What my worst book reading taught me.

The final straw came after a six-hour drive to a museum in a college town in upstate New York.

On the drive, I’d imagined a packed university crowd, full of wise professors and eager young space nerds —my people, the kind of crowd I’d spoken to just days earlier. But when I rolled into the empty parking lot of the museum, my heart sank. I walked in and gave my talk as best I could to two non-English-speaking tourists and four misbehaved kids.

Afterwards, I was so demoralized that I wanted to crawl into bed. Instead, I had a long drive back to Brooklyn to figure out what had gone wrong.

My first revelation was that I’d made some pretty obvious mistakes. For one thing, I hadn’t even promoted the event. Months into my book promotion, I was exhausted. I had stopped looking for niche audiences. I had also stopped reaching out personally to local groups. I’d behaved this way less out of laziness and more of fear and self-preservation. It was just too painful to put my reputation on the line again if there was a good chance the event was going to fail, and I didn’t want to alienate my readers by inviting people to empty events. I hadn’t really tried to be a good partner for my hosts. Instead, I’d just blindly trusted them, feeling like it was my only hope.

Even if you write non-fiction, magical realism can play a big part of your personal publicity strategy. But now I was done. I didn’t want to do any more events with imagined readers. On that drive home, I officially gave up on promoting my book the way I’d been doing it: via prayer, hope and begging people to come.

When I started out, author events had seemed so promising. They were the only way I could imagine, besides being plucked from obscurity by Oprah, to actually build an audience for my brand of quirky science writing. Each new event host promises lots of book customers when you arrive. And the maddening thing was, some events did deliver. But sometimes no one bought a book. There was no reliable way to replicate the times I’d had success. Why?

As I realized that day, it’s because the basic unit of book promotion is broken.

People love experiences and culture but they don’t turn out to see an author read. Maybe the events are taking place in locations and at times that don’t match audiences’ needs. Maybe it’s wrong, in some instances, to make authors do events for free, with a vague promise of book sales as the only enticement. Maybe if people had a stake, however small, in the events they attended, they’d be likelier to show up and participate.

We need a better way to match the people who want events to happen with the people and hosts who want to connect with audiences and sell books. And we need everyone’s help. Otherwise, the only “authors” who visit your local bookstore will be people like Snooki and Sarah Palin, i.e., established media personalities whose publishers feel they’re worth investing the time and energy involved in creating events. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone who’s not already a bankable star is denied the opportunity to find an audience. Do you?

We need to bring back value to events, and one way to do that is to make all events have a price. That way,we know that the audience is committed before the author, publicist, bookseller or librarian agrees to do the event. When authors or their publishers can set a minimum price for funding an event—say, sell 25 books or get 75 people to RSVP — we’d be able to make more good events happen in more places, while eliminating a lot of the uncertainty and stress associated with planning, and the waste associated with bad events.

Now comes the hard part. We have to get publishers and authors to decide that their time is worth something. And booksellers and librarians must also decide that their spaces are worth something. Only then can we use the events in those spaces to build ties to the communities who want them.

I’ve seen this promised land, and it’s glorious. Long after I’d given up on my tour, it was time to promote the paperback. With nothing to lose, I decided to test my idea out. A university sophomore asked me to give a talk. I was unsure he could get an audience but I said, “No problem, if you can you get 50 people to commit in the next four weeks, I’ll come speak the following month.” He said, “I think I could do it.”

I didn’t think he had a prayer, but that didn’t matter. He proved me wrong. Two weeks later, he had fifty firm commitments from his network and his network was sharing it with their networks. And by the time I actually spoke 65 new readers were there to listen. More importantly, when I saw that he was actually making progress, I had the opportunity to help fuel the excitement by engaging with the process.

When we make readers and authors partners, we change the dynamic of a book reading. What was once an act of pushing something on people– Please come. Please come. Please come– becomes a meaningful collaboration. That’s how it should be all the time.