I knew the day would come once I started going out to bookstores to promote my first novel. It was inevitable. The day every writer dreads, when you get yourself all revved up and ready to go sit a table and read your words in front of a group of strangers you hope will like them enough to buy the whole book -- and no one shows up.
My first reading/signing set up by my publisher’s publicist was at my local Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn. I’d been telling everyone I knew about it for long enough that I had a good local turnout of friends and family. There could have been more: I hadn’t finished entering e-mail addresses and making up my full mailing list for events yet. I had more empty seats than I wanted, but the rest were filled with well-wishers, and I felt comfortable and supported. I got through my first public reading for the book in one piece.
There were two signings left -- one in Queens, where I didn’t know anybody, and one in Harlem that a lot of friends had promised to attend. I checked MapQuest, borrowed my nephew’s car and headed out to Ridgewood a couple of hours early. When I got there I parked, checked in with the book store and went to the mall to eat and flip through the book to decide what I would read at three in the afternoon in a bookstore filled with kids for a Halloween party.
I went back with fifteen minutes to spare, bought a latte and waited in the café next to the reading area for the seats to, if not fill, at least get more than the one occupant in the last seat of the last row, obviously just the best place he could find to read his book. By three o’clock, it was clear that he wasn’t going to have any company.
The young man put in charge of the operation was struggling to get the microphone working...I sat at the chair behind the table and two stacks of my book and told him not to worry about it. If anyone showed, I could talk loud enough for the space. A friend of mine arrived, and I started chatting with him about the book, while Mike the store kid listened in.
After ten or fifteen minutes of giving them a rundown on the trials and tribulations of getting a first novel finished and published, I saw a woman with a younger friend and a kid in costume approaching with a copy of the book. By now I was chatting away and waved her over with a smile, and ended up having a fun conversation about how she found the book on Kindle and read a sample of three chapters that made her want to read more.
By the time we were done half an hour later, she was taking a picture with me and promising to tell her book group about the book. As she was leaving another woman the book store had lured over from the kids’ party with announcements came by, and bought the book -- while I talked to her about it, I got the interest of a few people in the café, one with a question about writing, the other to tell me how interesting I had been talking about my work.
So, I drove out to Queens to find lemons, a glass that could have been considered half empty, but I had a nice lunch, made lemonade and filled the glass. After chatting with the bookstore manager, assistant and the two customers, the manager told me that I should do meet and greets at a table near the door instead of readings. “Most writers are kind of quiet, but you’d do great just talking! What you said back here would have pulled people in...” It’s not a bad idea, and they’d gone out of their way to set up the end cap of a shelf to display my books, so they did me two favors that day.
Bottom line, I learned that book promotion events are never guaranteed highly attended successes except for the handful of superstars among us. We have to do everything we can to promote them among our readers, and not rely on the bookstore to fill the room, just as we have to do everything we can to promote our books in other ways.
If it works, enjoy it, as I did my last reading at Hue-Man Bookstore and Café to a full house. If it doesn’t -- make the most of it, and don’t take it out on an overworked and underpaid store staff. A wise man once said “there is nothing we can change save how we feel about it,” and I learned the truth of that in Queens that weekend. I went home having sold two books, knowing they’d sold eight the week before, and that I‘d actually had a good time with the people I did talk to, instead of sulking and making them miserable because I felt rejected. It’s never personal.
And it’s never as bad as you’re afraid it will be.
(Kevin Killiany, usually seen here on this day, is out dealing with family health issues. All of us here at Novel Spaces send our prayers and best wishes for his mother-in-law's speedy recovery.)