Some writers are big enough celebrities that they can draw sizable crowds to their promotional book readings. However, most other writers nervously brace for what they expect to be a small turnout.
Tonight, I heard Adam L. Penenberg, author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, do a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village. Leading up to the book's release, Penenberg conducted a wealth of marketing to generate buzz for his book.
Nevertheless, Penenberg doesn't have the recognizable name (despite some niche fame) to attract an audience of intrigued followers. So he, like many authors, approached his reading as a relatively unknown and unproven writer hoping to make a splash with his latest book.
Although there were only 30 people in attendance for his reading, Penenberg led it skillfully. Amateur writers should take note of some of Penenberg's successes:
1. Be yourself; stay loose. In his opening remarks and during his reading, Penenberg provided voices for characters and delivered off-the-cuff commentary such as "We've all been there" that kept things fresh.
2. Show appreciation. Penenberg thanked his family, friends, agent and editor who showed up. More notably, when James Hong, an interview subject for the book arrived to show his support, Penenberg interrupted the Q&A to introduce Hong.
3. Give a short set-up to your reading. Keep it as brief as you can. Penenberg spoke about how viral culture first caught his eye while he was reporting for Fast Company. It gives the audience a little bit of context without being a distraction.
4. Read from the prologue. Most prospective book buyers will skim the beginning of the book to get a taste for what's inside. It should encourage writers to invest significant effort into the introductions to their books, recognizing it will be used for more than just a simple overview of what is to follow. Penenberg's first section touched on the key topics that he explores throughout the book.
5. Show you've considered the book's big ideas. Penenberg is a dynamic storyteller whose research enables him to fashion together dialogue and details. But the larger lessons from the book, about viral marketing, come from thinking about and analyzing the trends and tales that he's captured. Penenberg is now using some lessons to promote his book online. Other writers can follow suit by disclosing what they've learned from being around the book's central figures.
6. Know your limitations. Several of the audience members were clearly looking for tricks to make their own businesses and Web sites go viral. Penenberg treaded carefully making sure to point out how he can't make predictions for what works and what doesn't. He did, on the other hand, provide insight on the successes that he studied.
7. Listen to the audience; stay open. Penenberg called on everyone who had his hand raised, including several people who went a second time. The Q&A definitely went longer than he'd anticipated, but Penenberg was a sport. He even paid close attention when an audience member who didn't have a question recommended an iPhone application for Penenberg to check out afterward.
8. Address the bad with the good. Penenberg talked about some failed viral efforts, e-mail Spam, and how Ponzi schemes fit into the "bad virality" out there. He even stated that trying to be viral can itself ruin the effort to become viral. Writers need to tell the complete story and not just highlight the successes that line up with their prospective theories.
9. Cite statistics. People like specifics. Some of the best points Penenberg made were when he talked about sites' fast-growing traffic and numbers for average user sessions. It helps writers come across as well-versed in the subject when they have numbers ready to back up their claims.
10. Keep in touch. Penenberg ended his Q&A by revealing his e-mail address so that people can contact him for follow-up questions. He mentioned how writers are stepping up efforts to publicize their books and to keep people interested. Access is the best way to accomplish that goal. More writers should follow this lead and welcome feedback from the audience. It further breaks down the deteriorating wall between writer and reader.
And that's how you run a solid book reading without requiring people to know who you are, or your work, ahead of time.