What Do Writers Want?

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A Brief Meditation on the Desires of Touring Authors

By Steve Almond

I was at the Phoenix airport, just in from L.A., and facing the prospect of having to read in a town where I knew, basically, no one.

Sweaty, harried, and more than a little rundown from the road, I called Changing Hands, in Tempe, to let them know I’d arrived.

"This is Steve Almond."


"Yeah, Steve Almond. The guy who wrote My Life in Heavy Metal."

"I know who you are, man. I read your book."

It turned out I was speaking with Mark Sutz, one of the managers of the store. How cool was Mark? When I asked him where I could find a cheap hotel, he insisted I stay on his couch. He also bought me dinner and, later, presented me with a wonderful book, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing by Nelson Algren. That’s how cool.

I know it’s become fashionable, in the past few years, for writers to bitch about the hardships of reading tours -- the missed flight to Albuquerque, the small crowds, the tragically understocked mini-bar.

But I had a blast during my two months on the road. And the main reason was folks like Mark, booksellers who not only hosted me as an author, but treated me like a friend.

Another Mark, Mark Finn, greeted me at Book People in Austin, with the same relentless enthusiasm. We stood on the steps leading to the event room talking about stories for so long that I was late getting started. And yet I was so charged up by our discussion that I gave one of my best readings. Mark even gave me a copy of his own excellent story collection Gods New & Used.

The truth is, what a writer wants more than anything -- especially a writer on tour -- is affirmation. We want to know that someone (anyone) out there is actually reading what we’ve written.

This is why my fondest memories of the tour aren’t of those shops that generated the biggest sales, but the places where the person I dealt with knew my work, folks like the amazingly cool Jeff Yanc at Reader’s Oasis in Tucson; or John Evans at Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi; or Janet Leimeister at Capitola Book Café in Capitola, California.

Of course, the other part of the equation is the reading itself. On this front, there are really only three things that writers want: a good crowd, a good space, and enough time.

Let’s start with a good space.

What booksellers have to understand is that a public reading is a profound act of intimacy, an attempt to transport a group of total strangers from the hurly-burly of their lives into a shared story. When this happens -- when the entire room is taken up in the imaginative collaboration -- it’s pure magic.

But the vibe is extremely fragile. Most writers are not performers. They don’t have any props. Just their words and their voice. So you need a space free of distractions. You can’t ask an author to compete with the hiss of a cappuccino machine, or a store intercom, or folks wandering through in search of "Kidney Dialysis for Dummies."

In short: Writers want a room of their own, a small one is fine, preferably with good acoustics, so we don’t have to use a microphone.

Next, enough time. One of the few disappointing experiences I had on tour was being told, at one reading, that there wouldn’t be time for questions. I was reading with another author, and, together, we’d read for about 40 minutes. We had a huge crowd and I could sense their disappointment when the host checked his watch and shut us down.

It was also bad business. See, the Q&A is when most books get sold. It’s when the fourth wall comes down and we writers -- tremendously relieved at having finished our performance without belching excessively -- can just enjoy ourselves.

As writers, we have to realize that reading for any longer than 25 minutes is really pushing it. (Closer to 20 is best, I’ve found.) But likewise, booksellers shouldn’t get caught up watching the clock.

At Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, I read with Ben Marcus, who wowed the crowd by reading from his fabulous new novel, Notable American Women. We must have read for 50 minutes, all told. But the folks at the Booksmith didn’t hit the panic button -- they opened the floor for questions -- and a fascinating discussion ensued.

As for generating a crowd, what I found, almost invariably, was that the biggest crowds were in those shops where the staff viewed readings as an essential part of their mission.

My pal Tim Huggins, who runs Newtonville Books in Newton, Massachusetts, is constantly talking up his events and sending e-mails to his customers. He’s also sweetened the pot by offering folks the chance to hang out at a bar down the street after each reading, with the first round free. In essence, he’s created a little social scene around his readings. People show up because they know they’re going to hear some terrific prose and have a great time. He regularly draws crowds of up to 40, though his store is a few miles outside Boston.

Having toured bookstores for eight weeks, I can tell you that chains are almost always going to beat independents when it comes to convenience and cost. They can also offer amenities -- the big comfy chairs and lattes and music sections -- that most indies can’t hope to afford.

What the chains can’t do as effectively is create a genuine sense of community around literature. And that’s really what a good reading series does.

I don’t want to be seen as bashing the chains, because, the fact is, anyone who sells books in this era of frantic denial is doing the work of angels and fools. But I do want to make an argument for the higher purpose of literature, which is to help people feel less alone.

And that’s really what I felt, on those certain evenings when everything went right, a togetherness that is rare and true.

Damn, I miss it.

Steve Almond is the author of the short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal (Grove), which was a Book Sense 76 Top Ten Selection in May/June 2002. He’d be delighted to read anywhere, anytime, and can be reached through his Web site, www.stevenalmond.com.