February 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am

8 Ways to Make Book Readings Awesome


Honestly, I love books more than money, sex, or bourbon. But book readings are often a pretty lame way to spend an evening. They’re pompous, silly, poorly planned, and excruciatingly dull. They accomplish nothing. And the majority of people who come to book readings have already read the book so it’s not even like they’re good marketing ploys.

Reader-friends, it doesn’t have to be this way! Books are awesome, most authors are engaging, intelligent people, and bookstores are certainly the fun places we all love. Therefore, let’s bring our noggins together and think up a bunch of ways to turn these indomitably boring events into lively festivals of literary hoopla and excitement. Let me start us off with 8 suggestions:

#1. No introductions – This will cut down the pomp by a solid 50%. No blathering adulations or list of prizes. Just say the author’s name, a book title or two, and get the show on the road.

#2. Don’t let the author sit down – Get kinetic, Orhan Pamuk! Let’s move it, Lydia Davis! Shake that money-maker a tad Marilynn Robinson! Give us some energy and zest. Do a little hula and shimmy shimmy. No chair, no podium, no hammock or beanbag contraption to rest your writerly body on. Instead move around and hell, if the energy sags, do what the jazz musicians do and improvise a sentence or two.

#3. Shout “BAM” before turning each page – “The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she—BAM!!!—had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me.” That’s right, read it, Fitzgerald!

#5. Gesticulate rabidly, do 10 minutes of reading max, and if the reading gets boring accept the occasional heckle – “Hey Cheever, you suck tattersal cock!”

#6. End by telling us a local anecdote, good bookstore memory, or about your literary arch-nemesis – This will help personalize the event. A little showmanship goes a long way in creating a compelling public experience.

#7. Don’t let that person in the audience ask questions – This is BY FAR the most important suggestion because you know EXACTLY who I mean. We can’t let this person hijack the show. Have courage, bookstore employees! Even if the question-asker is a regular who always buys hardcover, tell them the gag order’s in effect for the common good of everyone else. We thank you greatly.

#8. Serve booze or juice and light snacks afterward – It’s why people love art events, the free wine and Triscuits. Somebody could take a dump on the floor of his sublet and so long as there was two-buck chuck, Cheese Nips, and a trendy promotional flyer loads of people would come to view it. Food equals turn out. Turn out equals energy and press. Also, free Ritz crackers and tiny paper cups of wine will get people to stick around and probably buy the author’s journeyman collection of short stories.

Now these suggestions are just Part 1. Part 2 involves more excitement and maybe violence. We need to take dramatic steps to invigorate today’s literary players so they’ll create engaging personae, which will outlive them. We need a new flock of writers to replace the likes of Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal, and Hunter S. Thompson.

At AWP this year, the coordinators should host off-site events to keep everybody on their toes. Perhaps a charity boxing match between Colson Whitehead and Richard Ford. Or a street rumble between people who like prose poems and the rest of the world. Somebody can take a folding chair to Gary Shteyngart’s face WWF style. I’d pay money to see that. Violence and fiendishness are, weirdly enough, sometimes useful shortcuts to developing literary personae. Let’s make this thing memorable. BAM!!


Alex Kalamaroff is a 26-year-old writer living in Boston. He works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here or follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.



  1. Matt Rowan

      The issues with readings come up from time to time. I know some of the stuff here is tongue-in-cheek but it at least partly comes from the truth that too many readings are stodgy uptight affairs (so I hear). I suppose that in turn comes with having the incumbent decorum of the literary establishment if you’re attending them on the east coast. I’ve heard of plenty there, though, that sound awesome. Watching video of Sasha Fletcher perform, for example, is amazing. But happily, here in Chicago and I’d say most of the surrounding Midwest cities a lot of these things just don’t happen. I’m rarely bored at readings. I can say that for certain. We have so many good readers and reading series hosts around these parts, not to brag too much.

  2. Kara Clark

      also, author/book reading planner: maybe don’t tell us what will be read, like at a concert.

      Let us assume the author’s entire body of work (or really anything) is on the table. We’ll shout out requests! We’ll start the joke of requesting one story at every and any reading we go to, the equivalent of yelling “Play Free Bird!”

      “Read ‘Cathedral’!!”
      “Read ‘The Enormous Radio!’!!” and so on.

  3. BuzzK

      Will “Boom!” also work or is “BAM!” pretty much it?
      Also, is it appropriate for the author to plant hecklers? Just in case…

  4. shaun gannon

      i am infinity percent behind #1. unless the speaker does something funny/interesting in their introduction and basically make it not an actual intro, it’s just going to make me think worse of the person about to read, specifically, that they are boring.

      my grad program does monthly readings, and the only people coming to those are people who know the readers (okay, sometimes 1-5 people end up in the reading room and stick around to drink in silence), so why are you giving a straightforward introduction about this person and their writing? we know the person you’re speaking about and we’ve seen their work, we’re all in the same g.d. workshop.

      and regarding those strangers, what in those stodgy introductions is supposed to appeal to them? the polite-titter non-jokes, with the “but seriously…” transition into some “heartfelt” yet pompous gushing about the upcoming writer’s work? Like they gotta be built up by someone else before they can get onstage and read? Son you better already be fully built before you get up in front of a roomful of people and make them listen to you talk longer than they should have to listen (because everyone goes over, always, because they’re SURE that they’re the exceptions, they deserve it, the audience deserves it)

  5. Alex Kalamaroff

      Dear Matt,

      Thanks for your input! While I’m joking around here, I do think a lot of book readings are super dull. I live in Boston, where with the bookstore events, library shindigs, and campus activities, you could hit up two or three readings an evening and not even seen a third of what’s out there on any given night.

      I think one realistic problem is that the skill set required to write a book and the skill set required to give a compelling public presentation aren’t really overlapping. Like if you drew it as a venn diagram it’d be two circles that didn’t even kiss. Some writers can do both and others can’t and it’s not really helpful to those who can’t that doing readings is such an expectation.

      I think the other problem is that 90% of all readings I’ve been to follow the same format: read for 15 minutes, then Q&A. This format needs to get spiced up! There are a lot more ways a writer, a facilitator, and an audience can interact and think about a book.

      For instance, below Mr. Shaun Gannon mentions readings where there are only 5 people; with such a small number it’s ridiculous to stick to this established format. That’s just a miasma of vicarious embarrassment!

      Anyway, I wish readings in general were more engaging – like the kind you’re describing in Chicago and other Midwestern cities – because I think that would create much more flourishing literary scenes and be a cool way to spend an evening. Best, –Alex K.

  6. Alex Kalamaroff

      This is really true. Why do people, otherwise seemingly good, intelligent, thoughtful people, get sucked into such horrendous activities as “the polite-titter non-jokes” of your typical introductions? Those are the worst. They’re cringe-inducing and everyone knows it!

      But yeh, introductions are always awful, unless they’re composed of disastrous personal anecdotes or lies.

  7. BOOK EMPIRE VOL. 09 | boredtodeathbookclub

      […] Book readings should be more interesting than the standard reading followed by a Q&A. We totally agree and Alex Kalamaroff at HTML Giant comes up with 8 ways to make them better. BAM! […]