Monday, September 19, 2011

How to Create a Reading Series

65º ~ massive thunderstorm last night, beautiful dangerous lightning and house-rattling thunder, everything sopping wet as the sun begins to rise through cloudy skies

This post is in response to Kristin's request on last Thursday's post

As most of you know, through the help and support of many of my friends and colleagues, we launched the Big Rock Reading Series at Pulaski Tech last week.  Here's the story of how it all came together, in a perhaps disjointed tale.


Pulaski Tech, where I teach, is a growing community college.  In fact, we just moved up one notch to become the fourth largest institution of higher education in Arkansas, with 11,900 and some students.  For my first five years on campus, I served on the library committee, and through that committee, we were able to host several readings.  I mention these events because they helped teach me all that goes into putting on a great event, which, for me, involves an incredible amount of planning and coordinating with other offices on campus.  I also mention these events because the data on attendance and the written feedback we received from each was key to floating an organized reading series by the administration.  We were able to demonstrate a need and we knew what would be needed in terms of resources. 

Speaking of resources, I also learned a lot about how to do this on a shoestring by attending a panel discussion at AWP in DC.  That panel featured writer-instructors from a variety of community colleges who hosted reading series and other literary events with almost no budgets.  The key component I learned about: setting up a foundation fund and running the series on donations.  While we can't pay our readers a huge honorarium and we can't offer travel expenses, I would not ask someone to come and read for free.  With a couple of anchor donations and then many smaller ones, we are able to pay our writers a very modest honorarium and in the case of Alison Pelegrin who will be driving up to read for us, we will take care of her hotel stay.  By creating the reading series at PTC, we are able to use resources like the PR/Marketing office to create promotion and get out press releases.  This has been INVALUABLE!

So, how does one create a reading series?

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Secure a venue & date and get the details in writing.  Think about all the details: size, seating, accessibility, lighting, mic/speakers, parking, if there will be a cover charge, etc.

Contact writers well in advance and let them know upfront the details in terms of location, pay, expected audience size, and if books will be sold how and by whom.  Get the details in writing and be sure to get good contact information in case of emergencies.  One new twist we weren't expecting was video rights.  We taped the event for students who couldn't attend and to have as an archive, but our authors alerted us to the fact that some publishers require permission for publishing videos (especially on YouTube).  For future events, we will be getting written permission in advance for video postings.

If you will be setting up a donation fund, start asking for donations as early as possible.  Again, we used our Foundation office on campus, so I don't know the legal details of this if you plan an independent series.

Promotion, promotion, promotion.

With the date/time/location/author(s) secured the time for promotion begins.  We had a three-pronged system.  One: flyers & posters to promote the reading on our campuses and at local libraries/bookstores.  Two: email blasts (collected the email list at previous readings and by going online and collecting addresses for English faculty from institutions in the area).  Three: press release to the local media (we were fortunate and the story got picked up by the state-wide newspaper).

Facebook.  I suppose this is a fourth prong of our PR system, but it's so big, it's kind of it's own thing.  I created a page for the Big Rock Reading Series and sent out an invite to "like" it to my regional friends.  As with social media, the page grew from there.  We use the page to promote future readings and to post photos and feedback from previous readings.  It's also a good place to post links to campus maps and directions if you are targeting a community-wide audience as we are. 

Word of mouth.  Yep.  I never stop talking about the series with colleagues and friends. 

Prepare an event program.  For us, this is a simple 8.5 X 11 sheet folded in half.  I used Microsoft Publisher to put it together and it was quite easy.  Our PR office had created a logo for the series, which is awesome.  The program features the author bios and websites, a list of upcoming events, and our donor list (THANK YOU!).  We also included two half sheets stuffed inside (many thanks to the student workers who copied, folded, and stuffed).  One half sheet was a survey and one was a donation form.  The survey was awesome and has given us even more data to use for future fundraising.

Reading. Reading. Reading.

Be in touch with the writer in the days leading up to the reading and on the day of.  Be sure you have water and a place for the writer's book(s) to be sold if that is part of the deal.  If the books are not being sold by a bookstore at the event, designate someone you trust to handle the sales and get a bit of cash change before the event.  We sell books for cash or check and I volunteer to cover any bounced checks (although that hasn't happened yet).  I'm looking into getting Four Square for my iPhone so we can also do credit card sales.

Arrive at the location well in advance.  I arrived an hour early to start setting up (we display our division's course offerings and our student journals).  Believe it or not, we had audience members arriving 45 minutes before start time.  Check the lighting, the mic/speakers, seating, and whatever else you've arranged.

ASK FOR HELP!  We use student ambassadors to greet arrivals, hand out programs, and provide directions within the building.  A few of my English faculty colleagues jumped in to help with details I overlooked.  For example, as the coordinator of the series, people wanted to talk to me.  I hadn't figured on that.  I was hauling tables around and setting up displays and fielding questions/discussions from audience members in the meantime.  It was chaotic.  I will search out volunteers and do a better job of delegating next month!

Coddle the writer(s).  Be sure the writer is comfortable with the mic and set up.  Be sure he/she has anything he/she needs to be comfortable (including water).  The writer is the whole reason for the event.  For that hour, he/she is a STAR!  Treat him/her as such.  Depending on your situation, you might offer to take the writer(s) out for a meal before or after the event.  I'm fond of going out afterward as we were all amped up and used the meal as a way to unwind and bask in the joy.

The Day After.

Collapse from exhaustion on the inside but keep putting one foot in front of the other for the day job or family obligations or what have you.

If you did a survey, crunch the data.  If you didn't, take the time to write out a narrative of how the evening went and what you might do differently in the future.  We learned that it would be good to have a calculator at the book sale table.  We learned that the moderator needed to repeat audience questions during the Q & A.  Small things add up.  The data and/or narrative will be important if you are seeking funds for the series or applying for grants in the future.

Begin promoting the next event, depending on length of time between readings.  For us, there is a month between readings for the three months of the semester, then breaks for holidays and summer.  Promote early and often, but not so often that you become a pest.  :)

I'm sure I've forgotten a bit, so chime in with questions if you have any!

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Great post. We at the University of Memphis have a well-established reading series, yet social media would help us a ton. Thanks for providing a great example!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Tara Mae, if you haven't checked out the page on FB, feel free to do so and let me know what you think.

Jealous of y'all's budget and ability to bring in the big guns. :)

Tara Mae Mulroy said...

I actually passed that facebook page along as an example to our Creative Writing Director who is setting up some social media stuff for our MFA program and for the writing series. With all your hard work, you'll get there with that budget! Just find a wealthy benefactor. They're still out there.
I hope you can make it up here for Tillinghast next week. He is a wonderful poet!

Kristin said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! Great details--thank you so much--just what I wanted!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Tara Mae, thanks for the encouragement. I'm going to try to make the reading if at all possible in between the grading crush.

Kristin, glad it helped! Feel free to let me know what else comes up as/if you plan one of your own.

Molly said...

Sounds so exciting! Thanks for sharing so many how-to details......I hope I get to create a reading series someday.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Molly! Let me know if I can ever help.