Re-Imagining the Author Talk in Three Parts

In September, my fourth novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, will publish, and for at least a year, I will be speaking about my book to audiences of all sizes.

Before I began my first book tour back in 2009 for Something Missing, I attended the reading of a bestselling author. The appearance lasted a little more than an hour, and nearly the entire time was consumed with the author reading from his new book.

I literally watched audience members nod off as he read.

A friend who accompanied me to the event leaned over as the author droned on and asked, "Is this what you're going to have to do? Because if it is, I'm not coming."

I vowed to avoid reading from my books whenever possible from that day on.

Since publishing Something Missing in the summer of 2009, I have spoken about my books hundreds of times in bookstores, libraries, colleges, literary festivals, weekend retreats, middle schools, high schools and book clubs. While I occasionally read from my books, I do so only when an audience member or the person hosting the event absolutely insists.

When I read, I always make it exceedingly short. A page or two at most.

For me, an author appearance is an opportunity to introduce myself, rather than my books, to an audience. While I hope to provide lots of background information about my books and interest audience members enough to purchase one, I believe that there is more long term value in making fans than in making immediate sales.

On more than one occasion, I have chosen to forgo speaking about my books entirely. Not one mention of title or plot or characters.

I've always felt that if an audience likes me and finds me interesting, they will eventually read my books.

When I speak to an audience, my goal is to be a storyteller. I want to entertain. Make them laugh. Provide new and unusual insights. Make a deep and lasting connection.

I don't want audience members to walk away feeling like they just received the hard sell. I don't want them to understand the plot or characters of my book better. I want them to know me better as a person, and with some luck, they will want to know even more.

My author appearances typically consist of three parts.

Part 1 is pure storytelling. It usually fills more than half of the time that I am speaking. I assemble as many amusing, unusual or interesting stories surrounding the book as possible and share them with the audience. These are stories about the actual process of writing the book, personal stories that connect to characters and plot lines, and stories from my life that provided inspiration for the book.

For my most recent book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, the list included stories about:

  • My imaginary friend from my own childhood
  • The teacher who served as a model for a character in the book
  • Instances of bullying from my own childhood
  • My dog and cat
  • The process of naming of characters in the book
  • The origins and extent of my personal existential crisis
  • The surprising process of writing the final act of the book
  • My initial reluctance to write the book and the reason I finally got started
  • The discovery of the epilogue
  • My fourth grade cubicle
  • My work as an elementary school teacher

Each of these stories has a specific connection to the book (some stronger and more direct than others), but more importantly, each story illuminates an aspect of my life while making audience members laugh and think and connect.

Part 2 consists of a series of book recommendations. I bring a stack of books to every author appearance and share these recommendations with the audience, occasionally reading tiny, oftentimes humorous snippets from the texts. I try to include a mix of genre and formats, and I always have a story or anecdote to tell about each book that I am going to recommend. If I love a book, but have nothing to say about it in terms of a story, I don't bring it to my author appearances.

This process of recommending of books serves three purposes:

  1. It gives the audience a chance to get to know me as a reader.
  2. It gives me a chance to promote the authors who I love.
  3. Most important, it gives me another opportunity to tell stories about myself and the books that I adore.

If I'm speaking in a bookstore and someone chooses to purchase one of the books that I'm recommending, I offer to sign the book, either with my own name or -- even better -- the name of the actual author.

I refer to it as "signing by authorial proxy." I hope my fellow authors don't mind. I have signed the names of many authors in my time, including William Shakespeare, Nicholson Baker, David Sedaris, Stephen King, Nora Ephron and most often, Kate DiCamillo.

Part 3 is a question and answer session. I always begin this portion of the talk by encouraging the audience to ask anything that they would like and offering a reward for the "strangest, most interesting or most challenging question asked."

This prize is often a foreign edition of my book or a galley that an author or publisher has sent me or a book from my own shelf that I have read and am ready to give away.

I encourage audience members to try to stump me, embarrass me, shock me or put me on the spot with their questions, because I know that this often leads to entertaining moments for the rest of the audience.

One of the strangest question I ever received (and it was asked in all sincerity) was:

"What role do your ex-girlfriends and former lovers play in your writing life?"

When I asked the woman why she asked the question, she replied:

"You look like the kind of guy who has a lot of ex-girlfriends."

I have yet to determine if this was a compliment or an insult.

While the real answer to her question was that my ex-girlfriends have yet to play a role in my fiction, I used the opportunity to weave in three amusing stories about ex-girlfriends, one which had the audience roaring with laughter.

Every opportunity to tell a story should be seized by the throat.

I have also learned that you cannot rely on audience questions for the bulk of your talk, because there are times when you simply will not be asked very many questions. I have attend author talks where the author spoke for ten minutes and than asked for questions that never came.

It was a brief and awkward experience for all involved.

If I was guaranteed an unending stream of questions, I would almost prefer to transform my whole talk a question-and-answer session, since this would probably result in the most dynamic and surprising of exchanges. But audiences are a fickle bunch. Some have questions but are too nervous to ask them in front of others. Others simply wish to be passive participants in the event. Sometimes people just can't think of anything to ask. And sometimes people want to go home because their favorite television show is coming on at 9:00.

I've had to stop answering questions after an hour, and I've also received only one or two token questions from the event host.

In order to guarantee a few questions and perhaps break the ice for the audience, I ask for questions via social media the day before a talk, and I always come to an appearance with three questions - written on notecards - stuffed in my pocket. Oftentimes answering of just one of these questions will open up a deluge from the audience.

Once I am done speaking, I remain behind to sign books, but I also invite audience members to ask me any additional questions that they did not want to ask publicly while I sign their book. This leads to quite a bit of discussion, and many times I end up leading a second question-and-answer session with the most hardcore book lovers who have not already left.

This is one of my favorite parts of an author talk. These are the people I typically want to get to know best. These are the people who read fifty books a year and will go to work tomorrow talking about me and my stories.

These are the people who will become legitimate fans of my work.

I always make sure that I am the last person to leave a venue. This demands that I remain behind for a few extra minutes, but to that reader who lingers a little longer than most, those few extra minutes mean a lot.

Lastly, I try not to take any of the cookies or baked goods offered to me. Even when the host asks me to take a few home to my wife and children, I invariably eat about half of them on the ride home.

I speak a lot. The calories add up quickly.

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