Take a good look at the photo below. This is the view an author has when standing in front of an audience at his (or her) reading. I took this Wednesday night at a reading at A Different Light bookstore for my novel What We Remember.
Notice that there are 12 seats. Then notice that only six of them are filled. Then subtract the store's author events manager, two of my friends, and two friends of a friend who were ordered to go.
Now we have how many attendees? Oh, right. One.
To be fair, two other people came in after I took this photo, which brings the grand total to eight, three of whom were there because they like my books. Also to be fair (to me) I signed around 30 additional books that had been ordered online by people who couldn't attend but wanted autographed copies.
I think most writers dream about their first reading. The idea that people will buy your book and read it is one thing; thinking about them coming to see and hear you is something else altogether. It's been said that all writers secretly long to be rock stars. If that's true, then the reading is the equivalent of the big concert, replete with lights, crowds, and possibly even groupies and T-shirts.
There are certainly authors for whom this is true. Generally they are enormously popular or spectacularly attractive. (But seldom are they both, which is at least some comfort to the rest of us.) These authors easily pack the venues at which they read. Sometimes they even get away with selling tickets. They have handlers, and publicists, and shocking cocaine addictions. Okay, this is not entirely true. They don't all have publicists.
Then there are the rest of us.
For us readings are hit or miss affairs. After 20 years of doing them, the only thing I can say with certainty is that you cannot possibly predict what will happen. All you can do is show up and deal with whatever you get. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised; other times you wonder how you ever imagined writing a book was a good idea.
My first book tour--which I financed myself, by the way, and am still paying off 12 years later--was for my essay collection Alec Baldwin Doesn't Love Me. It was my first book for an adult audience and my first book for a gay audience. Filled with optimism, I decided to visit as many bookstores as I could. I spent weeks setting up dates, figuring out flight routes, and blissfully imagining a storm of adulation. Even the bookstore owner who told me he wouldn't have me unless I guaranteed him I would sell 40 copies of my book couldn't discourage me.
I think I hit 20 stores on that tour. Of those appearances I would say that five went very well, ten went moderately well, and five were unmitigated disasters. At the three readings I did in Texas (in Houston, Dallas, and Austin) I had a combined audience of--one. But that was not the worst. That distinction belongs to Portland, Oregon, where I walked into the store, told the manager I was there for the reading, and he said, "Reading? We have a reading tonight? Nobody told me." At least he was kind enough to make the staff sit and listen to me read to them.
As I said, these were the worst ones. The ten moderately good events saw audiences of 5-10, the really good ones 20-40. Curiously, the best-attended events took place not in cities such as West Hollywood and San Francisco, where I expected big crowds, but in Columbus and Minneapolis. The one I'm proudest of, however, is the New York event, where I'd cleverly managed to schedule my reading for the night of the Oscars. As I lived in New York for almost a decade, and because I have dirt on a lot of people, I knew I could count on a dozen or so, but I didn't expect to see a single unfamiliar face in the crowd.
I did, though. I saw a lot of them. And that made up for Texas, and Portland, and Chicago (where I was caught in a downpour on the way to the bookstore and read, dripping on the carpet, to one friend).
When new authors ask me for advice about doing readings, I don't know what to say. I know they're excited. I know they envision rooms filled with people nodding, laughing, crying as they listen to The Work. I also know that they will probably be disappointed. But I don't know whether I should try to prepare them for the likely reality or let them enjoy their excitement for as long as possible. After all, they're not going to believe me anyway. But somehow I expect them to blame me if it all goes wrong. "You should have told me!" I hear them wail.
Usually I just tell them to do it if their publishers will pay for it or if they have a lot of frequent flier miles and friends with couches. Then I hope that their reading will be the exception to the rule, and that they will leave with their self-esteem filling them up like the helium in a Macy's parade balloon.
I am enormously thankful for every single person who comes to one of my readings. And after all this time it's no longer about numbers. Now it's about connecting with people--whether it be one or five or 50--who find something meaningful in my work and want to hear me read or just say hello. I know they have a lot of other things they could be doing than sitting and listening to me read for half an hour, and the fact that they choose to come see me means a great deal.
I am also thankful for the bookstore owners and managers who, in an increasingly bleak book industry, continue to support authors by inviting us to read. People like Philip Rafshoon of Atlanta's Outwrite, Stephen Quinones of San Francisco's A Different Light, and Michael Lemon of the now-closed Baltimore branch of Lambda Rising. Thanks to them and many others like them my books--and the books of other writers--have gotten into the hands of readers they might never have reached. In a business that is increasingly conducted online, they provide a personal touch that no website, no matter how well designed, can offer.
As for those of you who promised to come to one of my readings and didn't, don't think I didn't notice. And I'm keeping a list.