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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

“Secret Cords” is Public Success

Cal Rambler & Mark Beyer at a poetry/prose reading in Prague

On Feb 15th, Lucien Zell hosted his monthly poetry/prose & musical series, SECRET CORDS, at Přátelé Stepního vlka in Prague to an audience of 25 or so. I think the five writers and four musicians made everyone happy with good verbal and musical entertaining for that cold Friday night in the dead of Prague’s winter.

Lucien Zell

Lucien opened the performances with his trademarked harmonizing number, set to the sounds of box concertina. When he croons he looks like a lone wolf in the forest, or the midnight crier from a far-off village. The song is a wonderful lead-in to readings. A tone of seriousness has been delivered; a bell has been tolled.


Cal Rambler led off the reading with several of his poems, linked by the theme of love, anguish, lost friendship, the potential for lust.

Jan Bičovský played guitar and sang folk tunes with an energy symbolic of the street-musician.


Elise Klein entertained us all with a stirring accordion song, and later played an unbelievably temperamental piano.

We also had a poet from Canada, whose short poems captured couplet-ed themes.

Mark Beyer reading from THE VILLAGE WIT

And then there was yours truly reading from my first novel, THE VILLAGE WIT.

Lucien read a few poems as well, naturally. One strong poem I recall is a villanelle, whose linking lines are strong on light & darkness, and the desire to write. (he’ll have to comment on this post and treat us to the entire poem (if he dares) or those two scintillating lines)

What is unique about SECRET CORDS is the blending of music and the spoken word. Art comes at us in different places under various forms. To have two of those forms together, in one evening at a single venue, places us in a position not used so often these years. Actually, it reminds me of something one reads about in the diaries of a Bloomsbury Set, or Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, maybe NYC West Village in the ’50s (or the Bowery!).


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.


How to Host a Reading of Your New Book

Perhaps the most difficult part of hosting your book-launch reading is finding an amenable bookstore owner. Some don’t have the space, or the wherewithal to help you; some don’t trust that there could be so many people in one small space and, you know, THEFT; while others are more than welcoming and only want to know how many people you can possibly bring in (and if they have enough chairs!).

You want a bookstore owner who doesn’t want a lot in return. I’m not talking about your taking the cheapest approach to marketing your book. And performing by reading from your own book is cheap! After all, you want to have your prose heard, because that’s one of the best selling points.

So look at book signings/readings this way: by allowing you to read from your novel to a group of people (often friends, family, colleagues, for starters), the bookshop owner gets people into his/her store; it’s a partnership.

I’ve found, in fact, that most bookshops have this no-pay or low-pay policy intact. For instance, this Friday I’m reading from my new novel at one of Prague’s English-language bookstore, Shakespeare & Sons. I spoke with the owner about the reading for all of five minutes. He’s up on these things, and, as I have books in his store already (and in his branches in Cesky Krumlov and Berlin), there was in fact no need to draw up a contract. This has not been the case with other owners, but nevertheless, the relationship was always clear, and a percentage of book sales during the event went to the “house” (in this case, 10% of my take for the night).

Also, make sure whether it’s okay or not to serve snacks, wine, or food (wet grapes and cheese are a tough sell when people are walking around handling books; but pretzels go well with white wine and soft drinks). I serve wine after I read; this gives people something to do/talk over while others wait on line to have me sign the book. It’s always fun to people, for a change, to walk around a bookshop with a friendly libation in hand!

Once you have the place, the space and the date, it’s time to get the word out. I use a variety of methods, which only partly include online social media. Firstly, I print miniature posters that can easily be tacked up in bookshops, community center bulletin boards, library bulletin boards, and in coffee houses well known for backing writers/poets/artists.

Next, I write a letter of invitation to send via email to close friends, family, and colleagues (in my case, also to students who like to read and know that I’m a writer). In the letter I suggest they come with a friend, or better yet, two friends. Most bookshops have an online events calendar, for which I provide written copy (What, Who, Where, When, Why) and a photo of my book jacket. I also make posts online at local arts/public events sites and through a weekly newsletter that my school sends to teachers and staff. Finally, I’m sending out invitations through Facebook to my friends whom I know to actively read, and are interested in what I do (there’s no point to send invitations to “friends” who certainly cannot/won’t come and don’t care what you’re up to).

But this is just the logistics of getting the venue and people to learn what’s up. What about the excerpt from your book that you’ll read?

Maybe this is the most important part of the event itself. You want to, therefore, choose a scene (or two) that show the main character(s) in a way to highlight who they are, why they’re important, and what they want (in life and through the events that make up the story). Likewise, give your listeners something of the place in which the story happens. Your excerpt doesn’t have to be the opening chapter, and only if it has all of these elements. Otherwise, find something a short way in, where things are happening of a dramatic nature that are actually taking place in the middle of something (not at the beginning or end).

And … don’t read longer than 20 minutes, if you can possibly help it. Our modern day attention spans, toward listening and being spoke to and read to, are not terribly long. But if you’ve chosen a strong part of the story, people will hang with you. Once you have that 6 or 8 pages, practice reading, practice your gestures, practice making eye contact. The last thing you need is to stutter and mumble and basically botch the chance to give your story its best showing.

Finally, read something that leaves your listeners wanting more. If they want more, then the ones who were on the fence about buying the book as they sat down, will be reaching for their wallets when they stand up.

Good luck!


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.