Byline: Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post Books Editor
Every profession has its classic anxiety nightmare.
For an actor, it's
walking on stage and going completely blank, not knowing the lines,
not knowing the name of the play.
For a writer, contrary to popular opinion, it's
not a bad review - those
are the cost of doing business; sooner or later, everybody gets them.
No, it's the book signing where nobody shows up, compounding the
loneliness of the time spent working on the book with a humiliating
Actors have the consolation of knowing their ultimate
infrequently. The writer has no such assurance. Indeed, this particular
nightmare will happen.
Michael Connelly, a fixture on The New York Times
bestseller list, had just
hit the big time with his suspense novel, The Poet. ''I went to a bookstore in
Lexington, Kentucky. What I didn't know was that my signing coincided
with the tip-off of a Kentucky basketball game. Kentucky won, but not
a single soul came to the signing. I've had plenty of single souls, but never
have I been completely shut out.
''The people in the store were so mortified they
abandoned me. I was sitting
at a table, with stacks of books around me. After 45 minutes, I left. Nobody
said anything to me. It was like I was never there. It was The Twilight Zone
signing. I hate Lexington to this day.''
Sue Miller, the popular author of The Good Mother
and While I Was Gone,
remembers a lonely signing at a bookstore in Seattle, where people avoided
her eyes as they walked past.
''It was Mother's Day and I was sitting there
while people were buying
Mother's Day cards. The embarrassment spreads; the booksellers tell
you, 'Oh, I don't know what happened; we did exactly the same promotion
last week that we did for you and we had 300 people. Oh! I didn't mean . . . '''
A writer can always console himself by saying
the bookstore screwed up on
promotion, but sometimes you don't even have that out.
Connelly remembers one signing he did with novelist
Richard Ford at the San
Francisco bookstore, A Clean, Well Lighted Place. ''He was first, I was second.
When he was done, the crowd went away. I had five or six people. A horror
The book tour has been around for more than 100
years - the long lecture
tours Mark Twain and Charles Dickens engaged in were variations on the
theme. In the publishing business, it is axiomatic that giving readers a chance
to meet a writer will cement some sort of mystical bond. But, sometimes the
simpatico between writer and fan gets binding. There's such a thing as too much
''I had to have security escort me out because
of a stalker,'' says Connelly.
''He wouldn't get out of my face. He wanted to make sure I knew that I was
the best writer since Louis L'Amour. His words, not mine. He was wearing a
buckskin jacket. He would not move on, he kept asking questions, so the store
would move him on and he'd go and buy another book and come back around.
He bought $ 100 worth of books to get time with me. A couple of the bigger male
employees walked me to my car, and he kept following me. It was kind of scary,
especially being compared to Louis L'Amour.''
Ego massage, or not
A 10 or 12-city tour is exhausting, both because
incessant travel and the highs and lows. For one or two hours at the bookstore
or interview, it can be a fantastic, ego-gratifying experience. But it's 22 hours
to the next positive experience.
Different writers have devised different means
of coping. Amy Tan, the author
of The Joy Luck Club, travels with a pair of Yorkshire Terriers to keep her
company; horror novelist Anne Rice did a three month-stint by bus while writing
a diary for Salon magazine.
Robert Crais, author of the popular
Elvis Cole mystery novels, is a true
''I've done long tours, 26 cities in 5 weeks.
It feels like you're a Catskills
comic . . . and it gets bizarre. It can either keep your head screwed on or
lift it right off. It might be the steady diet of honey-roasted peanuts for dinner.
See, if your publicist has done his job, your day is packed. You're doing
7:30 a.m. radio shows, a half-dozen bookstores, you're constantly on the go.
It might appear a tad glamorous, but there's no time for food. If you're lucky,
you sprint for the next plane. And dinner becomes a bag of peanuts. Or an
Adds Connelly: ''The combination of fear
and exhaustion is a whammy. It's
often a whole month after a publicity tour before I can write again.''
Crais remembers a chain store signing in
Pennsylvania. There were exactly
three people there: two little old ladies in the front row, and a gentleman
sitting four rows back, holding Crais' book. Trying to make the best of a
bad situation, Crais told the three people to come up to the front row; he'd
pull up a chair and they'd just have a friendly chat.
''I'd rather sit back here,'' said the man in the fourth row.
''Well, that's fine, that's OK,'' said Crais,
as the flop sweat broke out.
''I'm really glad you all came, it's always a pleasure to meet people who've
read my work.''
At that point, the old ladies tittered. ''We don't
know who you are,'' said
That was bad, but it wasn't the worst.
''My all-time worst experience was in Miami at
a Barnes and Noble,'' says
Crais. ''We stop at this store for a meet and greet. The place is deserted.
There's one woman behind the register.
'' 'This is Mr. Robert Crais, ' says the escort.
'' 'Oh, thank God,' she says, 'we were worried.
Everybody's in the back.
They're all set up, and they're so thrilled that you've come.'''
Crais walks back and finds three people in a room.
''This is Robert Crais, '' and they start shaking hands.
Crais looks around. He sees no books of any kind, and no customers.
''We're thrilled to meet you,'' says one of the
men. "What I need to know
is this: what sort of managerial experience do you have?''
''They thought I was there for a job interview!
And there have been times
when I've thought that I should have taken the job.''
Store of reserve
There is, of course, another partner involved
in a signing- the bookstore.
As can be imagined, they have their own roster of war stories.
''Finicky authors I can understand,'' says Virginia
Jacobus at the Classic
Bookshop on Palm Beach. ''You've put ads in every paper, you send out
2,000 flyers, give out hundreds of flyers in your store, and nobody comes.
Sure they can be upset.
''We had one author who was so upset that nobody
came to his signing. What
he didn't say was that he had just spoken here in Palm Beach to an audience of
300 people the day before. How could he expect there would be anybody
''Another author told us that she always sold
100 books every time she did an
appearance. At the end of her signing at Mar-a-Lago, she demanded to know
how many she'd sold. We told her 92. Actually, she'd sold a little over 60, but
it made her happy.''
From the publisher's point of view, it's all promotion,
but what drives the
industry crazy is that no book tour, no review in the history of man, is as
effective as one hour on Oprah.
''Personally, I think book tours are overdone,''
says Sue Miller, who toured
this year in a different venue - public libraries. "People are jaded at seeing
writers. There's nothing very special about it anymore. I'm a white-bread,
middle-aged lady; who needs to see me?
''Why do it? Because my publishers ask me to.''
Adds Crais: ''It helps because you
develop relationships with booksellers
and readers. I've gone to many of the same places three years in a row, and
the crowds grow each time. When the audience invests itself in the writer and
your characters, if they know you, you become real to them and that engenders
''What you have to learn is that people are there
because they like you.
Except for that guy in the fourth row."
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