Ellen Urbani’s Tips for a Successful Author Reading

Today, we’re bringing you a post from Ellen Urbani who was our closing keynote at the 2016 Willamette Writers Conference.

In 2015, Ellen Urbani toured the South with her novel Landfall (Forest Avenue Press, 2015). The tour brought in overflow crowds and pushed Landfall up on the bestseller lists. Upon her return to Portland, Ellen had another successful book event for Landfall, this time at Powell’s City of Books where she spoke to an overflow crowd of 280. Here’s what she has to share about author readings.

Ellen Urbani’s Approach to Author Readings

the ability to captivate is, to my way of thinking, an essential element of public performance that authors too often fail to consider.

Here’s the truth about author readings: I often find them terribly boring.

I realize this is, perhaps, a soul-scarring admission–for what author willingly admits to being bored by the lifeblood of one’s profession? But I think the very thing that makes so many authors great writers is the same thing that makes them terrible event headliners: they’re brooders, not performers, and I think of any staged public event–from a concert to a theatrical staging to a book reading–as a performance.

Good event headliners must, in my opinion, perform. Which is not to say one must falsify (i.e. acting like someone one is not), but instead that one must endeavor to captivate the consciousness of a room.

There are a thousand ways to do this: with quiet gentility, with boundless enthusiasm, with sarcasm or plaintiveness or intellectual authority. Regardless, the ability to captivate is, to my way of thinking, an essential element of public performance that authors too often fail to consider.

How To Give A Successful Author Reading

Book readings are not akin to book writing. They take a whole different skill set that must be practiced to be perfected.

I think, I hope, I’ve gotten better in the year I’ve been touring with Landfall, and here are the most vital things I’ve learned:

  1. Use stunts only if they are sincere.
    Stunts (like singing that Roll Tide anthem at the Powell’s launch) endear you to an audience only if they’re sincere. I really do love the South, and I’m gonzo for Alabama football, and I truly wanted to share that with the people who showed up to support me that day.
  2. Vulnerability is your friend.
    I’m a horrible singer who should NEVER break into song in front of anything but a mirror–and everyone who heard me sing the University of Alabama fight song at the Powell’s launch understood that truism–but it proved I trusted the audience to be kind to me, and so they were. Nine months after that Powell’s launch, touring in France, I told a personal story that made me cry, and everyone in the bookstore cried along with me. Don’t hold back from your audience out of fear or aloofness or reserve. They can only follow you as far as you lead them, so lead them somewhere meaningful.
  3. Give readers something they can’t discover independently.
    Readers can hold onto your book for a lifetime if they want to, but they only get you–the physical company of you–for an hour at best. Why waste that hour exclusively reading what’s in the book they can read on their own? Give them something they can’t discover independently: the backstory, the full range of the motives that led you to write what they’re reading, the answers to questions they don’t know to ask. Your book will introduce you, the author, to your readers. So introduce them to you, the person, at your book events.
  4. Never forget who is serving whom at a book event.
    Attendees do you a great favor by leaving behind needy family members and dirty dishes and incontinent pets to show up to support you. Despite dozens of other things they could do with their time, they chose to shower their attention on you. It is a gift. Be worthy of it. 
  5. Say thank you. 

Ellen-UrbaniEllen Urbani is the author of Landfall (Forest Avenue Press, 2015), a work of historical fiction set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the memoir When I Was Elena (The Permanent Press, 2006), a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. Her autobiographical essays and short stories have appeared in a variety of bestselling pop-culture anthologies as well as the New York Times.

Having spent her formative years in Virginia and Alabama, Ellen’s a Southerner at heart—meaning her pets will always be dawgs and any group of two or more is consistently referred to as y’all—though she currently lives on a working farm near Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two young children, and a passel of barnyard pets.

Learn more about Ellen on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter @ellenurbani.

Willamette Writers and Author Readings

If you’re interested in practicing the skill of reading your work in public or if you’d like to support other writers as they do so, we have a couple of opportunities for you this month and beyond.

In Corvallis, we invite you to attend WWotR’s Quarterly Reading. This event is part of our Corvallis Chapter’s quarterly reading program taking place every March, June, September, and December. WWotR’s quarterly readings are free and open to all writers.

In Portland, join Willamette Writers Portland’s CREATE event at Barnes and Noble in Clackamas Town Center. This event kicks off our new program created by our Portland Chapter in partnership with Barnes and Noble. Members are invited to apply to present through the program by emailing Kate Ristau and Bill Johnson, the Portland Chapter Chairs.

And at the conference, join our open mic event on Friday evening.

We’d like to thank Ellen Urbani for this contributed post; we hope you enjoyed the read and would love to hear your thoughts and questions about author readings here on Facebook and here on Twitter.