February 3, 2016

Transforming the art of the bookstore reading: An interview with Josh Cook


betterbooktourJosh Cook is a man of many talents. He’s a bookseller at the great Porter Square Books, in Somerville, Massachusetts; he’s the author of a brilliant and hilarious thriller, An Exaggerated Murder, which we published in 2015; he’s a first-rate blogger; and he’s a contributor to MobyLives.

But conquering the realms of bookselling, book writing, and book blogging wasn’t enough for Cook. Last week, he launched Better Book Tour, a coaching service for authors designed to transform their staid, somber, and—let’s face it—occasionally boring bookstore readings into entertaining, selling events.

Cook knows what he’s doing. He’s been a bookseller at Porter Square for over a decade, where he has hosted hundreds of author events. And as an author himself, he’s been on the other side.

Cook has written The Complete Guide to Performing at Bookstore Events, which is available for purchase through the Better Book Tour website, and he is also offering authors one-on-one and video workshops.

At this very moment, authors from across the country are probably overwhelming Cook with desperate pleas for assistance, but he was, nonetheless, kind enough to answer a few questions over e-mail.

Better Book Tour is such an intuitive, intelligent, overdue concept. Why do you think it took so long for someone (you!) to put it into action?

I’m sure there’s a very sophisticated term economists use to describe stuff that doesn’t get done because nobody is quite sure whose job it is, or for stuff where the distance between producer and consumer is so great they never connect enough to improve on said stuff. I think you could use both of those terms to describe why, despite being obvious to many people, there doesn’t seem to be a formal mechanism for training authors to improve their performances in bookstores. I bet a lot of booksellers and publicists have had this idea or versions of this idea, but just didn’t find a way, or the time, to navigate that and create something useful.

I think the other big barrier to this idea is that the return on investment is so distant from the effort. If an author develops an excellent performance, but never has an audience (more on that later), it’s going to feel like they wasted their time on the performance. And even if you do have good crowds for those events and sell a good number of books, it can be tough to be sure what the real source of those sales was. Given that, it’s hard to know what the actual value of awesome performances is. One of the concerns I’ve heard and had about Better Book Tour is that pretty much every bookseller I’ve talked to thinks it’s absolutely necessary, but wasn’t sure if the authors themselves would see that necessity.

But excellent performances have a major positive impact throughout your career, even if you don’t see many sales at those first few events. They create fans who will talk about your books to their friends and relatives and pick up your next book when it comes out, and, perhaps even more importantly, they create relationships with booksellers and a strong relationship with a bookseller or a chain of booksellers around the country or even just around the region can have a massive impact over the course of your career.

A related question: do you think writers as a whole resist the idea that readings are a kind of performance? That’s something that booksellers must understand intuitively, though.

I think it’s less that writers necessarily resist the idea of performing, and more that we generally don’t use the language of performance when we describe bookstore events. (Writes tend to pay attention to language.) We call them “readings,” and so, unless they have previous performance experience, or, like me, have worked in a bookstore and have seen events, or someone in their publicity department takes the time to work with them, I can forgive them for assuming “give a reading,” means what it says.

You wrote a wonderful post for MobyLives (which also appears on the Better Book Tour website) about how you prepared for your own readings when An Exaggerated Murder was published. Do you think those lessons are general enough to basically apply to any kind of book and writer?

Every book is unique, with a unique voice, unique themes, and unique characteristics, and the performance should reflect that uniqueness. That said, if you’re going to read passages from the book, you’ll have to select them, and if you want to create a compelling experience for the audience, you’ll have to perform them, and you’ll need to practice the hell out of them in order to execute that performance. And if you’re not going to read passages, you’ll need to do something to express your book to the audience, and that expression will need to be developed and practiced, too.

Preparing for an event isn’t that different from writing a story and, just as every writer needs to find their way to their own writing process, they’ll also need to find their way to their own performance process. But they’ll have to start somewhere. I think my process, informed as it as by being on both sides of the podium, is a good place to start.

How do you imagine the one-on-one and video workshops working? How much are your suggestions and instructions going to vary according to the writer you’re working with?

I draw these workshops pretty much directly from creative writing workshops. The first thing that happens is I send them an email with a copy of The Complete Guide to Performing at Bookstore Events, and some questions to try to get to know a little bit about the author and the book. I want that first email, along with a few follow-ups, to get them started, so they can produce a ten-minute (or so) sample of their performance.

Then I’ll offer feedback on the sample and help the author find ways to improve it. That might involve helping them with their movement behind the podium or their voice and pace of reading, or steering them away from the specific passage they selected and helping them find a better one, or even brainstorming other possible types of performance. It might be very general feedback of the you-need-to-slow-down variety, or it might be very specific. For example, when I performed for An Exaggerated Murder, I read passages in which only two characters were talking and I looked to my left when one character talked and to my right when another character talked. That injected movement into the performance and helped the audience keep track of who was talking. So, I’ll also be working with the authors to find very specific techniques like that.

I’m not trying to fabricate a series of competent but identical performances, but to lead each author to the best performance they can give to support the particular book they’re touring to support. And, honestly, I might get to the end of working with an author and decide that a bookstore performance won’t be the best way to support their book and their career, and if that prevents the author and the publisher from wasting time and money (though I honestly think this will happen very rarely, if ever), then I’d consider that a successful workshop.

Also, I’ll make sure they practice more. If nothing else comes of this endeavor, but authors in general start practicing more (and it shows when you don’t) I’ll consider it a success.

Do you think readings have evolved/changed/proliferated in the twelve years you’ve been a bookseller? I once heard John Lanchester say that he thought readings were becoming more common because readers have become more eager to have a personal connection to an author than they used to. But maybe that’s only true of the UK!

In some ways book tours are in a weird place. If there’s any kind of travel involved, they can be extremely expensive, and I as mentioned above, the return on investment can take a long time to manifest. And with less and less money in the publishing ecosystem, it becomes harder for publishers to support tours.

At the same time, with so little book coverage in national and local media, an event might be the only way to introduce an author to an audience, and even if there is travel involved, it will still be cheaper than an ad in the New York Times. The result is that authors need book tours and readings, but they need to be smarter with how and where they book them and more conscious of how to perform at them.

The biggest evolution I’ve seen at the bookstore level anyway, from those forces, is the movement away from the stand-at-a-podium-and-read type of performance. There are still authors who do a very good job performing at a podium, but I’m seeing a lot more interviews as events, a lot more interaction with the audience, a lot more incorporation of other audio and visual elements into performances.

It’s funny, there are still a few customers who call the store on Monday or Tuesday and ask what “lectures” are happening that week, or who come in to take a calendar and tell us they just want to see what “talks are happening this week.” There was a time when you could describe our events as a “lecture series,” but now, bookstore events have evolved to the point where you won’t necessarily know what an author is going to do or what will happen at 7:04PM, when the event starts.

Now, you can attribute that evolution to a whole bunch of different social forces, and I’m sure there are curmudgeons out there railing against our shortened attention span, but reading is interactive, writing is interactive, and I’m glad we’re finding ways to make that interaction apparent at events. Regardless, book events and book tours are one of the few ways a community is able to celebrate books, and I’m glad publishers, stores, and authors are finding ways to make sure those celebrations happen.

And a final, specific question: how should a writer respond if, god forbid, only two or three people show up at a reading? Should the emptiness of the room be acknowledged, or is it better and more professional to just plow ahead?

I actually talk about this issue in the guide, because if you tour, this will happen to you at some point. In a lot of ways, this is like the first time you read a bad review of your book. Everyone tells you it’s going to happen, you believe them, you mentally prepare, and then it still sucks when it happens. Because it is going to happen. And it will suck.

The way I think of it is, it’s not that guy’s fault he’s the only one who showed up. There is a ton of competition for our attention and sometimes, despite the best efforts of the store and the publisher, the book reading loses that competition. I mean, you generally need to put on pants to attend a bookstore event. But that person still took the time out of her day to see your event and you should respect that and perform for that lone person as if the place was packed.

Furthermore, you’re also performing for your host, for the store’s events coordinator, and for the booksellers who are working that night. They are all potential allies and potential customers. How you handle the empty room (it happened to all of your favorite authors when they got started, and it will happen to you) tells the booksellers a lot about how you are as an author, as a performer, and a person. It sucks to see all those empty chairs, but they are also an opportunity to earn the respect and the support of some of the most influential people in book sales. If you bail on the event, you also bail on all those opportunities.


Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.