Saturday, March 26, 2016

Setting up readings is hard

           I have a book coming out—and then I have another. Pinch me! At the age of forty-seven, I’m late to the party, and at the party, in the corner, I’m the one wearing sensible sneakers and asking if it’s hot in here.
            It’s typically not hot in here. I’m starting to quit asking.
            Because I happen to be about twenty years older than my fellow emerging writers, this shit is serious. I’m not fooling around. That first book comes out in late May, and I’m e-mailing like a mad woman, trying to set up readings to find audiences for my poetry. (I’m sorry, poetry—my neglected children I tardily set out to nurture in their teenhood.)
            I even put a post on Facebook yesterday, asking anyone with a spot in a reading series to drop me a note. I’ll do my best to drive there! I’ll work—teaching, meeting with students, a publishing talk! I’ll sleep in my car! I’ll dine on those little cans of Vienna sausages and packets of cheesy crackers!
            Desperation is so attractive, and such an effective marketing strategy. Still, I got some nibbles—a few friends with programs who are interested in working something out. Even one reading resulting from a desperate Facebook post is a good thing, and I’ll take it. I’ll read the hell out of those poems. I’ll talk poetry with students and let them see how magical they are for putting themselves out there and doing such important work. I’ll fill them with a fiery hot fervor for the word.
            And you don’t have to pay me a thing.
            That’s the weird part of my offer. I don’t actually believe in bringing in writers and not paying them. I believe in respecting the profession and the art, and in demonstrating with my actions that poetry has value. I have coordinated readings many times, and I have always considered it crucially important to make every guest feel special and valued—to feed them and make them comfortable, to not work them too hard, and to send them away with compensation in their pocket or, more often in the university setting, on its way in the mail.
            But here I am, offering up my services for Vienna sausages, and the Vienna sausages are negotiable.
            Ordinarily, when I write about the writing and editing life, I’m writing from a position of experience and knowledge. I have a set of experiences and I want to share them with readers to give them insight into, particularly, an editor’s thinking. I know what I’m talking about, and if I don’t, I know enough to say so in the spirit of creating dialogue on important issues. I make mistakes and I get carried away with the writing at times (an editor friend called me out recently on a tremendously disrespectful phrase I included in a post, when I chastised editors, like I often do, but included the words, “Buck up, Spunky!” Guess I liked the assonance of the expression, but I kind of made an ass out of myself).
            But I’ll go ahead and say it—my information is typically solid, and my opinions are based on years of experience and observation and, yes, mistakes. I think I have something to offer on these topics.
            When it comes to setting up readings for a forthcoming book, though, I’m lost. I’m hunting with a blunderbuss, rather than taking aim with the cool eye of a sniper. (I’m so lost I’ve resorted to rhetoric that glorifies guns.) Maybe this post is itself a cry for help. It’s certainly intended as a not-so-subtle plea for invitations to read in the next year or so (Write me! ! Will work for sausages!).
            In the back of my mind is the notion that someone needs to do something to make it easier for reading series planners to find poets and writers. My friend Neil Aitken, taking pity on a fool, wrote me to tell me about just such a service, one that he recently launched called Have BookWill Travel, which links reading opportunities and writers. Expect to see my ugly mug up there about fifteen minutes after I post this. (Neil posts headshots. The can of Vienna sausages will be just out of frame.)
When I write my posts for Better View of the Moon, I frequently offer advice, and while I appear to be writing it for an audience, sometimes I’m writing it for me. It’s a way of keeping myself focused and centered. I’ve hosted dozens of readers over the years, and I know a bit about how it goes. So here are some thoughts on the right way to try to set up readings. Karen Craigo, if you’re reading this, take a memo:

• Consider your value. What do people pay writers at your career stage? (More books can mean more money.) What’s the going rate for readings in your genre? (Fiction writers frequently get paid more than poets, which sucks, but is nonetheless true.) What are people paying in your area? What are they paying in the area you are targeting? Find that information and think about where you belong on the scale.
• Bear in mind that you are trying to set up a book tour. There is a different price point for the person who comes asking for a reading than there is for the person a program or reading series targets with an invitation. Sometimes, when you’re the one asking to come, it is a good deal to receive travel, food, and accommodations in exchange for a reading. If you’re asking to be part of a regular standing reading series, though, you may be tacitly asking to read for the regular rate of pay. If the reading series is in a university, there is usually a payment. If the reading series is at a bar or bookstore, there generally is not.
• Keep in mind your purpose in trying to set up a reading. My purpose at the moment is to get books into the hands of readers. As this is my first book, promotion is everything. I will not judge the success of my effort to set up readings by how much money I make; rather, I am looking to do justice to my poems and to build my reputation as an artist. This will undoubtedly increase my value—including my monetary value—for the future.
• Prepare a pitch with a bio. Have a website. Show people you approach that you are not a crazy lady—that you are legit. Be specific about the services you can offer. An angle I have to offer is expertise in literary journal publishing—a subject most writers are curious about. Emphasize what you can offer to audience members, as well as services you are willing to provide aside from the reading. (If you are ever asked to read somewhere and to do a talk or judge a contest or meet with students, you have the right to expect more compensation—but if you are trying to set up your own reading, you can throw in side offers as part of the package, to sweeten the deal.)
• Pinpoint the series you know—ones, ideally, you have attended. (I have a reading in the fall at the Writers Place in Kansas City—a place I know because I’ve gone to several events there, even though Kansas City is about three hours from my home.) Contact these series first. Then look within driving distance, because airfare drives up the cost to whomever is paying. Pinpoint universities and longstanding series. Go to where people are studying and writing poetry.

That’s all I’ve got. If any readers have good advice, I could certainly use it. Please post it in the comments. I offer you virtual Vienna sausages as a reward.


  1. At age 47, you are not late to the party from my viewpoint. I'm 58 and have only 2 online stories published. I do wish you good luck on getting a lot of readings and selling a lot of books!!!

    1. Stories are a much tougher sell than poetry -- I feel for you in the struggle! I tell myself it's never too late to make my own success story. Same for you! :)

  2. Arrange a reading for yourself at your local library--a book launch. Invite everyone you know--relatives, friends, neighbors. Put out some nice snacks. Increase the fun and reduce the stress by inviting another poet with a new book to do a joint reading with you. Btw--by nice snacks, I don't mean Vienna Sausages, though I confess to loving them.

    1. That sounds like excellent advice -- although I'm at a loss for what "nice snacks" could possibly mean now! :) It also sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. I feel you, Karen! My first book is out in October, and I've been contacting venues all over NYC, most of which don't even bother responding to my requests for more information. It's rough out there -- thanks for this post!