Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Signing Off

I have a book signing coming up in another month, and I have to admit that already I’m starting to dread it. The signing is part of my college reunion weekend, which means it’ll be filled with friendly faces and old friends, but still I’m feeling a bit nervous. Book signings, for an unknown writer, are exercises in humiliation.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love being a writer and I’m absolutely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be published. For those of you about to embark on your first book tour, or those who will in the future, please understand that I’m not trying to scare you. All I’m doing is setting expectations, so that when you have a reading or signing of your own that is less than stellar, you’ll know that it happens to everyone. Think of it as a rite of passage.

One book that I think all writers should read before their first book signing is MORTIFICATION edited by Robin Robertson. It’s a collection of essays from famous writers about their most horrific book tour experiences. The book is incredibly fun—both cringe-worthy and hilarious at the same time. Who would have guessed that Margaret Atwood was forced to sign copies of THE EDIBLE WOMAN in the men’s underwear department of a store early in her career? Or that Matthew Sweeney had a loose tooth fly out of his mouth during a reading and the audience scrambled to find it under the seats? Or that some famous, unnamed American novelist had to rush off stage during a reading to throw up in the bathroom, only to leave her lapel microphone on so that the entire audience could hear her retching in the bathroom? You have to read this, my fellow writers—if not for the schadenfreude, than at least for the knowledge that you are in good company.

My own book tour horror stories aren’t quite as bad by comparison, but were humiliating enough at the time. Now I just think of them as funny stories from the trenches. In the spirit of fun, I submit the following:

It’s Not The Firm.
A man came up to me and asked me a few questions about my book. I was grateful for this—I was nearly an hour into my signing and no one had approached my table, let alone made eye contact with me. He grabbed a copy of the book, sat down on the floor beside my table, and spent the next twenty minutes reading the entire first chapter. He laughed so hard he started drawing attention to the table. Finally, when he was done, he handed the book back to me and said, “It’s not my type of thing—I only read John Grisham.”

Make Mine Extra-Crispy
One of my signings was at a bookstore/gift shop in a resort town. Instead of having a table in the book department, I was given a very small child-sized desk to set up my display—in the gift department. The reasoning was that I’d be more visible, which was fine, but it was also a little odd to be sitting next to displays of lollipops, super balls, and a barrel of (I’m NOT joking) rubber chickens. The signing was scheduled during the dinner hour, which meant the store was completely empty most of the time. Time ticked by so slowly. To keep myself busy, I rearranged toys and did my best to make the rubber chickens look enticing.

When I returned home after the signing, I dashed off an e-mail to my publicist to tell her about the signing. I thought the whole rubber chicken thing was funny, but I guess it didn’t come across in the tone of my note. Without my knowledge, my publicist complained to the bookstore that I shouldn’t have had to sign next to rubber chickens (can you just imagine this conversation?). I didn’t find out, of course, until the following week when I had to do a signing at another branch of the same bookstore chain. The manager introduced herself, handed me a rubber chicken key chain and said, “A little something for you to remember us by.”

Doesn’t Radio Count for Something?
A man once asked me if I’d ever been on television. When I said no, he moved on to the author at the next table and asked him the same question. He said yes, and without even looking at the book, the man bought a copy.

Not Much.
A number of people have asked me to sign a book, telling me they had no intention of reading it but wanted to see how much it would fetch on e-bay.

If You Buy a Book, I Can Go to the Beach
I postponed my family’s vacation by a day to participate in a book festival. I felt a little guilty about it, but fifty authors were signing at the event and it seemed like a great opportunity. When I arrived, I made my way past tables with stacks and stacks of books, looking for my signing table. After making three loops around the tent with no luck, I asked one of the coordinators to help me. It took a lot of searching, but we finally found the table. It was in plain sight—the problem was there were no books. Out of fifty authors, mine was the only publisher that neglected to ship my books. What’s worse is that I knew this sort of thing happened from time to time and usually carried a spare box of extra copies with me just in case, but in the midst of packing for vacation I had forgotten bring it. Somehow the coordinator managed to scare up three copies, and I spent the first day of what was supposed to be our vacation at a very empty table, trying to convince people to buy my three measly copies. It took all day.

Who Can Afford a Stylist?
A woman looked at my author picture on the back of the book, then looked at me, then looked back at the book. She then said, “You don’t look a thing like your picture--it’s amazing what stylists can do!” She then proceeded to list the reasons why she wouldn’t be buying my book, which included that she had just bought a muffin and that she was saving to send her son to college.

Smile, You’re Getting Paid
On a rainy Saturday afternoon I gave a reading at (another) empty bookstore. [Side note: Bookstores are always embarrassed when there’s a low turnout—usually they say the time of day, the weather, and other extenuating factors are to blame. And while you’d love to believe them, you just know that if Stephen King were making an appearance, there’d be a line down the block.] The emptiness of the store was emphasized by the ten rows of chairs they had optimistically set-up. Just before I was about to despair that I’d have to stand and read to no one, four hip-looking kids took seats in the back row. I’d wished they had sat a little closer so I wouldn’t have to shout, but what the heck. It was great to have an audience.

During the reading, I kept looking up at the kids. They looked like college students, maybe even writing students. They were listening, but with bored affectation. I could tell they wanted edgy—like a Chuck Palahniuk gross-out that would have them scrambling for the bathroom—but all I had to offer them was old-fashioned subtlety. The jokes that usually got a laugh were met with stares. I kept expecting them to take off in the middle of the reading but they stuck around, leaving me to wonder why on earth they were there.

When I was done, I asked if anyone had any questions about the book or the writing process. Not a peep, a smile, or a nod from the back row. I told them I’d be happy to sign a copy of the book if they were interested. Having been dismissed, the kids got up and started shelving books. They were employees.


b-dub said...

Ah, this is what I have to look forward to one of these days. ;)

Jeanne Lowery Meeks said...

Good article, Stephanie. I've had a few encouraging book signings, but know that someday I'll have stories like yours.

SK said...

Oh dear. :-)

I will have to get Mortification! :-)