A memoirist, novelist, music theorist, and economics author walked into a bar. No, it’s not a setup for a joke: They were at the bar because they were all there to read from their respective books at an event I went to last week. It was an event that no one — authors or audience members — left happy. I myself left scratching my head. Why are events with multiple unrelated authors so common? And why don’t they — with rare exceptions — ever work?
At this particular event, most of the audience was there to either support a friend or to support the website that was hosting the reading. So their expectations were low: They were there out of a sense of obligation. The applause was desultory, the audience shifted around in their seats a lot, and they talked over some of the readers’ performances. It was obvious that most of them were counting down the minutes until their friend’s turn ended, and they could finally leave.
What made this extra sad was that most of the readers were excellent. Each could have easily done a great event on their own, or could been paired up with a more appropriate co-reader if their topic had been framed in a meaningful way. Instead they were all squished together because the underlying assumption that very few people would want to see each of them separately. The website that organized event must have thought that the only way to fill the bar would be to add up several small audiences to create one bigger one.
This is such a misguided approach — and not, incidentally, an approach that sells any books.
Let’s be clear: Maximizing the number of authors to maximize the number of people in the room is well-intentioned but ultimately not productive. I think of it as the Sizzler approach to readings: It leaves everyone stuffed, but still unsatisfied. If you’ve never had the treat of going to a Sizzler, it’s a restaurant where a cacophonous salad bar is your main option, ensuring that you’ll stuff yourself with some weird, indigestible combination of foods, like fried shrimp and penne a la vodka and jello salad and pea soup and clams casino. All good things, but together — yuck.
Luckily, there’s an alternative to this approach. Actually, there are several alternatives. There are well-thought-out events that focus on just one reader, or a pairing of two authors who have something in common, or a panel that’s been picked with foresight and concern for what an audience might want to take away from an experience. Take, for example, the well-crafted events at SXSW. Panel organizers are required to agonize over the content, context, and target audience for their offerings before they’re considered for the program. The organizers are even required to collect some audience feedback and support before their panels are approved.
Because of this planning and proposal process, organizers can’t get away with mashing a few random speakers together and hoping for the best. Instead, they have to hone their ideas until they’re perfect. And that’s why people pay thousands of dollars to attend. These panels are exciting experiences. But the difference between those excellent panels and the bad event I went to last week isn’t a difference in the quality of the speakers. The difference is in the framework for the event.
As authors, we spend so much time on what goes into the book. How that content is presented really matters, but the post-publication part of a book’s life often gets little planning. Events, and the way they’re framed, are important because they’re how we start to form a relationship with the reader. I wish I’d spent more time really thinking about what goes into a great event when my book was first published. When events are done right, it makes a tremendous difference.