Book Readings Over The Phone: The Verdict

As you might remember, I recently posted an offer that I was going to invite readers to register for a free book reading over the phone. Don’t worry, it’s not finished – you can still book in for me to read to you here. I posted that on the 17th January and it’s been something of a surprise success, with about 60 readings taking place since then. On one day I did six readings and read to people from New Jersey and Australia.

Valuable lesson: always check that your mobile phone contract covers overseas calls. Mine didn’t…

In part the popularity of the experiment has been because I got some coverage from The Telegraph and from Popbitch, who featured it in their newsletter, which goes out to about 250,000 people every week. Frustrating to see that once again I get second billing to Donald Trump’s badger obssession.

The aim of this post is really just to outline what I’ve learned about the process, so that if other writers were thinking of doing it they might learn from some of the pot-holes I hit and, hopefully, avoid them. I’m also keen if anyone has any suggestions and feedback on the idea, then fire your thoughts at me in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter – this whole thing is very much a work-in-progress.

First thing I would say to anyone considering doing this is absolutely go for it. Do it. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. Just put yourself out there. You might get NO ONE taking you up on the offer, but so what – it’s just a fun project. Do it. Do it now. Set it up and do it. Stop thinking.

Absolutely, I’ve been nervous about how a reading would go sometimes, but I can honestly say that I’ve got something positive out of every single experience. I also estimate that about 90% of the listeners went on to buy the book. This isn’t primarily a marketing exercise, but it’s nice to know that it does work on that level. The best thing for me about the process is that there’s something so exciting about connecting directly with a reader through your story. It’s fascinating to hear them listening and then ask about what happens next – it validates a very real need to ensure that readers are actually excited by the book.

On a practical basis it’s really important to prepare for every reading. That sounds obvious, but it’s not just a case of getting organised. There’s a couple of angles that need thought and effort.

Technology: does your phone have enough battery? Are you in a space where you will get good signal and have a quiet background (and not sitting in the car like I was for one reading). Do you have a copy of the book?! I found it helped to have a reading copy which I could mark up with any notes or exclamations, to ensure I hit the right emphasis. I usually put my phone on speaker and sit it on a pint glass, which means that when I’m sitting at my desk, I can lean in really close and maximise the volume. It also frees up both hands, so I can hold the book and make any notes as I go.

Research: I ask people when they book in to tell me three things about themselves and I’ve been really surprised by how revealing people have been in these answers. It’s perhaps a sign that they recognise that I’m exposing something of myself to them (don’t worry, it’s not a video call) and they feel comfortable doing that too. Maybe it’s just a truth that when you ask people directly about themselves they often answer without much artifice. Those bits of information are useful for us to establish a rapport when we chat. I have to remind myself as I do more of these readings, that although this is becoming more normal to me, it’s potentially a pretty weird thing for them to be on the receiving end of. Therefore I like to make sure they’re relaxed and happy.

As part of this research, there are various questions that I ask before I begin a reading, such as “what do you know about the book?” More than I thought have actually read it and some have a specific section they want me to read, in which case I do that – this is their experience and they should get what they want out of it. Or if they’ve never heard of it before I give a very simple explanation of the book in a few sentences and then read them the first chapter. I want the book to stand on its own, rather than me issuing lengthy explanations and disclaimers. In theory, that should pull them into the book and hopefully make them want to know more.

I also ask if they’re ok with profanity – I learned the importance of that the hard way after I received the telephonic equivalent of a Hard Stare from one listener, after I casually started effing and jeffing. I also like to ask what sort of things they usually read, just because it’s interesting and I’ve got some good tips about books that I might like to read from the discussions! Finally, I ask them if they’re sitting comfortably, and tell them that if they want to interrupt me at any point then just shout and don’t feel bad about it. There have been a few guest appearances from Amazon delivery drivers and I wouldn’t want listeners thinking they can’t interrupt or tell me to shut up if they need a wee.

Finally, and perhaps the most unexpected part of the experience for me, there’s an emotional aspect to reading to people. As mentioned above – reading my book to people does put me out there and it takes some mental preparation to be ok with that. They might laugh in odd places, or they might be effected emotionally by what I’ve read them. They might hate it, or worse still, feel ambivalent towards it. I feel like it’s important to take a few minutes to make sure both reader and listener have got something out of the experience and offer them the opportunity to ask questions, or talk about what they heard. They might not want to, or I might have a question for them.

I will say that overall reading to people leaves me with a sense of calm and happiness. The love of telling people a story is what authors get involved in this business for, and reading it straight into a willing earhole is about as direct a hit of that experience as you can get. Often I’m left wanting to read them more, but I appreciate that people have their own lives and the world can’t just stop because I’ve written a book. Sadly.

From a practical point of view I’ve used YouCanBookMe to organise bookings and readings, which is about as straight-forward a platform as you could hope to get. I just use their free plan which does everything I need it to. Vitally, it cross-checks with your Google Calendar and ensures that you aren’t double-booking yourself. I was going to walk through the settings, but mostly it’s just a case of following the set-up wizard and deciding how many appointments you want to set per day and what duration they should be. You can then set up notifications before it starts. I’ve also set it so that it sends them an SMS after the reading to give them a link to the book (a small charge applies to each SMS sent) and where they can sign up for more info about me.

If you want to give this a go for yourself then give me a shout if you get stuck and I’ll gladly help set it up for you. And of course – if you’d like to book in a reading then give it a go, it’s not nearly as weird as you might think – unless you want me to make it weird?