Pub Rants

More Than Just A Signing

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STATUS: TGIF! And what I have in front of me to do so I can head out of town for the Thanksgiving long weekend on next Wednesday is a bit frightening. I’m determined to plow through and finish though.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HARD TO HANDLE by Black Crowes

Agents are book fans too. Bella Stander (book publicity consultant and friend) had mentioned that a fellow Backspace member was going to be at the Tattered Cover this week and did I want to go. I’m always up for supporting fellow members so I said yes. We were off to see John Elder Robison’s reading for his memoir LOOK ME IN THE EYE.

I also had the unexpected pleasure of having dinner with him and his wife Martha before the event—compliments of Bella—but that’s not what this blog is about.

I want to revisit the topic of authors being strong public speakers and if they aren’t, to get savvy at this skill. And I know I’ve blogged about this before (and received a wide array of feedback after the posting) but John’s terrific presentation just reinforced again for me how important it is for an author to be a good presenter—to make the event more than just a book signing.

John didn’t just read from his memoir and open the floor to questions. He engaged us in his passion—which is to make the world more aware and more understanding of those with Asperger’s. I have to say it was very powerful and in doing so, made everyone in that room a lot more interested in buying the book right then and there. I know I got in line and got an autographed copy.

And let me just point out one more thing, John has Asperger’s. If you know anything about this disorder, most folks who have it don’t really like talking and interacting with a lot of people. Hence the title. John named his book that because all his life he heard people say, “look me in the eye when I’m talking to you.” Communication can be tough for an Aspergian.

So just imagine what public speaking might be like. It’s not often an Aspergian strong suit. John didn’t let that stop him and he got savvy at public speaking because he was determined to share his story and his passion—just in case that in doing so, it made a difference.

I can’t stress it enough. If you are an author, master this skill because you never know when you might be presented with many opportunities to share your book, your passion, and your vision with the world.

21 Responses

  1. Trish said:

    That’s great advice. It makes such a difference when authors make the event fun and memorable (Andrea Seigel’s dance routine comes to mind). It makes it an evening out that keeps you talking about what you heard and saw–who wouldn’t want that kind of bonus publicity?

    (If more bookstores had high ceilings, I’d be polishing my baton twirling skills…)

  2. Julie Layne said:

    Toastmasters is a great place to start. Being a bit of a rebel, I felt silly at first with all the formalities, but you learn so much and have the opportunity to speak to people who are holding their breath for you to succeed, and it really builds you up. Terrifying at first, but if you find a good group, it’s a great program.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I agree on Toastmasters and would like to add that if you live in an area with several clubs then visit as many as you can. Each has a different feel.
    Also, in addition to working on your speaking you can also work on listening and critiquing skill – both important in writing.

  4. Anonymous said:

    This is one of the best books on Asperger’s I’ve read–and you can tell, reading it, that Elder Brother would be a terrific speaker. I agree, definitely an inspiration! And I hope you will write about your dinner with him and Unit Two, as well. 🙂

  5. Anonymous said:

    Well, keep in mind that his book is considered Non-Fiction as a memoir, and it’s much more important for non-fiction to be able to present and speak well in front of groups.

    For novelists, it’s a plus, not a must. There are plenty of novelists who loathe speaking in public…and let their books speak for them.

    There’s a reason why novelists don’t do book tours the way they used to….they’re not cost effective.

    So, my point is, you do what you can…but don’t freak out about public speaking if it’s something that terrifies you. It’s not crucial to success as an author…it’s a plus, not a must.

  6. Anonymous said:

    He has Asperger’s and he manages to speak in public convincingly? I envy him. Wow!~I don’t have Asperger’s and I couldn’t speak in public to save my life.

  7. Anonymous said:

    I have a student who has this disorder and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this book.

    I also find the “look me in the eyes” thing funny. As a teacher, we oftem say this when we are disciplining a student, but as animals primates avert their eyes to authority figuers as a way of showing submissivness, so when we tell kids to look us in the eye, we are actually asking them to do a nonverbal directly opposite our instincts. interesting…

  8. Kim Stagliano said:

    Kristin, what a great post. I have had the honor of getting to know John. We’ve spoken together at a Writers on Autism even last June and are speaking at Elms college in Mass. in December. I’ve also attended two of his signings. He’s a born story teller. The glint in his eye makes you break out in a smile. He is indeed a wonderful public speaker – although perhaps not from the classic mold. (His height and good looks are rather eye catching too!) I think that any of us, if we feel the passion for our topic, can speak eloquently and hold an audience’s attention. As John would say, “Woof!”

    Kim, mom to three girls with full blown Autism, not the Asperger’s version.

  9. John Elder Robison said:

    I don’t know if I agree with the comment “speaking is a plus, not a must.”

    I think it depends on how far you want your writing to take you. If you want to sell 500 copies of your book, then fine, let your book do the talking. If you can get someone to pick it up.

    With all due respect, how far do most books get when “they do the talking?”


    In today’s world, you are not going to get significant, timely book sales without promotion of some kind. It’s hard to set up promotion for authors that are not presentable in public.

    With every passing day, the importance of public speaking and mass media are becoming more and more apparent to me. Any aspiring author should have his/her eyes on both those targets, as both are essential for almost any significant success in the publishing world of today.

    I’ve heard the same comments about tours not being cost effective. In many cases I’m sure that’s true. But not always. I am 100% certain my publisher will come out ahead on my Colorado trip when considering the event, the media, and the lingering effects.

  10. Sherry Thomas said:

    The book still must speak for itself. But I absolutely agree public speaking is an essential skill, not just in an author’s life, in just about anybody’s life.
    It is an extension of everyday effective communication.

  11. John Elder Robison said:

    Sherry, you are right. The book must speak for itself, but that is not enough today.

    The author must speak too, to achieve substantial success.

    When I look at the big publishers’ catalogs for this fall, and I look at the success of the various books . . . the more visible and practiced a public speaker an author is, the more successful their book is likely to be.

  12. Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said:

    I have a few clients who have Asperger’s so my hat goes out to anyone, with or without Asperger’s, who can stand in front of a crowd and wow everyone.

    Possessing and distributing this passion to others via words is an important aspect for writers to improve on.

  13. stormywriting said:

    This is so true, it’s kind of crazy. I was just at the Fantasy Matters conference, and hearing all these authors read.. the text was usally good, but the reading a grating monotone, and the talk afterwards worse.

    Neil Gaiman gave a keynote there, and the difference was astounding. This is so, so, so important, I can’t even sya how much I agree with you.

  14. Heidi the Hick said:

    This is one area where I feel I can come through, believe it or not. I have anxiety problems that make going for groceries a horrible experience, but I can get up in front of a hundred people, put my mouth up to the microphone and speak. Sure my chest pounds but that’s normal. It doesn’t trigger anxiety for me.

    My grandpa was a Mennonite pastor. Maybe that’s where I get it.

  15. Charlotte Forbes said:

    Another place to gain confidence in front of crowds is via acting, especially if you love story telling.

    I started acting as a way to explore stories. When I stopped it was because I was ready to spend time writing my own.

    Because of my theater training I find I can put on a “game” face in most situations, ham it up if I have to, and project my voice out into a crowd without my knees turning to jelly.

    Afterward is another question–all my nerves seem to collapse after the event and I find myself exhausted. Still, it’s very enjoyable getting outside of my normal introverted self and exploring the life of an extrovert for a few hours at a time.


  16. Imelda said:

    Toastmasters is good, but as writers, you may also want to explore the time-honoured tradition of storytelling. There are many storytelling groups around and if you are really nervous and introverted, you can just go and listen to start with – storytellers always love an audience! But gradually, as lovers of stories, you will almost certainly find yourself drawn to tell some yourself and, as well as honing your public speaking skills, the process of preparing a story to tell and telling it is invaluable to a writer. It is a skill that will also make you very popular at your kids’ school…

  17. Heather B. Moore said:

    Thanks for the advice. When I was first published I was surprised at how much an author has to promote him/herself. I look for every opportunity to speak now (still makes me nervous . . .). But the competition is stiff out there so you have to jump into the public arena.

  18. Michele Lee said:

    This is why my son is a constant source of motivation for me. He’s 7, and high functioning autistic. He adores being the class clown, and will spend hour sitting around “running lines” (repeating what he’s seen on tv, or quoting his favorite books back to front. But unlike many autistic kids he will stop and demand that you say the next line.) Even with the problems being autistic has caused for him, and the damage to his esteem that people who don’t understand has cause he still throws himself fearlessly into social situations because he likes to make other people laugh. Almost every meltdown and frustration can be immediately counted with a joke, or slapstick or with a “I’m funny”.

    So if he can do, well, I can too.

  19. Laurie said:

    As someone who has no problem with public speaking, I’m impressed that John has come so far with his abilities to: a) write a publishable book, and b) put on such a great presentation. A nephew of mine has Asberger’s and luckily had alot of help to get integrated in the “real” world. He’s now at college training for his dream job – carpentry. My son has “mild autism spectrum disorder” which means he’s high functioning but also has the diagnosis of Down Syndrome. We’re constantly telling him to “look here”, touching our chins to make him look up. That at least makes a good connection, and his language has improved tremendously since we started doing that. He’s also the “class clown” and even his teacher and EA’s love his antics. Autism is an unknown condition which has many abilities we’re only just starting to learn about.

    And I agree with the other authors who’ve stated that public-speaking and promotion are the way to go. If you can invest yourself with others and put a face to your name, you’ve got a much better chance of selling your books. People relate to someone who’s personable and approachable. Kathy Reichs just did a book-signing in our city, and gave a talk on forensic anthropology – how she began, how Temperance became a character, how every book is based on some real situation she’s been through. She sold out, in part I think, because she furthered her subject matter and taught the audience things they didn’t know about forensics.

    I realize I’ve touched on a couple topics here, but thank you Kristen for reminding us of the need to get over any fear of crowds and train ourselves to speak in front of them. It makes a big difference to your readers.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Dear Ms. Nelson…frequent reader, never commenter…I have a son with aspergers…and practice in the field. It is truly inspiring to see people master this skill which can be downright unpleasant for them. Surely if people with aspergers can master it, we introverts can do so as well.

    brynn chapman