Talking Paper Interview Series: Molly Templeton

Molly Templeton is events director at WORD bookstore, with locations at 126 Franklin Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and 128 Newark Avenue in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey. Since taking the position in February 2015 (after nearly two years as the store’s outreach manager), Templeton has organized author readings at both locations, as well as numerous off-site events. She also finds time to review films as a freelance critic for the Eugene Weekly in her home state of Oregon—the same publication where she served for nearly five years as arts and music editor. I interviewed Templeton in Brooklyn WORD’s downstairs space about her approach to booking author readings, their benefit to writers, and other aspects of speaking written words for an audience.

On Early Thoughts About Author Readings

I grew up in Oregon in a small town, and [the fact] that authors go to school as kids blew my mind when I first learned about that. I said, "You can meet authors? Really?!" I didn’t’ really understand that they were real people when I was a kid. They seemed superhuman or something. Then I went to college here [in the NYC area], studied for a while, went back to Oregon, and then came back. Having been in both of those places, I think that you can begin to take your access for granted when you’re here, because there are so many amazing bookstores doing so many amazing events. There are author events that are not in bookstores. There’s the 92nd Street Y. There’s Symphony Space. There are things in bars. There’s reading series in bars. There’s the KGB Fantastic Fiction series, which has been going on for 15, 20 years, and it’s amazing. We sell books for it, so I get to go fairly often. All that stuff can make you just assume that this is what life is like—that on any given week, you can go see an author whose book you’re curious about, love, or you have already read 18 times. You don’t necessarily have that anywhere else. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of amazing authors at Powell’s in Portland, and they really get a fantastic number of them, and so do some of the other stores in Portland. But it’s not the same density. You know, you don’t just see Zadie Smith walking down the street there.

On Selecting Authors

There are several different avenues that we take to get through the publishers and bigger publishers, where they send us proposals, and we send them proposals. There’s a lot of back and forth. Sometimes we go hunting, sometimes they come to us, or sometimes it’s authors that we know. There’s a well-known author named Sarah McCarry, who did her first book launch here. Now that we are pals, she does them every year, and they’re always lively and full of readers. It just worked out that way. There’s a certain amount of serendipity involved in all of it.

When authors have new books out, their publishers may or may not send them on tour depending on, Lord knows, many factors that I am not privy to. I pay attention to which books are coming out, who’s local, and who’s not local; who’s not going on tour, who is. If an author I love is in Portland and they have a new book out but they’re not on tour, we're probably not going to have an event with them. It’s just not how it works. They have to already be coming to the area, or be from the area.

There’s a different vibe from author to author across the board. There are people who just walk in like they’re coming home, and there are people who are really new at it and are a little nervous. You want to take them by the hand and tell them everything’s going to be okay. Music people are interesting, because a lot of them are performers. Maybe not the journalists so much. But the musicians who have written a book, they’re used to being on stage. They’ve got years of practice. So they do have a little bit more of a, "this is just another day of doing what we do" kind of vibe.

I think a lot of people who are writers are also event-goers. So they’ve been to other readings, they have an idea of how it works, and they know what they don’t want to do and what they do want to do based on previous experiences as an audience member. It’s funny, I can get a little nervous just getting up and introducing people, so I understand when they are just a little bit nervous about it. I think one thing to remember is the audience is on your side. They’re all there because they want to be there. They want to see what you’re going to talk about and what your book sounds like when you read it. No one remembers the little details of things that stick in your head, like when I get up and I have to introduce someone, and I forget half the things I want to say. Nobody cares. That’s not important. That’s not the meat of it. The meat of it is the whole experience they take home with them, whether it’s mingling with the author and their friends afterwards, or getting their book signed, or discovering this book that they weren’t really sure about is the best book ever. The details aren’t as important as the whole vibe and the whole experience of being there. 

On Optimizing the Size of an Audience

It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and who the author is. You can have a great reading with four people in the audience. But there’s a point where it gets so small, it might be less comfortable. There are people who might work better with a comfortable 30- or 40-person audience, as opposed to like 200 people. But it’s not a science—it’s definitely an art. It’s a feeling around in the dark kind of art in order to figure out what works best. Sometimes authors are really forthcoming if you work with them directly about what they want out of a reading. And sometimes you’re going through a publicist who might have just started working with them, and no one’s quite sure exactly what they want to do or accomplish with it.

People who walk by on the regular and see that sign [advertising a reading] for a few days might think, "Oh, I should go to that." We have the events displayed when you walk in upstairs. There are two boards in the front actually. I think there is some drive-by traffic, and we’ve gotten tourist traffic—people who are only here for a week, but saw the sign outside and went, "Oh, I want to do that. I want to go to a reading in Brooklyn."

On Economic Benefit of Live Readings for Authors

There is a practical side to us hosting readings, and that’s that we’re here to sell books. So it’s not that often that we do events where we can’t actually sell a book for them. There are exceptions. There are no hard and fast rules. But for the most part, we want there to be something that we can sell to people on their way out the door for everyone’s benefit.              

Sometimes you sell a lot of books. Sometimes you don’t sell any books. Sometimes the benefits of doing a reading are not apparent for years down the line, until you’ve discovered that you have this trail of fans who find your readings that are just quietly adding up. It’s about connection, and it’s about discovery. We do a lot of readings that are not just one author, that are authors in conversation, or on a panel. If we had like Jonathan Franzen in the basement, he can do whatever he wants. But when you have authors that are mid-list authors, or brand new authors, it’s good to have two of them, because then they’re similar in some way—not the same book, but a similar mindset, a similar tone, maybe just the same publisher, or they’re friends. Then their readers can overlap with each other. You come for Reader A, and you fall in love with Reader B’s delivery of their story. It also takes the pressure off the authors to perform. There are some authors who can stand up there for an hour and be amazing the whole time. But it’s a lot to ask of someone whose real job is sitting alone and writing that they get up and be a performer also. That’s a lot—to be great at both of those things. A lot of them do better with a conversationalist. It expands the world that you’re talking about. To have two voices makes things bigger and broader.

I like to have a mix of genres and a mix of established names and new names. I especially love when we can get someone who’s new and can be interviewed by someone who’s established. That dynamic of experience and fresh-faced newbies is one of my absolute favorites

I like to have a mix of genres and a mix of established names and new names. I  especially love when we can get someone who’s new and can be interviewed by someone who’s established. That dynamic of experience and fresh-faced newbies is one of my absolute favorites. If I could make a specific series of that, I would.

But I think a lot of the specific pushing of books is just a matter of what we read. I’m making an active attempt to take my colleagues' reading patterns and habits into account when we’re booking events. Because one thing that makes a huge difference, especially for our smaller, lesser-known authors, is if someone in the bookstore is pushing the book beforehand. There might be a fantastic non-fiction book that looks great, but I know that it needs someone upstairs to read it and tell people about how great it is, because non-fiction is sometimes a hard sell for author events. That’s really where the new author thing comes in. Because if someone reads a debut novel, and they’re gangbusters about it, we’re all very talkative. We all make a lot of recommendations with "shelf talkers," put them in the newsletter, and that is the extra oomph for someone who doesn’t have an established readership yet.

The off-site sales that we do are usually things where someone’s organizing an event, and we just come in as the bookseller. We’re not so much the programmers in that sense. Like we have an event for an author’s launch at a bar in the city, and we want someone to sell books because it doesn’t get reported in the New York Times, or it doesn’t go through the right channels, or the author would be busy partying and doesn’t want to sell them themselves. That’s what those are like. We choose those based on the schedule and how likely we are to sell a decent number of books. It’s not so much about any kind of WORD-shaped thing.

I come out of a super hyper-music background. I used to be an arts journalist. I don’t think a band performing music is the same thing as a writer reading. But it’s my impression that a lot of just playing shows for a band is not a huge moneymaker. It’s the merch table that’s the moneymaker. I do think that publishers could get on that concept a little better than they do. I would love to have more book t-shirts. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) made a t-shirt for John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, which makes perfect sense, because it’s John Darnielle. But it was just his promotional item. I was like, "Wait, I want t-shirts for all the cool book covers. If I’m gonna spend 20 bucks on a Rocket from the Crypt t-shirt, why can’t I spent 15 bucks on a Lauren Groff t-shirt?" I think that isn’t part of the game, and that separates those two things on an economic level. Also, I do think that performatively, there’s something different.

On What a Space Brings to a Reading

Every bookstore has a different vibe for their events. I’m sure you’ve been to readings at different stores, and they’re all a little bit different. Some are more formal, some are more relaxed, or some are more quirky—there’s a whole spectrum.

Every bookstore has a different vibe for their events. ... Some are more formal, some are more relaxed, or some are more quirky—there’s a whole spectrum.

[WORD’s reading space] is kind of a blank box in a way—other than the fact that we’ve painted it bright colors. It does lend itself to certain kinds of events. There’s events like punk rock basement shows, because we do really well with these kind of funky indie rock or punk-rock-dude events that I think this space is really well-suited for. The guys from The Jesus Lizard are talking about totally off-color tour stories. This is the right place for that to happen. The room is full of people who are used to being in funky rooms, and so there’s a vibrancy to it. Sometimes, we want bigger spaces that we don’t have. But at the Jersey City store, for example, the event space is really different. It’s in the back in the café, and it has high ceilings, and we’re still learning what that means for events, since we’ve only been open for a year.

My favorite thing that I’ve done in the last couple of months that I’ve been here is we put together a panel of music writers for a book in the 33⅓  series—the little books about albums. They’re pretty cool. Each one is a book about a single record. That series did a book called How to Write About Music, so one of the editors of that book and I put together a panel of music writers to talk about how to write about music, which apparently is a very popular topic, because the basement was packed. I think it was an interesting mix of aspiring journalists, actual journalists, friends of the writers, and people who were just curious about the topic. It was a really good conversation. I managed to fit six or seven people on the stage, also. That was really fun. Jenn Pelly from Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz from New York Magazine, Jillian Mapes from Flavorwire, Amanda Petrusich, who has a couple books out and writes for Pitchfork and some other places, Paula Mejia who writes for Newsweek. It was really great to see that nobody was super-famous, and there was no brand-name, best-selling novelist, but the room was full. I kind of love it when you can mix those two things, mix something that obviously strikes a chord with the community.

I think that the editor of the book and I had both been to a lot of music-writing panels that were all men or that had one token woman. That’s been a topic of discussion in the music-writing world. Maybe not overtly, but something people are aware of—the gender balance, or lack thereof. I thought it would be interesting to have it be all women and not make a thing about it. Not have it be women talk about how to write about music, but just how to write about music without overtly gendering it.

On the Impact of e-Books on Paper Book Sales

We’re here. We’re selling books. I’ve got better things to focus on than whether or not e-Books are a threat. Which again, e-Books are books.

We don’t have any problem with e-books and sell them on our web site. We are egalitarian with regard to readers across all forms. I read on my iPad. I read physical books. I get distracted by things and read stuff I’ve saved in Instapaper. But I think a few years ago when e-books were really starting to rise, there was a lot of panic. Some people are still talking about it in this panic tone, like, "Paper books are still relevant!" The thing is,  they are, and we don’t really have to talk about it that much. People still buy books. There are new independent bookstores opening all the time all over the country, which says to me that people want to buy book books and not always read from the Internet. I don’t think it’s worth getting too worked up about. We’re here. We’re selling books. I’ve got better things to focus on than whether or not e-Books are a threat. Which again, e-Books are books.

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.