My Top Five Most Poorly Attended Book Readings


Author readings offer a good opportunity for writers to meet new people, drum up some local publicity, and hopefully sell a few books. I like doing readings, but I’ve also learned to go into them without any set expectations for turnout. I’d rather be surprised by a well-attended reading than disappointed by a poorly-attended one like those listed below:

University of New Hampshire

I did this reading with Adam Mansbach, when both of our first novels had just come out in hardcover. (Adam would go on to gain fame as the author of Go The F*ck To Sleep.) It was on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, and because it was the middle of the summer, few students were around. The school bookstore, like most college bookstores, was really a Barnes & Noble with more discreet signage, and for some reason the organizers had placed us at a table right in the entrance to the store. As in, actually blocking access. At best we were a fire hazard—you had to turn your body to squeeze around us. Despite the weirdness of this, we planned on doing the reading anyway, but because our only potential audience was actively trying to avoid us, we just sat at the table between tall stacks of our books and looked miserable for an hour. At one point Adam broke the silence with an exasperated: “Man, I don’t even wanna do this shit anymore!” When the event was over (though what constituted being “over” was hard to say) one of the organizers cheerfully clapped her hands and started talking about having us back sometime, as if the event had been this great success and we’d somehow missed it.

A public library in a large Midwestern city

I won’t say which one because the people who ran the event were perfectly nice, and it wasn’t their fault. I was supposed to participate in a book festival featuring a variety of authors with local connections, about forty of us in all. Multiple readings in different rooms, places to sign and sell books, that sort of thing. This was the first festival in what was meant to be an annual event, and thus something of an experiment. When I arrived, I was brought down into a large lecture hall in the basement of the library, where the reader before me was doing his thing. Large rooms are risky places for readings because if the attendance is poor, you really notice it. The room had about three hundred seats, and about half were full, which wasn’t bad. Most of the audience members were from the author’s church, and the place had the feel of a revival—lots of calling out, jumping up from seats and popping back down. Oddly, the bit that the guy read from his novel was explicitly sexual, which his fellow congregants seemed to love. As I listened, I very distinctly and with shocking prescience thought to myself: When this man is done, absolutely everyone in the room will leave, and no one will stay for me. That did happen, and I waited alone on the empty stage for about twenty minutes while the organizer occasionally came down to check on me. Finally the organizer suggested relocating me upstairs, where there were more people, so we went up and found the only unclaimed space in the middle of the children’s room. So: kids running around, screaming, playing tag, jumping on the comfy, primary-colored furniture. My own book had its share of “adult themed material” that I didn’t want to share with the seven-year-olds, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about this. Trying to stay upbeat, the organizer sat down on one of the many available folding chairs and said, with that strangely forced, reality-defying good cheer that overcomes such people in the face of a disaster, “Well, I’ll listen if no one else will.” This made it worse, so I said to her, “It’s okay, I’ve got a cold anyway. Why don’t we just forget it.” She agreed, though on my way out she remembered to invite me back to the library’s second annual book festival next year.

A chain bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

What’s worse than no one coming to a reading is when one person, not so much “comes” as notices a reading is about to take place, and so they make the spontaneous and ultimately low-stakes decision to stay. Because then you have to do the reading anyway, for this one person who just wants some form of human activity to stare at for a few minutes. That happened in Portsmouth—it’s probably happened in other places, if I really thought about it. Obviously it wound up being more of a conversation than a true reading, and I ended the evening by giving the person a copy of my book for free. It wasn’t even the book I was promoting at the time—it was the paperback of my older book that I happened to have in my bag. I don’t remember if she asked for it or expressed any interest in it. I just pushed it on her. It was like I was so desperate for some book-related transaction that any kind would do.

A chain bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island

Another reading with Adam Mansbach, possibly the day before the New Hampshire event. Not exactly the Mike-and-Adam Tour of Victory. The thing about reading in a chain bookstore is they often like to set you up near the cafe, so there’s this constant fighting with the sound of the cappuccino maker. Apparently there’s some shared technology between cappuccino makers and old DC-8 engines. Reading in a bookstore cafe is like playing piano in a hotel lounge in the sense that you’re mainly there to provide passive entertainment. The few people scattered around the tables with their beverages aren’t really there to see you. Adam tends to be a naturally high-energy performer, which is a hard sell when your audience is giving absolutely nothing back to you. Kind of like trying to start a mosh pit in church. Still, he did his capable best, and when it got to be my turn, the only people left in the cafe (not due to Adam, I’m sure—it only takes so long to drink a coffee) were a young mother and her son. The boy looked about nine years old, and I thought I’d be creative by involving them. It just seemed the natural thing to do—I was there, they were there, and it was kind of embarrassing for the both of us, so I figured I’d essentially “own” that embarrassment by acknowledging it and maybe converting it into something more positive. I asked them questions from the stage and used what little I learned about them to customize an intro to my reading. Part of my thought process was that if I talked to the mom and her kid beforehand, it would be harder for them to leave midway through. Wouldn’t that be rude, after I’d taken the time to get to know them? I began reading with a certain feeble optimism, hoping to at least connect with two people on the planet so the night wouldn’t be a complete bust, but about two pages in, unbelievably, the mom and her kid stood up, bussed their trays, and took off. You know, because they’d finished their drinks, right? It makes sense. I mean, when you’re in a hotel lounge, you don’t wait until the guy finishes playing the Billy Joel song, do you? You bang back your drink and split. So I finished reading to an empty cafe, feeling more and more ridiculous by the minute. Even Adam had gone outside to talk on the phone with his booking agent.

An independent bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island

This one actually had a small audience (as opposed to “bystanders”), but it goes on the list because the store owners refused to turn down the children’s music CD they were playing during the reading. They didn’t exactly “refuse,” but it felt awkward to ask, so I just put up with it. It’s the kind of thing you shouldn’t have to ask, somehow. It should be sort of obvious: oh, this guy is trying to read from his book, maybe we should turn down “Puff, the Magic Dragon” so his dad and stepmom can hear him?

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featured image – Sarah Stierch