Public Readings from A to Z – Coda – The Confidence Game

Welcome to the final part of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! This one has no video accompaniment because it is a coda to the series proper, written after the rest.


When I taught a workshop based on these essays and videos, the main thing people wanted to ask me about wasn’t the logistics or techniques of reading; it was the anxiety and stress of doing it in the first place.

Some parts of that I’ve already addressed here. As I said before, “practice” is the most important piece of advice I can give; a well-rehearsed performance will spark less anxiety than one done cold. (Ask me how I know!) And by refining your skills, you’ll increase the feeling that you’re in command of what you’re doing, rather than flailing around helplessly.

Other parts of it belong to the broader issue of imposter syndrome. That’s a whole topic in its own right, and one I’m not the best-qualified to address; there are many excellent people who have written or recorded advice on how to subdue the inner voice that says you’re not really good enough. If this is something you struggle with, I recommend seeking that advice out.

In between those two poles, there are a few more things I can say.

First of all, you don’t have to do readings. I know authors get told they need to do All the Things to promote their work, but if the thought of getting up in front of an audience to read your words paralyzes you with fear, is that really going to be good advertising? Heck, even a good reading is probably only marginal value in terms of boosting sales. (This is honestly true of most of the promotional things authors are encouraged to do.) I do readings because I enjoy them, and I think knowing how to do them better can help you enjoy them, too. But if that’s not the case, then know that they really are optional.

Second, consider your other options. When I attend a convention like World Fantasy that often gives each attendee only one programming item, i.e. a choice between a panel and a reading, I choose the panel. Why? Because the people who come to my reading are (probably) already fans of my work. I’m preaching to the choir, and while they may enjoy the sermon, I’m not reaching a new audience. In a panel, on the other hand, there may be listeners who came for the topic or because they like one of my fellow panelists — and those people may (I hope) walk out thinking, “hey, that Marie Brennan lady said some smart things; I should check out her books!” If I can do both a panel and a reading, then I’m happy to accept the latter, but it’s lower priority for me.

But let’s say you are doing a reading. Maybe because you have multiple programming items, or maybe because you’re on book tour. When you’re choosing something to read, picking something you’ve already sold means you can tell that inner voice of doubt, “somebody thought this was good enough to pay me cash money for it, so shut up.” Having that stamp of editorial approval can be a good balm for the anxiety — and I suspect this is why the authors I see reading from works in progress are usually well-established.

And don’t forget: in a solo reading slot, anybody in your audience is there to hear you read. They want to listen to what you’ve brought for them. In a group reading, that may still be true for some of the attendees; for the rest, it’s like my argument for doing panels above. This is your chance to get the attention of someone new — and I actually prefer group readings for exactly this reason! Read for them like you’re confident, like you know you’ve got something good. Don’t apologize or deprecate yourself (and that goes triple for any women reading this who were socialized to believe that Nice Girls Should Be Modest). I mean, don’t be an obnoxious braggart, of course. But reading with confidence isn’t going to cross that line.

Mind you, this all presumes an audience. What do you do when no one shows up?

If nobody is there — literally zero people — then here’s the good news: nobody is witnessing that awkward moment. For all they know, you had thirty people packed in there, and they missed out. What’s more awkward is when somebody shows up . . . all one or two of them.

I’ve been there. More than once, in fact, with the worst being when three of us were supposed to read, one of those three didn’t even bother to come, we had a single person listening to the two of us who remained, and that person was a friend of my fellow reader. (We were scheduled for an unholy hour of the morning, and opposite a roundtable packed with big names. Anybody who was awake was in that room, not ours.) Not gonna lie: it’s super awkward when this happens, and it’s part of the reason many authors try to dragoon their friends into attending their readings. It fills a few more chairs, and the one or two strangers in there don’t necessarily have to know the rest of the audience are there as a favor to you.

However many people are there when the start time comes, they still want to hear what they came for. So don’t ever bail on your slot because your audience was small; that’s a jerk move for whoever did come. I usually try to chat up the people who are there, to make it seem more personable and friendly, and then I go ahead and read what I was planning on reading. Think of it as practice for future events, if you like.

Because with time, you’ll have this problem less and less often. The more you’ve published, the more people will recognize your name and remember that hey, you wrote that thing they really liked. And if you learn to read well, you’ll get a reputation for giving a good performance, and people will be inclined to pencil you into their convention schedules. With the popularity of audiobooks these days, quite a lot of readers are accustomed to listening to stories. So give them the best show you can!


Whether you’re reading over Zoom, recording for later use, or delivering your story to an in-person audience, I hope this advice was useful to you! And may you enjoy many future readings.