This issue has been on my mind, since, you know, I'm now doing readings somewhat regularly. Having attended many bad author events that resemble ritual obeisances akin to church--from which the bored audience members, like bored parishioners, feel ecstatic to be freed--I promise to try my damnedest not to let this happen at my readings.
On the other hand, certain ritualistic behaviors are expected. At some point, the author reads from her work--presumably to entice audience members who don't know the book to buy it, as well as to offer some deeper interpretation to readers who may already know the story. The author then takes questions and signs books. Schmoozing, perhaps with alcoholic beverages, may occur before, during, or after.
Given this general format, what can an author do to not only limit the pain she inflicts on the audience, but actually turn the evening into an enjoyable event? First, as I've said before, it probably wouldn't kill you to take some acting lessons. Second, read and consider everything in this post. Third--well, maybe this is obvious, but I honestly didn't reflect on it until just now--think of what you'd enjoy most from an author reading, and do that--because your audience is probably made up of people much like you.
So what do I especially enjoy at a reading?
1. A good performance (see above).
2. Interesting information, particularly about the writing process. The audience is probably full of aspiring as well as successful writers. And we all love to find out how others do it.
3. A sense that the author is genuinely glad to be there and excited to share her work. For the introverts among us, this can be a tad difficult to pull off. I can say that my acting lessons helped with this aspect, too--not least in building my confidence, which (I hope) translates into greater ease in public.
4. A sense that the writer is not only there to promote her particular book, but to take part in a larger conversation. In other words, believing that the author cares about writing and her subject in general, and that she sees the audience as contributing to her understanding. In still other words, I want to feel like part of a spontaneously formed community around a topic of common interest--not like a vessel receiving 40 minutes of promo.
I'm sure there's more.
Of course, for all of this to happen, you also need a good audience. Not necessarily a large one--though a tiny one can certainly feel dispiriting--but one that's rooting for you and your event to succeed. Which, fortunately, is usually the case, given that they showed up in the first place.
UPDATE: But read this post by Jennifer Margulis, which describes what can happen, all too often, and what we can do to fix it.