Booksigning Hell Remembered

20x30_Remaindered_Novel_Way_FestivalsAny author who was published back in the pre-ebook days can tell you stories about some horrible booksignings. I did a signing years ago in a now-defunct Newport Beach bookstore. Not a single soul showed up. So the store clerk plopped herself down in the seat beside me.

“This is great,” she said.

“How so?” I replied.

“I can read you some of my erotic poetry,” she flipped open a thick notebook filled with illegible scrawl, and began to read. “Hello, He throbbed…”

I looked at my watch. I was scheduled to be there another hour-and-thirty minutes. And my wife had my car…

“My wife should be here any minute,” I said.

Her breasts swelled, waves of lust on a sea of passion…”

* * * * * *

Another signing, this one at a Waldenbooks in the South Bay, where I was stuck at a cardtable at the front of the store. Only one person even approached me. She wanted to know where the diet books were.

After two hours of boredom, I approached the manager and thanked her for having me.

“Would you like me to sign the stock?” I asked.

She looked at me in horror. “No way!”

“Why not?” No one had ever said no to me signing stock before.

“None our customers are going to buy a marred book!”

* * * * * *

I fictionalized one of my favorite bad booksignings for my short story REMAINDERED, which appeared in “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,” a few years back and was later adapted into a short film. Rather then tell it like it was, here’s a bit from the story instead…

The voice of a new generation sat at the end of aisle 14, where the house wares department ended and the book section began. He peered over the neat stack of paperbacks on the table in front of him and, once again, as politely as he could, told the irritable woman in the orange tank top and slouchy breasts that he had absolutely no idea where she could find wart remover.

“You’re not being much of a help,” she snapped, leaning one hand on her shopping cart, which was filled with disposable diapers, Weight Watchers Frozen Dinners, Captain Crunch, a sack of dry dog food, a box of snail poison and three rolls of paper towel. “Look at this, it’s doubled in size just this week.”

She thrust a finger in his face, making sure he got a good look at the huge wart on her knuckle.

“I don’t work here,” he replied.

“Then what are you doing sitting at a help desk?”

“This isn’t a help desk. I’m an author,” he said. “I’m autographing my book.”

She seemed to notice the books for the first time and picked one up. “What’s it about?”

He hated that question. That’s what book covers were for.

“It’s about an insomniac student who volunteers for a sleep study and falls into an erotic relationship with a female researcher that leads to murder.”

“Are there cats in it?” she asked, flipping through the pages.

“Why would there be a cat in it?”

“Because cats make great characters,” she dropped his book back on the stack, dismissing it and him with that one economical gesture. “Don’t you read books?”

“I do,” he replied. “I must have missed the ones with cats.”

“I like cat books, especially the ones where they solve murders. If you’re smart, you’ll write a cat book.” And with that, she adjusted her bra strap and rolled away in search of a potion to eradicate her warts.

10 thoughts on “Booksigning Hell Remembered”

  1. Oh wow. I can see why you enjoyed our Virginia Festival of the Book so much while you were here! Can’t wait to read more of these crazy stories (but happy not to live through them).

  2. Sad, but amusing. Curious to know how you approach book signings now? More Twitter and Facebook blasts to create hype and, hopefully, fan turnout? Or do you opt for bigger events now, like book fests and so on?

  3. I was always kind of fond of my Borders books signing as the LA Festival of Books when people came up to me to ask where they could get one of those nice Borders book bags. And later, at another booth, where a guy wanted me fired from the bookstore because I didn’t know the answer to his question about a Michael Connelly signing. Fun times.

  4. You reminded me of some of my own less than successful events. It truly is writer hell when you can hear the staff in the stock room whispering, “What are we going to do with all these books???” (I feel that way about the literary stash in my hall closet.)

    Vivid in my mind was a signing at a Waldens when an ordinary looking middle-aged reader leaned in close to confide that she really believed in vampires. She seemed pretty gleeful about it.

    I was unsure whether she was sincere or yanking my chain, but offered her a cookie and that seemed to settle her down. Early on I learned to bring a bag of chocolate chip cookies or Hershey Kisses along. It attracted more people than the books, and if no one showed up I had a snack with the staff.

  5. Once, years ago, I signed at a Hastings store in Amarillo. It was their flagship store, and they went all out. They not only got in piles of my new historical novel, but also my whole backlist (including a few titles from the Civil War historian Richard Wheeler). They also ran large ads in the papers and generated a lot of media coverage. There was a whole table filled with cookies and treats for customers. And multiple bouquets on my signing table. Well… not one person showed up. The Olympics were running, and a local athlete was competing for the gold, and this occurred exactly at the time of my signing. The staff was embarrassed, and bought a few for themselves, and I thanked them all. They had done their best.

  6. The most gifted book signer in my experience was Terry Johnston, who wrote best-selling stories about mountain men and the Indian wars. Each of his signings was a production. He appeared in fringed buckskins, looking like a cross between Cody and Custer. His sombrero itself was a work of art. He would lay a beautiful buffalo robe over his signing table, and load it with artifacts, attention-getters all. And heaped among the fur trade implements were heaps of his novels. He could set up in a grocery, attract a crowd, and sell hundreds of books, each with a personalized inscription, to scores of people who had come to the story simply to pick up a carton of milk or some strawberries. He often sold three or four books at a crack to a buyer.

  7. Lee, don’t take this the wrong way. You did all you could do. You got the book-signing gig set up, you went to the place, you were ready, and you stood there. So why should YOU feel bad? What is it that you did wrong, that you should feel bad about? You did nothing, at all, wrong. The readers who didn’t show up were the ones who missed out. They missed out experiencing your hugely energetic personality. Okay? They made the FIRST mistake—so don’t you make the second mistake, because they made the first mistake. You should feel very proud of yourself, you took career action. Don’t let these timid, never-take-action readers get you down. You succeeded. They did not. Why would you want to feel bad because these reader-people failed?

    But let me go further. I was thrilled to read in the Toronto Star that Stephen J. Cannell was coming to Toronto. This was, maybe, 1988. I adored his work on “Rockford.” He was signing his new book. But for whatever reason, I shied away. Still, he succeeded. I read about him, and to this day I can recall his picture in the paper. Just by reading of his appearance, he furthered his career hugely. It was my fault that I didn’t go see him. And it was his victory that I remember it to this day. You, Lee, just by appearing, made lots of career progress in the hearts and minds of readers. They don’t have to come see you, for you to make huge career progress. Okay. You succeeded.

    But let me go further. James Clavell came to Toronto. I felt astonished. He stayed at the Sheraton, which I’d been to many times. He spoke to the reporter, but didn’t make an appearance. I’ve never forgotten it. I felt so grateful he came to my home town. Just by showing up, he made an indelible impression on, I would say, Toronto. The moral is, that what the other person does or says is not what’s important. What’s important is how we think about it. And how we react. There are characters in Tod’s stories that go on and on thinking badly about themselves because of what somebody they loved did or said. That’s how we defeat ourselves, in our minds. Not only did you do nothing wrong, you did a lot right by showing up at the book-signing, and the publicity advanced your career. Trust me. I’ll never forget Stephen J. Cannell or James Clavell, and I never met them.

  8. More thoughts on book-signing at bookstores:

    I know that writers are sensitive, and when no one shows up, it’s a blow. But far too many writers take it much, much too seriously. I mean, think of Thomas Edison: how many times did he try to create a light bulb? Maybe a thousand, maybe ten thousand? And each time, it took him just as long as a writer spends at a book-signing that nobody comes to. But Edison learned with each failure. And so I can’t help asking if writers are willing to do a thousand book-signings, and learn from each one, and make each one progressively more attractive to readers and potential readers.

    For instance, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, free food is a big draw. In the University Centre, groups want students to sign up, and they sell goodies for low prices. But the thing is, baked goods attract nobody. What attracts the masses is vegetable samosas, priced a dollar or lower for a good sized one. This tells me that writers should cook and serve good food at their events. If they’re going to come out and buy your book, give them a good reason not to sit at home and watch TV.

    But I think the deeper issue is, ‘how should a person react to a loss?’ There’s only one excellent way, and that’s to burst out laughing. Suppose you love somebody, and you are always supporting them, and helping them, and giving—well, you’re their best friend, and if they think they’ll get better from somebody else, then let them go ahead! Just laugh. They are making a mistake. You’re the best. If they don’t know that, they’ll find out one day, to their sorrow. The right attitude is to prepare ourselves inwardly to laugh at every possible loss—just shrug it right off, and keep going, don’t let anything at all get you down. Why would you? Would that be better?

    And so I say to writers at book-signings, let them come up to you and talk about anything, and say anything, and not care about you at all—just laugh, and learn from the experience, and grow, and do it better next time. For instance, prepare a map of the store, with all the sections labeled, so if they ask you for directions, you hand them the map, and show them, and the map has your name and book title and website address on it. Think, don’t cry. Edison didn’t. And he succeeded.

  9. And more thoughts on book-signing at bookstores:

    I have a question: “Why do writers believe that the only place they can do a book-signing is at a bookstore?” I mean, I hear one horror story after another about writers at bookstores bombing out. Well, at a bookstore, there are thousands of books competing with you guys, so why do you go, time after time, to the one place on the earth where tons of famous and great writers are offering their books in competition with yours? Have you ever considered another venue?

    For instance: let’s say your mystery involves a Life Insurance Company: why aren’t you sending the president of a life insurance company a free copy, and asking him if you can stage a book-signing in the lobby of their building, while you also hand out literature on their products? Think, don’t cry.

    Bands give free concerts on Sundays at the cove in La Jolla and people come out: why don’t you guys partner up with such a band, and have a table, and offer copies of their CD along with your book as you are also serving gourmet hot dogs, and nice condiments, for a dollar?

    There’s lots of ‘free theatre in the park.’ They come out to see it, and to enjoy Saturdays in the park. Can you write a one-act play, and put it on, and sell it at the event?

    Can you play and instrument? Can you stand on a street corner, playing, and offering your book for sale?

    Can you shoot a short video? Can you go to a park, have a monitor, play it for free, and offer your book?
    Think, don’t cry.

    But if you must go to a bookstore, can you make a list of ALL the insensitive things they can come up to you and say, and can you plan out a counter to each one that gets you ahead? If they ask you a question, for instance, like, “Is this the information table?”, can you answer with a question, like, “Do you want to know all about why you should buy this terrific novel?” and, “Do you want to know how you can win $50.00 just by putting your name and email address on this piece of paper?”—you use the email address to send them your monthly newsletter, you put up the $50 bucks.

    I’m not saying that writers can’t think. I’m sure you guys have brains and that you can use them—but I am saying that when it comes to thinking about book-signings, you guys are sluggards and laggards. Hell is not sitting in a bookstore and nobody comes up to you. Hell is you doing it over and over again without learning anything. If they don’t come up to you, accept it. That’s the way it is, and laugh. You weren’t meant to sit in book stores and sign copies for buyers. So think. How can you, the person, not just the writer, break through? What can you do different the next time. Experiment. It’s fun. Do some thinking and do some extra work. Look, you could even have hidden video cameras at the park and make a short film, or a feature, out of the experience. Who knows what you can achieve? But I do know, that if you don’t try different stuff, you’ll go on sitting alone in bookstores.

  10. But there is an upside :). My 9 year old son was in a shopping centre in Brisbane and they stumbled across a book signing by the author of his favourite kids book series here in Oz.

    He was in awe of meeting him and months later still talks about it and can’t wait for it to happen again.

    The bad experiences make great stories though!


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