The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    The butt-to-seat ratio, the key to readings

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 31, 2008


    I’ve discovered at my events that it’s really not about the absolute number of people who show up (though that’s important), but more, it’s about the butt-to-seat ratio in the room. See above at Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles. There were probably only 30 seats, but then a lot of people showed up from hearing me on the radio (it never ceases to amaze me that people will hear other people on the radio and show up to hear them speak that day.)

    If there are too many empty seats, it dissipates the energy and makes the presentation flat. It is also a statement about the attendance relative to expectations. (Remember Jenny’s formula to life: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Expectations > Reality → -Happiness (which is Unhappiness)

    Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena during Fortune Cookie Chronicles Presentation

    This above is Vromans in Pasadena. Probably the same number of people as Skylight (sold similar number of books), but just spread out.

    At the San Francisco Public Library, a guy came out to add a row of chairs to the set up from the previous event. (There were about 50 chairs already in the room). I became quite nervous watching him doing that and I asked the organizer, “Um, are you sure you want to add chairs?” In part, because I did not have friends who were coming to this reading (the San Francisco crowd was at all going to Dave Lu’s event at Swig Bar)

    She said, we’d be fine because I had been on the KQED show, Forum with Michael Kraszny, earlier that day. He’s a very skilled interviewer and a San Francisco institution. The show runs an incredible three hours out of every day (two hours live and then one hour of repeat).

    Indeed, it ended up being something like standing room only (just a little overflow, but still a bit of overflow). So I was relieved.

    I was absolutely panicked when I walked into the Nixon Library auditorium because the seating capacity was 300, and I knew we weren’t going to get anywhere near that. Nothing is more pathetic than a semi-empty auditorium.

    Nixon Library Audinece in Yorba Linda for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

    We ended up drawing around 120+ (above), but even though the seating capacity is 300, luckily if they sit concentrated in the middle instead of the side two sections, then it still looks pretty dense and not embarrassing. (lower lefthand corner is a classmate from college, Murad)

    The smartest place about all of this is Elliott Bay Book Store, for example, which will often put out too few chairs in anticipation of the crowd, so people will have to add folding chairs (below). Clever psychology. We were really impressed that this many people showed up when it had hailed outside.

    Elliott Bay Audience for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

    This of course reminds me of that old trick, to schedule a press conference in a room which is smaller than the number of reporters who are expected, to make it look crowded on television.

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