For the record: John Grisham and the Rolling Stones do “tours”; for most of the rest of us, a book-signing event is more comparable to a ramshackle traveling medicine show sneaking into town under the cover of darkness. There's no other type of occasion, I've found, more susceptible to the laws of chance than doing a simple reading from your book and then leaning on friends and strangers to buy a copy, or preferably several.
I'm reminded of when my first novel “The Shining Shining Path” came off the presses on Halloween Day of 1995. The following Sunday, the publisher had set up a kickoff afternoon book-signing at a chain mega-bookstore in an Atlanta shopping mall. Early that Sunday morning, a friend from Atlanta woke us up with an excited phone call: “Have you seen the Journal-Constitution? You're on the Entertainment section front!”
He faxed me a copy and, sure enough, the paper's book reviewer had written a good-sized story that was so praiseworthy it made my spine tingle, and made me blush as well. Was this perfect timing, or what?
The store had a big long table set up in the mall concourse, with posters and refreshments. The event was to run from 2 to 5 p.m. Crowds poured through the mall the whole time...just not to my table. As of 4:30, I had not spoken to a single individual.
That was when a teenager with a backpack walked up, and asked politely if he could use the other end of my table for doing his homework. Sure, I told him. He was still there at 5:00 when we packed up our promo materials and headed back to Birmingham.
A couple of weeks later, a smaller store just south of town asked if I'd be willing to do a signing there on short notice. The manager put some flyers in the store windows and the staff did some word-of-mouth. Come signing time, about three dozen people filled the rows of folding chairs near the coffee bar, laughed in the right places when I read a chapter from the novel, and some two dozen bought a book for me to sign. It was heaven, come to earth. Go figure.
I would chalk this phenomenon up to my iffy luck in general with the rest of life, but every writer I know has reported similar puzzlements while on the road with a new book.
One friend was on vacation in Gulf Shores and was browsing in a bookstore when he recognized the manager as an old co-worker of his. “Want to do a signing tonight?” the manager asked. “Storm's coming in, tomorrow.” The writer happened to have a crate of books in his car trunk (funny how that works out) and the event was a go.
As rain and thunderstorms rolled onto the beach, the tiny store gradually packed with customers until there was standing room only. Enthusiastic crowd, and the author actually ran out of books afterward. Apparently the folks making their hurricane evacuation plans wanted some good reading material to take with them.
It's enough to make a book-publicity person pull his or her hair out, except that these special people apparently learn to go with the flow. Careful planning and a ton of publicity have no effect at all—except, when they do.
I'm thinking of trying an experiment, when the new copies of “Shanghi” show up for the holidays: We may set up signings, or maybe not. By all means don't put one of the dates on your calendar, and don't mention it to your friends. Above all, you didn't hear it from me. Mum's the word.
Except when it's not. If writers wanted more certainty, they'd buy Lotto tickets instead. Hope to see you somewhere on the road.
Got a great mineral tonic you might want to try a bottle of, too. But you didn't hear it from me.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM and is archived afterward on his website.