—but she made it a party and advertised it as such. When people showed up, they were surprised to find food (less than catered hors d'oeuvres; more than chips 'n' dip) and wine. And, before reading, Michelle did drawings for door prizes. And they weren’t remainders of her old books (or of books she found on the remainders table). By calling on friends and family, she scored a Pilates session; pounds of coffee beans (coffee is a subtheme of her book); a framed photo by her photographer sister Misty, and, best of all (although possibly not for Michelle), lunch with her at a Vietnamese restaurant she mentions in the book. By the time Michelle – who happens to be funny and charming anyway – started talking, everyone was in a damned good mood, and in her pocket.
  • USE YOUR FRIENDS: Even though Fae lives in New York, she’s from San Francisco, and obviously let her buddies know she was in town. They came to see—and support her. Likewise, Michelle began her evening by looking into the large crowd for anyone she might NOT know.
  • SCREW THE RULES: Fae had asked me, months before her appearance, to join her and do a Q&A with her. I assumed I’d be serving as her interviewer. But, on the eve of the event, she suggested that we “wing it.” And we did. When the store manager, in his introduction of Fae, overdid things by reading from her book—which was what SHE was there for—she simply skipped right to the Q&A. Only she turned the tables on me by asking how I got into my dual professions of writing and broadcasting. The question accentuated our common grounds—children of Chinese immigrants; lovers of the written word; rebels against what might be expected of us. Which led, smoothly enough, right back to Fae and her stunning new novel, Steer Toward Rock.
  • OPENERS: Plan on what to say in greeting the audience. If you’ve got a sense of humor, use it. If you don’t, don’t even try. Just say hello, smile, tell why you wrote your book, and get into your reading (or raffle, or whatever).
  • READ…OR WHATEVER: Don’t feel like you’ve got to just mark up certain pages from certain chapters and read. You can do that, sure. But Michelle took advantage of her knowledge of the audience and interacted with them, resulting in amusing digressions. When I was promoting my book about the Doors, I had Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player, with me (he lives not far way, in Napa Valley), and, knowing we couldn’t do much reading from what was essentially an oral history, we turned our appearances into free-ranging chats about rock and other music, with highlights including Ray demonstrating, on a keyboard, how he came up with the opening of “Light My Fire.” (Think Bach.) Lowlights came when I’d perform “Riders on the Storm” with Ray. But, hey, how much did the audience pay to get in?
  • PRACTICE, PRACTICE: This is a public appearance. If you’re not a regular performer, rehearse. Get comfortable with reading aloud; listen to your own tempo, and be sure you’re not going too fast. Or slow.
  • TICKED OFF: Guard against the tics that have infested American conversation (“like,” “I mean,” “uh,” “you know”) and youthful cadences, in which the last word of a sentence turns it into an unintended question. “So like I’m talking with my editor? And, you know, she’s like, ‘You should get rid of that last paragraph’? And I’m like ‘No way.’” Just listen to yourself, and you’ll soon be relatively tic-free.
  • MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF: It’s enough that you’re a little nervous. Don’t be squinting, too. Don’t just read from your book. Pull out the excerpts you want to read, and blow them up to an easily readable type size—say, 14 or 16 points. With double spacing. Mark words or phrases you should be emphasizing. Add reminders to look up at your listeners. And if you’re on a schedule, count your words. Figure on about 150 to 180 words a minute (leave time for laughter and the occasional standing ovation).
  • ANY QUESTIONS? ANYBODY? Be ready for a shy audience. (Maybe they’re writers, too.) Have questions ready for yourself, and, if necessary, say that this is a query from a previous reading. If this is your first reading for the book, just say it’s a question from a previous book…or life.
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE: Remember that it’s natural to be a bit nervous before appearing in public, and that the audience appreciates your being up there. They especially appreciate it that it is you, and not they who are at the microphone.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. I'll look forward to seeing any suggestions you might have, here at Red Room.

Any questions? Anybody?


26 Comment count
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Great advice from a master...


This is really valuable advice from a someone who's definitely a pro at engaging an audience. I've printed your article and placed it in my file of things never to be forgotten. Also, it was great to watch you read with Michelle at Books Inc.

Thomas Dotson, Redroom.com

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Thanks, thomas. With

Thanks, thomas. With Michelle, that wasn't reading; that was ACTING! Which, come to think of it, is what we're all doing up there at the podium. Especially if your work is fictional.

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De rien, Francoise!

De rien, Francoise!

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Excellent article.  Under the "Ticced Off" bullet, I would suggest that occasionally it may be a good thing to throw in some affectations, depending on your audience.  If you're reading to the Commonwealth Club, then of course you need to be as polished as possible.  But if you're presenting your new Young Adult novel to a group of teenagers, they might be more receptive if you throw in a few "you know's" and "kinda's." 

 I cannot over-stress the importance of practice.  From personal experience I have found that stories sound quite different when read aloud, based on their delivery.  If you are nervous and stressed, that will come across in the tone of the reading, and readers will unconsciously assign these qualities to your novel.  This may be a good thing if your story is a neo-Edgar Allen Poe-ish dark gothic tale of the macabre.  But generally speaking, you should try and read in as natural and calm a voice as possible.  

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Good points, Michael. And

Good points, Michael. And that's interesting about talking down--in a way--to younger audiences. That speaks to a broader point: Don't be bashful about catering your presentation--including your dress, your tone, your way of speech--to the audience. Everybody does that in everyday life. So why not, in front of a group that has gathered to hear you talk about a specific topic? thanks, Michael.

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Writer-Broadcaster: greatest combination to offer such advice.

Ben, great points, especially about the large font and the inserted stage-direction notes to yourself.

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Great point sizes


Thank you, Dennis.

(Say this sincerely.)

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Excellent Advice!

Ben Fong-Torres, your suggestions are so good because you cover aspects of a public reading that the average author might never think about on first sally.  What you are saying is that a typical writer, reading her/his work, must be not only a performer but also a producer, director, possibly a caterer!

  One matter you seem to neglect is that, these days,  public readers must be their own sound and, possibly, lighting technician because the venues usually expect the use of such equipment, but often offer no one to make the necessary adjustments or give direction in the area of mikes and lights.

  As someone who once had aspirations to be a voice over or radio performer, I've never understood the tendency of readers to shout into a public microphone while, as you say, blinded, squinting into a harsh spotlight.  Yet I've done it myself on the few occasions when I've read at a typical literary gathering of our time.

  Sponsors often show interest  in the shape of the performance schedule and the length of the reading.  However, they seldom take time to familiarize the authors with the specifications of the mikes used, nor do they offer coaching as to how the authors may look, and what the voice quality of the reading is, as it is registered from the back of the house.

   At least, in retrospect, that's how it seemed  to me.


Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Technically speaking...

That's a good point, Alex, about sound and lighting. I was focused on authors dealing with public speaking, but the technical side shouldn't be ignored. My advice on that front is, simply: Show up early and check out the space. Figure out where you'll place your book, your notes, your bottle of water or glass of bourbon. Make certain that the sound system is working; do a sound check. Your voice and volume level isn't necessarily the same as that of the store manager.

I must say, though, that I've never encountered any problems with lighting. but, then, I've never done a reading after store hours.

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Just so, Ben:

 But my point is that mikes do differ in their quality and purpose, and even someone who knows that, may not be able to judge how his or her voice is coming over the sound system.  Hence, often the tendency to shout, whatever the capacity of the amplifiers.  Unless there is obvious electronic feedback, the reader may not be aware of the effect.  A human perception is much better.  Ask for it, I say, these days.

   And I did not understand about "reading after store hours."  What does that mean?


Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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after hours...

I just meant, in the dark, which I often am...

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Great advice. I saw Geraldine Brooks do a presentation on People of the Book. She didn't read from it at all. She talked about the history and the research behind the book and gave a slide show. I found that to be refreshing. I don't really like to listen to people read fiction. I'd rather read it. But her talk was great. I am thinking of going this route if I can pull something together. Of course, I am sure she brought her own tech equipment -- and had the funding for that.

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What a great post, Ben!

What a great post, Ben! Thanks for including my reading. Of course, what you so modestly did not mention is that a big reason my book launch went so well is that you were there, reading your own lines...and at one point, even singing a line.

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I was NOT!  Wait a minute.

I was NOT!

 Wait a minute. Oh, yeah. That was fun.

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Helpful stuff

My only addition (especially if you're one of many readers, like at a festival) is to read shorter than the allotted time. You will be loved 



And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make (john lennon) Elmaz elmaz@elmazabinader.com

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Bookstock Festivals

Thanks, Elmaz. Yet another good piece of advice. I've done those Litquake marathons, which nearly always fall off-schedule after maybe -- oh, two readers. I do word-counts on the excerpts or chapters I might do, and try to stay flexible. If they're running long, I go 'way short. But, as you say, even if the event is on time, it's smart to go a little short, which may leave them wanting more...and, hey, maybe even going to the table where your books are for sale.



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Hats Off!


More to the intention of your sharing is the richness of information the account contains, aside from the obvious entertainment of course.

My mind just wandered off imagining the practical uses your guide may help me with.

The public speaking part is a real gem, but while I would still gravitate away from it, I have gathered enough pointers to help me become a better communicator, a better host and become a better personal event planner. And that someday, I will have mine too.

Thank you!

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Hi, Jude

...sounds like I just helped make you a better dang PERSON. I'm glad that a quickly-written blog was helpful. Best of luck with all your activities. --ben

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seriously helpful

Someone should create a sticky area for this site containing this kind of valuable info for wannabe writers and veterans alike. 

 Thanks, Ben - that was fantastic.

Randy Wong

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What a good idea!


Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Stuck On You

"A sticky area"? Sounds like parts of my office. But hey, whatever you wanna do is OK by me.

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Very informative piece, I wrote a similar, but much more  succinct piece on the power of words. Sheila

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Useful stuff


Thanks for the post.  My first novel  The Love We All Wait For is just out, and I'm having a launch party, plus signings and readings in the next six weeks or so.  I'm a bit nervous, and your "tips" helped.


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you are welcome

Congrats on the debut novel. Have fun out there. --ben

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Sounds like your book readings are fun. Next time I see you're doing one I'll be sure to go!


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I would add...

Don't kill your audience by selecting too much to read. Leave them wanting a little bit more.

The best example I have is when I was at the Weslyan writers' conference a few years ago. One night Robert Stone read and he did it with style and for the right amount of time and was captivating. The next night a well known short story writer read and she went on endlessly with a story that just didn't capture a listener's attention. It was horrendous.

 James Buchanan