Look: this happens to everyone. Odds are that even the Gods of Successful Writing, early in their careers, had author appearances where the author outnumbered the audience. Don’t despair. The fact that you are not yet the sort of household name that drives audiences to leave their homes and forsake a nice walk in the sunshine, or a game of D&D, or the kid’s softball game, or a myriad of other leisure activities, means… well, just that. And you knew that coming in, right? So, how to prepare and what to do.
First: if you are asked if you want to do a signing at a bookstore, ask if you can do a reading instead. There is nothing so demoralizing as sitting a table with a stack of your books and people walking by, ignoring you. If you read, there’s a good chance that your voice will draw people, that a phrase will catch the ear and bring an auditor from the Philately section. Signings are for authors who already have a following. Even at conventions, signings can be a touchy thing (ask me to tell you sometime about the convention where, because everything was arranged alphabetically, I was seated between Terry Pratchett and Kim Stanley Robinson. On either side of me, lines that stretched out to infinity, and in the middle, me. With crickets).
Second: if there are only a handful of people sitting in the audience, read anyway. It’s fine to say, “I’m going to wait a few minutes to start, in case more people show up.” But don’t wait the full allotted reading time, and don’t behave as if the people in the audience aren’t enough for you. Read. And do your best possible job at it. These people took the time to come see you. If you treat them courteously and give them your best, they walk away as your ambassadors.
Third: don’t take it personally. Okay, that may not be possible. You have brought your work and yourself out into a public forum, and no one showed up, and that stings. But: see above about all the competing activities your audience has to forego in order to show up for you. If you’re reading at a convention, you may be scheduled against one of those Gods of Successful Writing, or the Guest of Honor interview, or the unscheduled appearance in the hallway of [insert name of current genre film actor]. And some people–even your best friend since second grade–just don’t enjoy readings and won’t show up and it’s not you it really is them.
What about if you are in a group reading and it’s clear that one of the other readers is the one who people are there to hear? It’s not unreasonable to ask to read before that person, so that their audience can be introduced to your work. If you do read after them and you note that much of the audience is getting up to go (and the first reader doesn’t have the class to say “I’d glad you came to hear my work–but don’t go yet, we have another writer here, and I’m very interested to hear her read…”) you can pipe up and say it yourself. Don’t sound pathetic. Just “I hope you’ll stay and listen to my reading too,” is fine. And if they don’t?
This is where the box of graceful resignation comes in handy. I have, on one occasion, read to the other writer, who was the only one who stayed. You could do that. Or, as a friend of mine has done on more than one occasion, you could turn it into an informal meet-the-author by saying something like, “Hey, we’re a small group. Y’all wanna go to the bar?” And maybe you read and maybe you don’t, but perhaps you’ve made fans for life. And in the end, reading to an audience is an act of self-promotion, and how you handle a disappointment can be a part of that.
All of the things I’ve mentioned here, and in earlier posts on this topic, are pretty much common sense. And some of them might not work for you. But remember: in the end, reading to an audience should be fun. It should be exciting, a chance to see how your work affects others in the wild. And if it’s not fun, not exciting, maybe this is not the best way to promote your work or yourself as a writer.
Now go have fun.