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.

SEINFELDIA Is Out Today!

SEINFELDIA“Her book, as if she were a marine biologist, is a deep dive…Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.” —Dwight Garner,The New York Times Book Review

Get a copy of Seinfeldia wherever books are sold, or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks a Million, or IndieBound.

SEINFELDIA Preview: An Interview with NBC Executive Jeremiah Bosgang

SEINFELDIAJeremiah Bosgang was on Seinfeld duty as a staffer at NBC from the show’s earliest days, when it was still called The Seinfeld Chronicles. For my upcoming book Seinfeldia, I interviewed him about how his boss Rick Ludwin, the network’s senior VP of specials, variety, and latenight, nurtured the strange little show that was about little more than a comedian talking to his friends.

It’s unusual for a sitcom to be developed in the latenight department. How did that happen?

That department is really like the step child. The really cool places are comedy and drama development. I joined Rick as a program associate, which is this special program that NBC had where they bring people in as development executives. You have maybe two years and they see if you’re somebody who can go on to become an executive. I joined in the late ’80s. Rick Ludwin had identified Jerry Seinfeld as this up and coming comedian. He thought this guy is the next thing to really break through. He called Jerry and his managers in for a meeting and asked what he wanted to do. Jerry was like, “I don’t know.” They came up with this idea that Seinfeld was supposed to be a hybrid show. The idea became: I’m going to do these three pods of standup, and then after those standup pieces, we’ll have these little scenes that show how I got the idea. And the pilot was very heavy on that. The first four to six episodes were like that.

How were you involved with the show?

I came in when the pilot was done. I had really always wanted to write and perform comedy. He said, “You’re gonna be the point person.” It was my first job as a network executive. I was probably 28 years old. After we’d do a table reading of the show, I was one of the guys giving Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld notes. What the hell did I know? They were always really very nice to me.

How did it change from The Seinfeld Chronicles for the first episode to Seinfeld after that?

I still remember [NBC President] Brandon Tartikoff talking about how Jerry was unhappy with the title of the show. at the time the show was not any huge success. There were strong advocates for the show at the network, chiefly Rick Ludwin and myself. I remember Brandon coming down to Rick Ludwin’s office when I was in there. He said, “I caved to Seinfeld, it’s gonna be called Seinfeld now.”

What was the relationship like between the network and the show then?

One of the the things that I learned from Rick Ludwin was that Rick really empowered Jerry and Larry to do the kind of show that they wanted to do. Even if there were times when we were scratching our heads at those early episodes, what I learned was this was their show. NBC hired a real voice and talent and vision and then created an environment so they could do what they do. Rick and I had to fight internally to give Seinfeld its due. At the time the show that was supposed to be the big show was Wings. The people at NBC really believed in Wings and the creative people behind Wings. Seinfeld was this thing where even when it wasn’t a perfect episode, you’d go, Wow, that was kind of cool.

How did being involved in Seinfeld help your career?

The big upstart then was Fox. I ended up leaving NBC to become the head of comedy development at Fox largely due to the halo effect of Seinfeld. Even though there were lots of other successful sitcoms built around a comedian, there was nothing that had the kind of storytelling and pacing that Jerry and Larry created.

 

SEINFELDIA Preview: An Interview with Writer Peter Mehlman

la-et-jc-seinfeld-writer-peter-mehlman-on-his-novel-it-wont-always-be-this-great-20141107Peter Mehlman was the first writer hired for Seinfeld outside the core production staff, starting with the 13-episode season that was basically the show’s second. (It began with one episode in July 1989, four episodes the next summer, and 13 the following year.) He was also one of the rare Seinfeld writers who stuck around for multiple seasons—in fact, he didn’t leave until the penultimate season, when he left to develop his own show, the gone-too-soon It’s Like, You Know …Here, some highlights of my interview with Mehlman for my upcoming book Seinfeldia (out July 5, available for pre-order now!).

 

So what was that like, being there for most of the show’s run?

It was so amazing to be on that ride. The show was so good, it was like I couldn’t believe the show could possibly fail. After my first script, when we shot it, Larry said, “If by some off chance we get picked up, you’ve got the job.” And it was like, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to get picked up. It was just so good. I didn’t realize, of course, that being good is actually a detriment to your chances. At that time, I didn’t realize all that.

 

Did your life change as the show got popular?

Not so much in day-to-day work life. But you could feel things changing. Like all of a sudden the show started getting a little bit of notice and tons of agents started showing up. And none of us knew what we were doing. Larry and Jerry hadn’t even done a sitcom before so we would just let the agents hang out on the floor. So the floor of the Seinfeld set got to be this weekly party. It was like a mob scene.

They were trying to sign writers, especially me because I was with a boutique agency. I would say almost more like a bodega agency. I later found out that CAA and ICM, they literally had agents assigned to me, to try to get me to leave my agency.

Did you ever?

Not until about two years ago.

How did you initially get your agent?

I wrote one spec script for The Wonder Years, not even really planning on getting into the business. I was a freelance magazine writer at the time. So I moved to Los Angeles and I’d seen a few episodes of The Wonder Years and I thought, “Oh, you know what I should do? I should write a freelance script for them and make all this money!” I thought it would really help me out because moving is expensive. I had no idea that your chances of having a script bought on a freelance basis like that are basically next to zero. And obviously it never got anywhere near the show, but somebody passed it on to somebody who passed it on to somebody and it got to my agent. And then somebody met with me and I had an agent!

Did he help you get Seinfeld then?

No, he had nothing to do with it. Agents never really get anybody any jobs. They negotiate when something falls in their lap.

So how did Seinfeld happen?

I met Larry in New York a couple of times. And then I moved out [to L.A.] in ’89. I was still just freelance magazine writing. And the year I moved here, I bumped into Larry. He was doing this little show with Jerry Seinfeld. And maybe I could write a script? He had no idea that I’d never written dialog, really. And so I gave him a writing sample. It was an article from The New York Times, an “About Men” column that was kind of a bittersweet, funny essay. And he passed it on to Jerry. And Jerry just liked it, so… they gave me a chance to write a script.

For more, check out Seinfeldia, on sale July 5.

 

My Favorite ‘Seinfeld’ Scene: George’s Whale Monologue

I have a book about Seinfeld, called Seinfeldia, coming out July 5 (and available for pre-order now), and I’ve already done a handful of interviews about it. The natural question that comes up is: What is your favorite episode? I think I answer this differently depending on my mood because there are so many good ones. If I’m feeling geeky, it’s “The Chinese Restaurant” because that represented the show’s first risky departure from sitcom conventions. If I’m feeling feminist, I go for Elaine’s “spongeworthy” plotline. If I’m feeling indecisive, I start rambling about how I really love the entire arc in which George and Jerry make a sitcom called Jerry, which ultimately fails. If I’m feeling contrary, I go for the much-hated finale, which I’ve loved upon re-watch.

I do, however, know my favorite scene, and that’s George’s monologue explaining how he saved a whale after pretending to be a marine biologist while on a date. (“The sea was angry that day, my friends …”) If I were an actor who had to do auditions, this would be my go-to material. It displays Jason Alexander’s special skill as an actor that made this character so great—the dramatic talent he brings to comedy. He plays George as a guy who’s quite serious about the cosmic joke he knows life is. I also remember this scene as possibly the first time, during the show’s original run, that I as a young viewer really got how brilliant Seinfeld was, the way it brought all the crazy plotlines together at the end of an episode in one comic quadruple-pirouette. Let’s enjoy:

‘Seinfeld’ and O.J. Simpson

Against all odds, O.J. Simpson has become the biggest TV star of 2016. He is the main attraction in the two best TV series this year, FX’s excellent drama The People vs. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s currently running documentary O.J.: Made in America. The latter is so good that even though I watched the FX show twice through, I’m still riveted by every second. Simpson’s story is so layered, so Shakespearean, so laden with the massive issues of race and class and gender, that it bears repeated tellings.

But back in the ’90s when Simpson’s trial was dominating TV for the first time, it inspired lighter cultural offshoots, the parodies that usually serve as our first mass processing of major events. The trial was rife with characters so huge that they often seemed like parodies already: the permissive Judge Ito, the brittle Marcia Clark, the preacher-like Johnnie Cochran, the bumbling Chris Darden (alas, his biggest moment was one of the prosecution’s biggest downfalls, the disastrous glove demonstration). There were the standard Saturday Night Live sketches, of course, but one of the most fully realized—and, it turns out, enduring—depictions came from Seinfeld.

Seinfeld often took inspiration from real life, but for the most part it stuck with the little irritations its writers encountered in the course of mundane tasks: the valet with body odor that lingered in your car, the coworker who liked to insult you during meetings, the girlfriend whose name you can’t remember, the cranky chef whose soup is so delicious you’ll put up with his yelling to get it. There were a few famous-name characters, most notably George Steinbrenner, the back of whose head was played by an actor and whose voice was provided by creator Larry David. But that portrayal was hardly a hot topical bit; it was simply a nod to the real New York City, which the show depicted so perfectly despite shooting in Los Angeles.

In fact, the arrival of the Johnnie Cochran-like Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld was Los Angeles’s way of sneaking into the show. The entire nation was mesmerized by the case, but it was beyond inescapable at its Los Angeles epicenter. And so a little piece of the Simpson trial made its way onto Seinfeld in the form of Chiles. (This was in addition to a one-off joke about Kramer participating in a low-speed police chase in a Ford Bronco during the 1994 episode “The Big Salad.”) He first showed up in the episode “The Maestro,” in which Kramer sues a restaurant for making his coffee too hot. The episode was shot in August of 1995, but it aired at a perfect time: October 5, just two days after the incendiary not-guilty verdict in the Simpson trial.

David and Jerry Seinfeld had, like most of America, been obsessed with the Simpson trial. In interviews for my book Seinfeldia, many of the writers mentioned them watching it or talking about it on the set. And it makes sense that they’d become particularly enamored of Cochran. Other trial characters were entertainingly bumbling, excitable, dramatic, and pompous, but Cochran had a speaking style that made him perfect for Seinfeld. He exclaimed. People in real life do not often exclaim. If a writing student of mine tried to use “exclaim” as a verb in a stretch of dialogue, I would likely question it … unless that student were describing the speech of Johnnie Cochran orSeinfeld character. George exclaims almost constantly. So do his parents. Elaine and Jerry are known to exclaim. So is Kramer, in his own way.

Significantly, though, Cochran also had something special to bring to the exclamation party, a key factor in making it as a recurring character on Seinfeld. He rhymed. He had his own distinctive rhythm. He seemed to almost always be speaking in verse, a quality he obviously borrowed from Baptist preachers, to great effect. David and Seinfeld have a particularly musical sensibility to their comedy. (This is what brings humor to a line as simple as, “These pretzels are making me thirsty,” or to repeated phrases like “master of my domain.”) This gave Jackie Chiles, the character based on Cochran, license to deliver such classic monologues as this balm-related directive:

Actor Phil Morris has discussed his secret to nailing the character: He used to go to the same barbershop as Cochran, so he had his speech patterns down. The character soon took on a life of his own, returning for law-related shenanigans in six episodes. He essentially starred in the controversial finale, defending the four main characters in their trial for violating the Good Samaritan law. I’m a fan of the finale — another argument for another time — and one of its greatest moments is Chiles’s “innocent bystander” speech during opening arguments. It is both very Cochranian and very Seinfeldian:

In retrospect, it seems right that Seinfeld and the Simpson trial would remain linked, not only in our memories of the time but also through a specific character who lives on forever in reruns and Hulu streaming. Both the show and the trial helped to define the decade. So much so that Seinfeld showed up in an excellent scene in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in which the jury differs along racial lines as to what they want to watch while sequestered: Seinfeld or Martin. They vote and Martin wins, a nice foreshadowing of the trial outcome.

In fact, Simpson’s infamous house guest Kato Kaelin showed up at the wrap party for Seinfeld‘s finale. Given how David’s friend Kenny Kramer described David’s reaction to Kaelin, it’s no surprise that he didn’t get the homage treatment Cochran did.

Pre-order Seinfeldia now!