How to Host a Visiting Author or Speaker

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At one of my favorite stops, the JCC in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo taken by my childhood friend, Kate Carey Mutschler.)

I wrote yesterday about what I learned about touring as an author. But I also—as you can imagine—have many thoughts on what made a good or less-good host for my events:

  • Make sure your speaker has a way to get to and from the airport.
  • It’s lovely if you’d like to offer to show your speaker around town, but give her an easy out; i.e., don’t just plan to usurp her entire day taking her sightseeing. Always make every extracurricular activity optional and easy to decline. (Great way to ask: “Do you have time this afternoon to …?”) She might want to sightsee on her own or spend the day holed up and working. When you’re touring, it involves a lot of talking to people, and many authors, especially, are introverts who need alone time. Also key to remember: Though it looks like your speaker is on vacation, she is not. This is work, and she probably also has other continuing work to do while she’s there.
  • Make the event into an event. I talked yesterday about how much better it is when an event seems like it’s really about something—themed food or drinks or a trivia contest or somesuch go a long way toward this, depending on the subject matter. Really, any indication that a host gave some advance thought to the event, and that the host seems to actually know who you are and what you wrote about, helps.
  • Ask about your speaker’s technical needs—AV setup, etc.—and do your best to make setup easy for her. She’s gone to a bunch of places, and every setup has been a little different. She needs your help.
  • Yes, you should introduce her before she speaks. Don’t ask, just do it. If you ask if she’d like an introduction, it makes it seem as if an introduction is some grand proposition that she’s some kind of diva for requiring. In fact, an introduction helps your audience focus and settle in, and allows you to brag about your speaker so she doesn’t have to brag about herself. (I’m not going to get up there and say, “Hi, I’m bestselling author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong …”)
  • Oh, hey, about that … Yeah, I want you to use my full author name: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. That’s why I put that name on the book. Because I want to use it. I know the Keishin is the hard part, but great news! You actually can ask me how to say it. (It’s like vacation without the va-.)
  • It can be good to check the bio you have with the speaker before you introduce her. I had an event recently where they’d somehow managed to pull up a bio from the distant past in which I was still on staff at Entertainment Weekly (which I left in 2011) and my key book credits were Sexy Feminism and Why? Because We Still Like You, my history of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club. Not the best intro for me to talk about Seinfeld.
  • Have a standard pre-talk briefing: Tell the speaker how long you’d like her to talk, how big you expect the audience to be, and who will likely be in the audience. (Is this mostly seniors? Will there be kids? Do they get cranky when they can’t hear, or when a talk goes too long? Is there going to be that one guy who just falls asleep in the middle of your talk no matter what? Or that one lady who always asks confrontational questions?)
  • I’m told that a good video recording of a talk means a lot to some speakers. My partner, Jesse, speaks a lot at tech conferences, and he says this often makes the difference as to whether he’ll agree to speak somewhere or not. He can share the videos and it also helps get him other speaking gigs. I haven’t explored this as much because my presentations include clips of TV shows, which gets complicated when you share online. But it seems like a good tip.
  • Yes, your speaker would like water while she speaks. Have something ready for her at the podium.
  • Don’t apologize if the turnout is small. I know you’re doing that because you think it’s your fault, but it makes the speaker feel like it’s her fault, too. As long as anyone is there, a good speaker will do her best for them. There’s no reason to dwell on the size of the crowd. She’s not Donald Trump.
  • When no one bought a book at one of my tour stops, my host did. I appreciated that.
  • If there’s a book-signing element: Have pens there, but for the love of God, not ballpoint pens. If you have to sign multiple books, ballpoint pens are seriously going to add entire minutes and agony to the proceedings. Sharpies are standard, though one tour stop introduced me to the lifechanging Pentel Sign Pen. I literally use nothing else to write things on paper anymore, period.
  • Please also organize the line for your author, with someone taking money and giving customers their books before the customer then steps over for signing. People are always looking at me as if I’m going to also take their money. I am not.
  • Bonus points if you have Post-Its on which people write the name to whom they’d like the book signed. This is rare, but beautiful. It eliminates the part where I ask them to spell the name, then I can’t hear them, and it’s all very awkward and confusing and time-consuming.
  • If you notice your speaker getting bogged down by question-askers afterwards, rescue her with a “We should get you back to your hotel!” or whatever works.
  • A couple of places had little gift bags for me at my hotel, which was really nice. It was even nicer, at least for me, when it contained any of the following: water, healthy snacks (Kind bars all day!), and local pleasantries (Kentucky bourbon, yes please!).
  • Do whatever you can to make her life a little easier while she’s there. She may have visited a lot of places already, and she’s most likely tired.
  • Overall, the trick is this: Make her feel special, but do not smother her with attention.

If anyone has other tips for speaker and author hosts, I’d love to hear them!

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What I Learned on My Very Long SEINFELDIA Book Tour

 

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Mini-pies and black and white cookies in Louisville.

I’m sort-of done with my book tour for Seinfeldia‘s hardcover edition—which I certainly should be, given that it came out nearly nine months ago. I have a few book festivals and paid speaking engagements left, but as far as my straight-ahead, girl-and-a-book road show is concerned, I’m wrapped until paperback (which is a mere three months away in June). In any case, it’s a good time to reflect on some things I’ve learned on this tour, which was by far the most intense book promotion I’ve ever done. Not only was this book a bestseller about a topic people loooove, which meant more invitations than I’d ever gotten before; I also did the Jewish Book Council, which books authors who are Jewish or who have Jewish books at synagogues and JCCs across the country, paying for all travel expenses. (Publishers very rarely pay for tours these days, so usually authors themselves are paying their travel if not for an organization like the JBC.)

 

I did enough appearances that I lost count long ago, but I would say dozens. I know how lucky I am to have a book people want to hear about; though it is an arduous process, I remain a big believer in the value of meeting people in person and making connections throughout the country. I have stayed in fancy hotels and in people’s homes; I have been feted with fancy nighttime soirees and I have been asked, upon requesting the luxury of water during my speech, “Is warm water okay?” I have been stuck in the special hell known as a missed connecting flight several times. I have sold anywhere from 1 to 60 books in a night, with crowds ranging from a handful to 200 or so.

If you’re touring with a book yourself anytime soon, please learn from my experiences:

  • Get TSA Precheck, then make sure anyone booking your flights has your Known Traveler Number, then make sure it shows up on every ticket you get. I had Precheck, and it saved me untold agony; but there were also a few glitches when it didn’t show up, and one time this was compounded by a nightmare scenario that had me going back and forth between terminals three times at one airport. Every time, I had to go through standard security with my carry-on.
  • San Francisco International Airport has a yoga room in Terminal 2. It is tiny and no-frills but an extremely pleasant way to spend time between flights.
  • Make your job easier: Have something going on besides just reading or talking. I’m lucky in that I can show scenes from one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. I put together some edited clips, which I showed at the vast majority of my events. It’s a pain beforehand, because you need to make sure your venue has an audio-visual set-up that works. But it’s much more fun for everyone, including you. Alternatives to this include having an interview/discussion with another author (my friend, rockstar author Jami Attenberg, has been doing this on her tour right now to great effect) or putting together a little panel—I usually do this in Los Angeles, where, for instance, several former Seinfeld writers are based. In Louisville, with The J, I did a joint event with Seinfeld composer Jonathan Wolff that was a highlight of my tour.
  • If you do have an A/V presentation, put together a little kit of all the adapters you might need. I have a Mac laptop, so I don’t go anywhere without an HDMI adapter and a VGA adapter. I often bring my own HDMI cable, too, just in case. Jonathan speaks often on the road, and he showed me his even fancier kit, which includes his own lavaliere mic pack.
  • If you need to put together film clips, I recommend ScreenFlow, though certainly there are other programs as well.
  • Don’t travel on a day when there is a deeply emotional, historic election for President of the United States happening. You will be extra distressed when you then get stuck overnight in Charlotte, North Carolina, and your airline does not provide accommodations and you seem eternally doomed to a hell full of CNN TVs blasting terrible news at you. Just a general tip.
  • If you’re planning your own events, partner with a venue that has its own outreach—mailing lists, social media, etc. This goes double/triple/quadruple for cities where you don’t personally have a huge network. My best events were at places like Book Soup in Los Angeles, the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Word bookstore in Brooklyn, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
  • Small towns often have big turnouts. When I got invitations through the Jewish Book Council, it was tempting to just jump at places like Portland, Oregon, and ignore places like Dayton, Ohio, or Newport News, Virginia. No offense to those places, but some cities are just more travel-glamorous than others. Portland was great—it’s one of my favorite cities, and I got to stay in a sweet hotel—but Dayton and Newport News, among other smaller cities, drew some of my biggest crowds. In a place like Portland, there are about three bazillion impossibly cool cultural activities to compete with on any given night; the JCCs I visited in Dayton and Virginia were the hot spots for the night.
  • The bigger deal an event seems, the better it will be. Sounds kind-of duh, but let me explain: If you’re just another author they’re parading through on a daily or weekly basis, neither you nor your guests—if they even show up—will get much out of it. My most memorable events were the ones where we had themed food like Junior Mints and black-and-white cookies, trivia contests, and even—thanks, Louisville!—special themed cocktails and goodie bags. Do what you can, along with your hosts, to make an event An Event.
  • The Savannah Book Festival rules. A total highlight. They made me feel like a celebrity.
  • Applebee’s is not bad in a pinch. The salmon is great and a mere 540 calories.
  • Do not underestimate free breakfast at the hotel.
  • Make a standard list for packing that includes whatever you need for your presentation, what you want to wear for your presentation, and whatever else keeps you sane (I always bring workout clothes). Next time I want to get better at this and come up with a basic set of healthy, air travel-friendly snacks to pack. The eating situation has been a nightmare.
  • Shop for a few go-to outfits beforehand that span whatever seasons might be necessary. I have a lighter linen blazer and a wool blazer, plus a few cotton dresses that aren’t easily marred by travel. All of these outfits can be worn with the same black boots.
  • Don’t assume that because you’ve been asked to speak somewhere, your books will be for sale. Ask ahead of time so you can decide whether it’s worth showing up.
  • Especially for events where your book isn’t for sale, have something easy to hand out to remind people of your book; I got bookmarks made.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If there’s a small turnout, that’s only the tiniest bit to do with you and everything to do with the weather, the venue, local and national events, and all kinds of other things. One event planner at a Barnes & Noble told me that even INSERT NAME OF SUPER-FAMOUS MULTI-BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF AIRPORT-SOLD MYSTERIES HERE showed up once to an audience of zero.
  • Have fun and make friends with organizers and booksellers. They’ll be your allies next time around.

Any authors have any other book tour tips? I’d love to hear them!

Writing ‘Sex and the City’: The Notecard Phase

I get really excited in the notecard phase of writing any book. This is when I’ve done a lot of research and broken down all my notes and transcripts into bite-sized pieces. I put each piece on a notecard so that then I can spread them all out on my bedroom floor while listening to music (probably some Beyoncé Lemonade this time), then put them in little related piles that will become my outline.

I like this phase because it gives me the feeling of control. Finally, I have gotten (most) of what I need from others, and now I can be alone with my thoughts and figure them out. It’s very satisfying.

Here’s a photo from this phase of my current book, which is about Sex and the City.

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And here’s one from Seinfeldia that I still think is funny.

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Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

This Video Gave Me Hope

Maybe it will boost your spirits a little, too. My sister’s partner, Sean Skyler, who also happens to be one of my favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a beautiful song about THESE TIMES WE LIVE IN, and he shot a video for it at the Chicago women’s march this weekend. I was at the Big Show in D.C., but I consider this a perfect memento of the day just the same. For an extra shot of progressive hope, read Rebecca Traister’s piece on The Cut, “The Future of the Left Is Female.”

We Are All Political Writers Now

Like many of my colleagues in the pop culture writing business, I had a career crisis after the election: What, exactly, was I doing with my life? Was it enough to write about TV, music, and pop culture history? Should I be breaking important political stories instead, or at least writing scathing commentary about the state of our society?

By the time I emerged from my post-election stupor/denial/insomnia nightmare, however, it was clear that what I do for a living is just fine. Because any subject matter, at least now, can become a scathing commentary. Every subject matter bends back toward the black hole that is now our U.S. government. Maybe it’s because our incoming president is an “entertainer” that I find myself quite able to write about him while staying in my expertise lane; after all, I covered the man for a few years when The Apprentice was a hit. But maybe it’s just because literally everything seems tainted by the mood of the country.

My first three assignments of 2017 have all been about Trump-related issues in comedy, television history, and pop music. Meanwhile, there was that great Vanity Fair review of Trump Tower Grill that had our future president fuming—and absolutely serves as both a thorough restaurant review and a political piece for the ages. And now there’s this delightfully snide TV listing (!) for Trump’s inauguration, which ran in the Scottish Sunday Herald and treats it like a dystopian drama that couldn’t possibly be real life. We are all political writers now.

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Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

How Posting About Britney Spears Helped My Career

I love Britney Spears, and I’m not afraid to let the world know it. It may be the single subject I post most about on social media, a situation further exacerbated by three quirky facts about my life: 1. My sister also loves Britney, so we’re often posting Britney-related minutiae and tagging each other; 2. I take a weekly dance class dedicated entirely to Britney songs and choreography, so I’m often posting either links to sign up for the class or video of the class itself; and 3. I play pop covers on acoustic guitar at a monthly open mic, and my Britney catalog is immense, so I often do whole sets dedicated to her, which are posted on my feeds. In short: If you follow me on social media, the one fact you’re most likely to know about me is that I love Britney.

This seems trivial, but if you are a freelance writer, I strongly encourage you to post the shit out of any such passions you have. (I would add this to the other great advice in this piece about scoring freelance work on The Muse.) My incessant Britney posting resulted in three great assignments the week her new album, Glory, came out in August. (It’s really good, please go listen to it, and make sure you get the deluxe version, which has the best songs.)

Here’s why it worked so well: The number-one way freelancers get assignments is so basic that beginners, in particular, never think of it. An editor—who is, after all, just a human being—thinks to herself, “I want a piece on X subject. Whom do I know who could do this?” Then a name pops into her head, and she emails that person. That’s it. You want that name to be yours.

So when Britney’s album dropped and editors I knew wanted to assign pieces about it, they immediately thought of me—I had, via years of passionate Britney posting, associated my name almost directly with hers in many people’s heads. The result was a week of indulging my passion, starting with a Billboard assessment of this album in the context of her career, continuing with a feminist analysis of Britney for Bustle, and ending with actually going to the MTV Video Music Awards to see her performance and write about it, again for Billboard.

Of course, it’s necessary to note that other factors had to be solidly in place for this chain of events to occur. Namely: 1. I have many longtime friends on social media who are editors at cool places. 2. I have been a professional writer for more than 20 years, and have written full-time about pop culture and women’s issues for 15 of those years. So I had to know the right editors, and they had to trust me.

Still, it’s worth noting: If you’re a freelance writer, posting about your passions isn’t simply fun. It’s good business.

Real Writers Risk

I read an insightful piece on Fast Company‘s website today by novelist Michael Grothaus about how he quit his six-figure tech job to write his book. What I loved most was this part:

Like any dream venture, whether it’s writing a novel or launching a startup, there is a large amount of risk involved. It’s often the fear that risk brings—How will I find the time? How will I pay the bills? What if I’m no good and don’t succeed?—that often keeps people chained to careers they may, at best, tolerate and at worst, detest.

This explains why I get irritable when some most likely well-meaning person at a cocktail party tries to relate to me by saying something like, “Oh, I’ve always meant to write a book,” or “I really want to become a writer when I retire.” Maybe they really have meant to write a book, and maybe they will. And there’s nothing wrong with picking up a writing hobby upon retirement. But these offhand comments, which imply that anyone can be a professional writer, downplay the hardest part (beyond the actual writing, which is not always a picnic): the risks professional writers take every day.

I love my freelance writer life and the control it gives me over my days (sort-of … though I promise there are plenty of days that feel way out of my control, full of interview times being changed and assignments I take to pay the bills). But walking away from a steady paycheck is a risk. Writing something and just hoping someone will pay you for it someday is a risk. Writing something and publishing it is a risk, and neither the comments sections nor the critics will let you forget it.

Real writers’ main job requirement isn’t writing. To get to the writing, and to get it out there, they must take constant risks.

Some SEINFELDIA Press

People like to talk about Seinfeld! Here are some places it has been recently:

I talked Seinfeldia with my smart friends at Vulture.

Particularly great excerpt (i.e. I like the bits they chose) about “The Junior Mint,” “The Contest,” and others in The Guardian.

I also talked Seinfeldia with fellow Seinfeld geek Jim Turano at WGN (in my hometown, Chicago!). 

A Salon.com discussion about the antiheroes of Seinfeld.

And ‘How Seinfeld Became About Something,’ from NBC online.