I was recently discussing readings with a bunch of authors with new books coming out. It had never occurred to me what an advantage it is to come from the world of poetry. Readings are just sort of a regular part of being a poet. We do them a lot. We do them for journals. We do them for fundraisers. We do them because it’s Thursday. I think for many novelists and non-fiction writers, the readings start when the first book comes out. That’s such a high-pressure introduction. Readings are hard to do well. There’s a performative aspect that takes years to master, but then there's the question of getting people to show up, and that’s also a skill. I can’t really break down how to give a good performance, but I can talk about how to get a crowd.
1) Get co-readers. This is especially important for out-of-town readings. You need a few local readers with friends in that city. You want readers who are dynamic and well-connected. It never hurts to mix genres. Throw in some poets. Poets already know they have to bring their friends. If you have a reading alone, maybe you manage to get 4 of your friends to come. If you have a reading with 3 other people, and they each bring 4 friends, you have an audience of 19. (The other readers count. They also haven’t bought your book yet, and now they have to because you set up this reading, and it’s only polite.)
2) Actually bring your friends. This doesn’t just mean make an event on Facebook and send invites. This means personally reach out to your friends. Send them emails and private messages and call them and apply guilt. Obviously, use the amount of pressure that’s appropriate given the relationship and the importance of the event (if you give a lot of readings locally, think carefully about which ones are important enough to harass people over). Don’t send personal messages to everyone you don’t actually know on Facebook, but your core support people? Yes. Remember that all your co-readers are doing this too, and you don’t want to let them down.
3) Do you know people who teach at area colleges? (English, or Creative Writing, or something that dovetails with your topic.) Send them a note that “Hey, we’re doing this reading and thought your students might be in need of an extra credit opportunity.” Not only will students regularly show up for extra credit, but it’s actually really good for them. Many students have never been to a reading. They think it’s cool. They like meeting the writers and getting books signed.
4) If you're lucky enough to be hosted by a college or bookstore, sweet. If you're setting up your own reading, have it in a bar. Poets have known this for years. Mostly, it’s because no one invites us to bookstores, and also, poets don’t like to go places where they can’t get drunk.* But it does make for a pretty appealing invitation, and you can promise the people you’re pressuring that you’ll buy them a drink if they come. Bars have all the sound equipment you'll need (and you'll need it; bars can be loud). They will generally give you the space for free if you want to come in the early evening. These tend to be really fun events with a lot more socializing, though expect a less attentive audience. Contact your favorite bookstore about having someone on hand to sell books for you if you think you’ve got a decent crowd coming. Their willingness to do so will probably depend on your line-up and whether you’ve got anyone reading who’s enough of a headliner to make it worthwhile. (Keep in mind that things work a little differently for poets and other small-press-published authors, and they will probably bring their own copies and sell them themselves.)
5) Go to other readings. This is actually the most important step, and if you haven’t already done it by the time you’re setting up your reading, it’s probably too late. You need to know who the best readers are (so you can ask them to read with you). You need to know who the most reliable audience members are (I can tick off the 5-10 local people most likely to be at any reading they know about, and so I make sure to tell them about mine). This sounds mercenary, but it’s really more about building community, about learning your own literary community, about giving back. The more of a known entity you are (not in terms of prestige, but in terms of the number of people saying, “Oh, my friend is reading. She’s cool”), the more of a crowd you’ll draw. The more time you’ve spent rooting for other people, the more people you’ll have in the room (hopefully a bar) rooting for you.
* More of a performance note: Drunk readers are terrible, terrible readers. Do not have a drink to settle your nerves before you read. Really. A shaky voice is forgivable. Slurring is not.