So you want to run a reading series, do you? That’s fantastic news! The more places authors have to showcase their work, the better. But while running a reading series may seem like a cakewalk to the casual outside observer, there are many things you must consider to make sure your series is successful.
I’ve been co-hosting the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan alongside Ellen Datlow for over eight years (the series itself has been running since the late 90s), and in that time I’ve learned many things about how to run a successful reading series, some of which I’ll share with you here.
I’m not going to lie. It’s work to run a series. Granted, it’s not a lot of work. You won’t be up late the night before crying and pulling out your hair like you’re cramming for a college test. (Okay, you might be, but likely not because of the reading series). But you’ll have to take it seriously. What I mean is that if you want your series to succeed, you’ll have to devote a significant amount of time and energy into it each month. I’ve seen many series fail because the organizers thought starting a series sounded like a great idea, when after a few months they discovered that catching up on their Netflix and that Brooklyn skee ball championship were higher priorities. And that’s perfectly fine; no judgment here. But you should know going in that you need to put in more than a modicum of effort to make it work.
One of the biggest reasons reading series fail is because the organizers aren’t patient enough. You can’t expect, after only a few months, to get the kind of attendance or snag the big names the long-running series have. It takes time to build an audience and a reputation in just the same way it does for writers, and you shouldn’t leap into things expecting immediate grandeur. But you should absolutely want best-selling authors and blow-out crowds. Because, really, if you don’t want that, then you might as well just invite a few friends over and throw a private reading party. Again, no judgment here. Nothing wrong with this, but it’s my philosophy that a reading series is all about promoting authors and should attempt to reach the maximum number of people as possible.
This goes along with being serious and being patient. Nothing is more off-putting to a professional author (or anyone, really) than a person who doesn’t respond to emails, who does things sloppily and half-baked, and in general shows that she doesn’t take the whole endeavor seriously. Return emails promptly. Answer any questions authors may have. Treat your guests the way you handle all your best professional relationships, and your series will gain a positive reputation.
Connect with People
So, how do you get authors to read at your series? You ask them. One of the best places to do this is conventions. (Most) authors love to read their work in front of an audience, and at conventions everyone’s already in a self-promotion mindset. One of the best moments for an author is to have a stranger come up to them and say, “Hey, I love your work. Would you consider reading for us?” And if you can’t do a real-life meet-up, there’s always social media and email. But in my experience, the in-person meet often works best. Don’t be afraid to simply walk up to someone, introduce yourself, and politely ask them if they’d like to read. And take risks! Maybe Jane Author isn’t a New York Times best-seller and is hardly known outside of a few small literary circles, but you read a half-dozen of her stories and loved them all. Take a chance and have her read at your series. If you liked her work, chances are others will too.
Give the Authors Something for Their Time
Let’s face it, even though the author is getting lots of free promotion by reading at your series, they still have to make the effort to travel to your city, book a hotel, and get to the event on the day itself. The absolute least you can do is give them something for their time. (Simply “allowing” them to read for you is not enough). Give them a stipend/honorarium. Buy them drinks and/or dinner. Give your guests something to show them that you appreciate their time and effort.
Promote the S**t Out Of Your Events
It goes without saying that in today’s glut of media, you have to rise above the noise to be heard, especially if you’re just starting out. Establish a social media presence. Make a website. Tweet, Facebook, Tumblr, and G+ the s**t out of your readings. Create an email list. Make a Facebook event. Ask the bar/venue to put it up on their website. Leave no promotional stone unturned. It will be really hard for people to come to your reading if they don’t know about it.
Find a Great Location
Here’s a hint: choose a place with alcohol, or bring your own. Writers, with some notable exceptions, love to drink. And while I don’t believe alcohol is necessary for healthy interpersonal relationships, alcohol does a tremendous amount of work to break the ice between people, especially writers. If your series is on a weekday after everyone is tired from work, a warm, welcoming place with inexpensive drinks and great readings is something they’ll look forward to. (NB: I’m not encouraging drunken driving. Make sure your venue is centrally located. Nothing is more discouraging to attendance than having to trek dozens of miles in a car or across three subway transfers.) In short: make it welcoming for folks. Make it easy.
Book Your Authors Far In Advance, But Have a Backup Plan
Travel planning takes time and effort. People are busy creatures. Don’t email Jane Author and ask her to read next Tuesday. Ask her to read next Fall. And maybe try to have her visit coincide with a nearby convention. “Oh, I heard you regularly attend Whatzit Con. We’re only 90 miles from there. Would you be interested in reading for us the Wednesday before?” Also, have a backup reader. Plans change, things come up, and readers will cancel, often at the last minute. Have someone on hand who can read on short notice.
Treat Your Guests as Just That: Guests
This goes along with giving your guests something for their time, but it’s more than simply giving them remuneration. During your reading, for the hour or two they are in your care, you must treat your authors as if they are the Guests of Honor at your own mini-convention. Be solicitous. Keep them hydrated. Ask them if they need anything to be more comfortable. Pay attention to them and don’t wander off to socialize and have a drink with your friends. For the duration of the night, make sure they’re happy and comfortable. But try not to be over-solicitous and helicoptery. Let your guests find their own comfort zone.
As I said, a reading series should be primarily about promoting authors, and selling books is a huge part of this. But this will likely be the most difficult aspect of running a successful series. You probably won’t have too much trouble finding a location to host your reading. But finding willing booksellers will be another matter. Approach your local indie or chain bookstore and ask them if they’d be willing to sell books at your series. Many will be reluctant to do so, especially if you can’t guarantee sales. If they turn you down, keep trying. Employees leave and new folks come in with different philosophies. Re-approach them in a few months when you have a larger audience and more well-known guests. And make sure you let the authors know what books will be for sale at the event. If their books won’t be available, tell your authors they can bring a stack of their own to sell.
Ultimately, Have Fun
Running a reading series takes some work, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery. You get to hang out with your favorite authors and listen to great fiction, usually before everyone else does. You get to build a salon from the ground up, where like-minded fans and creators can congregate regularly. A reading series is like having a mini-convention every month, and so you get benefit from the best aspects of that. Enjoy yourself. You’re doing this because you love it.
I will end with this: When Gavin Grant, publisher extraordinaire of Small Beer Press, approached me in 2008 to take over his role as co-host of Fantastic Fiction at KGB, I initially demurred. I wanted to sit quietly in the back, drink my Baltika porter, and listen to great fiction. I didn’t want to have to work while there.
Unsure of what to do, I picked up my phone and called my friend Mercurio D. Rivera, an attorney by trade, who was in the middle of a trial. For some reason — fate? — he picked up. “I’m thinking of saying no,” I told him. And he breathlessly replied, “Whatever you do, don’t decide now! Think on it.” Later, he and the members of our writing group Altered Fluid convinced me I’d be throwing away a great opportunity if I turned Gavin down.
And here I am, eight years later, thinking, What a damned fool I was! Co-hosting Fantastic Fiction has been and continues to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I’ve never once regretted my decision. I wish the same success and happiness for you.
(If anyone has any specific questions about running a reading series, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments section below.)
Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award-nominated author and World Fantasy-award nominated editor. Queen of Static, book two in his Worldmender trilogy, publishes in March 2017. His short fiction has appeared in many venues, such as Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9.com, Apex Magazine, Interzone, and other markets. With partner-in-crim Ellen Datlow he hosts the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan. Find him online at matthewkressel.net.