Five Things to Think About When Starting a Reading Series (That Isn't in Brooklyn)
By Chelsea Asher
This year, with one of my best friends here, I started a reading series in New York City. This is to say, I decided to scream into the abyss for no one to hear me. There are a lot of reading series in this town.
After coming up with the idea, on a mildly hungover walk to the 7 train one muggy morning in June, my friend and I asked each other:
How do we differentiate our voice from the other screams in this literary void? How do we channel writers in a way that is unique, fresh and exciting? And how the hell do we get writers out of Brooklyn?
We discussed the emotions and topics that we often work with in our own writing—and being the angsty young women we are, the answer came.
An Angry Reading Series was born.
I am by no means an expert. However, we did manage to have a successful start with our first events and have lived to see the other side. Here are some things I wish I’d known when starting our series.
Consider your venues and what you have to offer them. Bars and cafes will host events for free if you can guarantee a certain number of people attending, particularly if it means people spending money on a quiet night. Bookstores and art spaces are desirable venues for atmosphere—but are also more likely to charge for the space, unless you can guarantee a literary “headliner” and a big crowd, which can be difficult for an infant series to promise. Some reading series alternate locations every month between the city and just outside, where venues are less likely to expect this, to alleviate the pressure.
Bars and cafes are exciting, buzzy places for readings—but also bear in mind the world doesn’t stop for you. If people aren’t there for a reading, they will still continue on with their loud conversations. Which leads me to this: always ask about their accessibility to sound equipment.
We chose a bar with a stage space separate from the front and managed to snag the Saturday night spot. Our bar is in Harlem. In part, this choice was purely selfish, due to both me and my co-host’s inability to seemingly travel further than the Lower East Side. Brooklyn has enough readings, we thought—though, in all fairness, a fat slice of literary talent also resides there. However, we also made an intentional choice to be in Harlem, a place of the artistic and musical renaissance, as a statement about the platform we wanted to give to local writers and voices.
This is not a requirement, but we decided a theme was the right choice to brand ourselves and channel certain types of work and communities. We wanted to differentiate from the typical themeless format and take a stance with what we were saying in our curation of readers every month.
However, you don’t want your theme to be limiting without need—hence, we chose anger; an emotion already present in most people’s body of work. Themes can be inspired from many places. There’s an awesome reading series in Brooklyn which focuses on absinthe tastings, and also includes a musical guest. There’s also many speculative-branded series, feminist-branded series, and so on. I think the key is authenticity—believing in what you’re doing and really living it. Many people left our first reading telling us it was a cathartic night, particularly as it followed a frustrating week with the Kavanaugh hearing.
Do something that channels the heart of your own work and community, then the theme will present authentically and genuinely to your audience.
Make social media pages for your series. Make it recognizably yours. People should be able to recognize you from an image. For example, we had a local artist friend design our initial banners and images, and kept our own content along the same color palette and schematics.
Repeat after me: Twitter is my best friend. I don’t say this trivially—I am not on the social media bandwagon. Luckily, I have a wonderful partner who is, and is able to reach out to people on Twitter without their last (and only) tweet saying “Hello” to Adele and Lionel Richie. Through social media, we’ve managed to connect with a huge portion of local talent, and beyond, we wouldn’t have been able to without it.
Also, and it will sound obvious, but going to other reading series is important. We were fortunate enough to have some connections to other series before we started, and became a part of a citywide fundraiser for RAICES which allowed us to become a part of a network. But the best way to discover other writers and get butts in your own seats is to go out into the world. It’s something all writers dread, but really, it’s as simple as liking someone’s work, complimenting them, and exchanging emails.
Lastly, be conscious of the writers you interact with and select. Pulling from your own community is fine, particularly when it comes to cultivating a regular audience—but don’t draw exclusively from it or become branded as that reading series which only showcases their friends. My co-host and I were conscious to invite writers we admired from other reading series, as well as from our open submissions. This way we have a perspective to build community, rather than exclude it.
Prepare personal introductions for your writers. It takes maybe half an hour out of your day and means the world to your readers. If you truly admire their work, it shouldn’t be difficult to say a few nice words before your nervous writer takes the mic. Also, have a running order for what you will do throughout the night and when, as you’ll be surprised how things can get off track once you start talking into a microphone. There are no rules on what a reading series can or can’t include. Some series even like to play literary games, like Mad Libs, during their intermissions. For our first event, we held a raffle as part of a citywide endeavor to raise money for RAICES and had each reader donate one of their own books, or a book they admire.
When we had the idea for An Angry Reading Series, we wanted to channel timely anger into something positive and healing. We wanted to showcase literary talent from different communities and professional backgrounds, particularly writers who are not necessarily well-established in their writing careers but have a voice worthy of this spotlight. This means being conscious of the writers we choose every month, which is where preparation and having clear goals come in. Goals for your own reading series could be to showcase writers from a certain genre or have a more open mic style. Communicating with your team about what this series means to you, the type of work you want to solicit, and the community you want to cultivate is the key to setting clear goals. But understand that being open to these goals changing can also play a huge part in expanding the reach of your series. Without them, your vision will only limit your reading series. Our communities of writers, and our own series in Harlem, deserve better than that.
Got some burning - or dare I say, angry - curiosity about this? Come to An Angry Reading Series on December 8th!
Chelsea Asher is a writer of the weird and the uncomfortable, with a collection largely featured in her Google docs. She is currently underway with her MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where she is also Editor-in-chief of Lumina literary journal. When she’s not being a writer and a student, she’s a teacher of writing and theatrics in schools across the city.