Monday, May 5, 2014

My First Public Reading (Writing as a Spectator Sport)

By Gamal Hennessy

Writers have to use every method they can think of to create interest for their work. Most of our efforts focus on social media and internet channels, because in theory they provide the best results for the lowest cost. The bulk of my advertising also takes place online, but last week I had the chance to try something different that other writers might want to consider. All it takes are friends, liquor and a considerable lack of stage fright.

Falling in My Lap

In my first writing venture, I created articles and interviews about New York nightlife for a site called New York Nights. This allowed me to meet and drink with a lot of amazing and interesting people. I met singers, bartenders, owners and hedonists of all types. I maintained those relationships as my work expanded from nonfiction to fiction. Last month, I got an invitation from one of those connections to perform my work in public.

A beautiful woman named Jess Domain had a series of shows at a bar in Manhattan’s Theater District. She had enough of a following to do all the shows on her own, but as an artist, she wanted to try something different. She knew I have a novel coming out, so she asked me if I would be willing to read a chapter from the new book during her set. As a general rule, I avoiding saying no to beautiful women, so I agreed and tried to figure out a way to maximize this opportunity.

The Best Laid Plans

I decided that this public reading could help me in two distinct ways. First, I could drag a ton of books to the show and sell them after my reading. Once people got a taste of my craft, they’d line up to buy a copy of their own, right? Second, I could have the reading recorded for YouTube and then post it as a trailer to help bolster sales online. If a public reading could get people in the bar to buy the book, then the same thing would work as a video, right? Based on these optimistic theories, I scrambled to get things in place for my moment in the spotlight.

The idea of selling books at the event fell apart quickly. The date of my reading was two weeks before the scheduled release of A Taste of Honey and I didn’t have copies available yet. Of course, because I needed results quickly, the entire post production process fell apart . My normally reliable cover designer vanished for Spring Break. My interior formatting with CreateSpace hit a snag that still hasn’t been resolved. There was no time to get any books printed, so I resigned myself to the consolation prize of asking people to join the mailing list if they wanted more information about the book.

The video recording went better. Another friend of mine in the TV production business went above and beyond to help me. He got two professional video cameras and set them up on either side of the stage. He showed up an hour early to coordinate with the event manager and the sound engineer to make sure everything worked. Then he recorded the whole show, switching back and forth from his fixed camera to the mobile one to generate the B roll (which from what I understand is TV talk for secondary footage). I haven’t seen the edited footage yet, but whatever comes out is going to be better than anything I could have recorded on my phone.

Riding the Rollercoaster

I don’t have a problem with speaking in public. I turned down an invitation to get my masters in speech writing because I decided to go to law school (not the best choice in hindsight, but that’s another story). But even natural public speaker needs to practice before they go on stage, so I spent the week reading, recording and re-reading the first chapter of my book to make it feel natural when I read it in front of people.

I didn’t realize about this process would drag me through an intellectual rollercoaster. On Monday I went through a dry run and thought I sounded fine. On Tuesday I decided a few words needed to be changed to make the text flow better. On Wednesday I thought I should re-write the first chapter completely. On Thursday I kept tripping over myself trying to edit the book out loud as I read it. On Friday I thought the whole thing would be a disaster. When Monday came back around, I came to peace with my words. I just wanted to get the thing over with so I wouldn’t have to read the same damn chapter over and over again.

Under the Spotlight

The reading itself turned out to be anticlimactic. The ripple effects had a more profound impact.

When I got there, I didn’t know if the bar would be packed or empty. I announced the event on social media, but every event in New York competes with hundreds of others every night. I didn’t know how many people would actually show up. A handful of my friends sat with me at my table and maybe two dozen other drinkers sat in attendance. When Jess called me up on stage, there was just enough life in the room to make things feel real.

For the most part, my rendition of chapter one went well. Another group celebrating a surprise birthday party in the back room threw in a few outbursts to keep me on my toes. The lights on a performance stage (even a small one) will instantly reduce anyone to a sweaty mess, but I kept my composure and my cool during the reading. People responded well to both the reading and my semi-spontaneous jokes. I didn’t stand close enough to the microphone and I might have tripped up on the last word, but the performance ended as more of a success than a failure.  

The special part happened after the reading ended. A pair of random strangers came up to me asking to be on the mailing list. Jess wanted me to read at more mixed media shows because we got such a good response. My friends came up to me at the bar to tell me how proud they were of me because I wrote a book. Other friends who couldn’t make it echoed the same sentiments in text messages and FB posts. Rain fell on New York City when I left the bar and I appreciated that because it prevented anyone from seeing if I might have been crying. (I can’t confirm or deny actual tears. Let’s just say I appreciated all the positive reaction)


I don’t think I’m going to sell any more copies of my book because I did a public reading. I am happy that I got the chance to do it and I would definitely do it again. Like many aspects of independent publishing, the benefits of reading your work in public affect you in ways that can’t be measured by your bank account.

Have you read your work in public?

If you haven’t would you be willing to do it?

Let me know in the comments.

Have fun.

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