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Make the reader the star

Instead of modelling a live literature event in a library on the traditional author talk and reading, it is worth taking a different approach. How about shifting the focus away from the author and towards the reader and the experience of reading?

When you think about an audience, you expect a group gathered together in one place, watching, listening and sharing an experience.  While this is fine for many art forms, it is not a natural fit for a reading audience. Thinking about readers as an audience has led to an expectation that authors should read their work in public at live events in order to reach them. 

Generating live audiences often works better over a concentrated time period like a festival – this isn’t easy for under-resourced libraries. Big names can pull but they often don’t need the extra attention.  Attracting audiences to unknown writers is very hard for libraries unless they are hyper-local.  

A reader-centred event can give a lot of space for participation. It offers the freedom to think about the reading audience as individuals, who share a lot in common in their reading lives, but not necessarily with the same author.  

Of course, you don’t have to ditch the author – just ask them to share their own reading experiences and then invite the audience to talk about theirs. Successful authors read a lot – it’s the first advice you will receive in any creative writing class. Giving writers an opportunity to talk about their reading can be absolutely fascinating – you may find they welcome the chance to go in different directions from their standard presentation too. The links into their own work often go deeper as a consequence. 

Events without an author can be equally appealing. Opening the Book were the first to run Wine and Books evenings. Here, an expert introduces a range of wines which are sampled by the audience, one by one, whilst carefully chosen extracts from stories with a similar flavour, or from the same country, are read out loud.  This has been run very successfully in many places - and in one that required a noise abatement warning from the local police!

Desert Island Books can be a great format – though eight titles may be too many in our experience, make it shorter.  Books that terrify you?  Books that comfort you? Books that have made you laugh out loud? Come and listen to what others think - and bring your own examples to share!  A rural library offered slots for people to book in to talk about their reading with one other person for an hour all on the same day. Library staff and library members made themselves available and shared their knowledge of different genres, topics and trends. They had more participants than for any other book event they had ever run. 

Specialist book festivals such as the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival bring genre fans together and have the potential to open up space for audience members to meet as readers and talk about their reading lives. Opening the Book organised one such get together called Just Add Readers. This session grouped participants for crime-reading activities including a game of First Blood – match the first paragraph to the cover - and Gifting – bring a book to give away and write a tag with a message to the next reader. The illustrations above show the cards made for another game - What kind of crime reader are you? Lurid covers of early crime novels decorate one side – turn them over for conversation starters with one-liners to agree or disagree with, for example:

‘I don’t mind if the story plays about with my moral compass’

‘I like my crime with a generous helping of nostalgia’

‘I am curious about what drives people or organisations to step outside the law’

‘I find first person narration a bit too claustrophobic. I’d rather have a wider viewpoint’

Those who came for this pre-Festival afternoon event made connections which gave them company throughout the weekend. The ideas can be easily adapted into a library event.

More Audience Development

The best book in the world …

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Reader-centred approach to quality
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Respecting other people's reading experience
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Putting the reader first
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