Cryoblogging my own author event
On Saturday, I was at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manchester, New Hampshire to sign copies of my book (Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives, published by Plaidswede Press, information at http://www.johnswalters.com, thanks for asking).
It was a three-hour stint. Any author who’s done a signing knows that — unless you’re Stephen King or Dan Brown — you spend most of your time sitting and waiting. So in the time between visitors, I took some notes. You might say I was liveblogging, except I was using a pen and a notepad. No way to post it online in real time.
So I’m calling it “cryoblogging” — I preserved my liveblog and now I’m unfreezing it. I do hope I’ve invented a new term. Maybe it’ll be my greatest achievement. “Here Lies John Walters, creator of cryoblogging.”
It’s a rainy Saturday. I’m sitting behind a small wooden table in the center of the store, with a rather daunting pile of books in front of me. About 25, in all. Do they expect me to move that many copies? And will they be disappointed if I don’t?
The store is pretty busy. Rainy days are good for retail, as long as they’re not of the Severe Storm Warning variety. The bookstore staff are nice and friendly, and make me feel welcome. The manager comps me a latte from the store’s subsidiary profit center, i.e. cafe.
Most of the customers are women. I’d say the ratio is three or four to one, female to male. Why is that, I wonder? I could speculate and come up with some good-sounding psycho-sociological explanations. And probably make a fool of myself. So I’ll leave it at that.
Most people just give me a glance and walk by. Some do stop. I give ’em the “elevator pitch” — the 20-second account of what the book is about. If they’re interested I expand a bit, and talk about a couple of the people whose stories I tell in the book.
I’m trying to keep myself open and available, but it’s not easy. I’m a solitary type, and it’s easy to turn inward since I’m mostly sitting by myself.
(Should I be more outgoing? Come up with a quick catchphrase? Make like a hotdog vendor? “Hey, getcha life stories right here! Interesting people telling their stories!” Eh, probably the wrong approach in this setting.)
A woman with a school-age son stops by. He’s looking for an end-of-school-year gift for his teacher, who’s apparently an avid hunter. “She got the biggest moose in the state last year!” says Mom. They decide my book is good gift material; I dedicate it to her and tuck in one of my bookmarks. (Front cover image, brief description, my website address.)
A while later, a guy in a T-shirt, suspenders, and well-worn Red Sox cap walks by a couple of times. Then he stops. We get to talking. He doesn’t look like the bookish type, and he’s not. He’s a plumber. He says he likes to read about people who work hard, outdoor types, loggers, etc.
It sparks one of my recurring thoughts about writing and literature: that it’s one small niche of human experience, that there are lots of people who have little or nothing to do with the written word but whose lives and experiences are fully as worthwhile as any novelist’s, poet’s, or memoirist’s. And when put in written form, their experiences can bring new life to the medium. Too much of writing is wrapped up in its own little niche.
I’ve enjoyed interacting with, and writing about, people who are plenty good at verbal expression but have no facility for, or interest in, writing. One of my floating ideas for a second book is a collection of stories about these kinds of people. I think it’d make a great book. I do have other ideas; haven’t yet managed to commit to one.
Most people in a bookstore aren’t there to have a conversation. They’re browsing, shopping; it’s not a social mindset. And I don’t have a good strategy for bridging the gap and initiating conversation. I smile, say hello. But when I’m in a bookstore and there’s an author sitting at a table, I toss a quick glance and keep moving.
And I have to confess a certain irony, or perhaps hypocrisy: When I’m not actually working on a story, interviewing someone, I’m not usually open to other people. I’m sure I miss a lot of good stories and fascinating people, because when I am open to it, I find great stories in the most unlikely places.
A woman and her daughter stop to use a computer kiosk nearby. Both are wearing shiny boots with multicolored polka dots. Mom’s boots are black, the daughter’s pink.
There are, in fact, quite a few parents with children (mostly mothers, see above) in the store. I find that somewhat heartening: at least some kids are interested in, or learning about, the world of books. Maybe it’s not a doomed industry after all.
I’ve been here almost an hour and a half now. I’ve talked to four people and sold two books. Another 90 minutes to go. Keep on your toes; stay engaged; don’t turn in on yourself!
I’m next to the Food/Cooking section. On the ethnic shelves, there are dozens of books about Italian cuisine — but only one about Czechoslovak cooking. This makes me curious. Turns out the book was first published in 1965, when Czechoslovakia was still a single country. It’s apparently a classic in its homeland, now translated into English.
I leaf through it, and stumble on a recipe for Brains And Eggs: Wash veal brains in cold water. Dip them in boiling water, then in cold water. Remove the membranes. Break the brains into small pieces. Saute a chopped onion in butter, add the brains, and cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add four eggs and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to set. Add salt and parsley, and serve!
The food section is just behind me. In front of me is the customer service desk, which is a bustling place. Staffers coming and going, customers asking questions, the phone ringing frequently. You might not think of “bookstore clerk” as a physically demanding occupation, but these folks are on their feet all day and they must rack up an impressive amount of mileage.
I’m along the center aisle that runs from the front door to the cafe in back. The aisle is full of displays aimed at catching the eye of shoppers, getting them to spot a book that they might not otherwise see. There’s a gathering of Father’s Day books available at 20 percent off; most of the covers feature headshots of manly men or rugged outdoor scenes. There’s a shelf full of “The Dork Diaries,” a series of chapter books aimed at the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” market. There’s a table full of Great Beach Reads. Next, there’s a table labeled “Dads and Grads,” including a wide variety of books plus some classy-looking desk accessories — a globe, an hourglass, stuff like that — which are also for sale, natch. Gotta do what you can to move product.
A nice young couple stops at my table. The woman is carrying a sleeping infant. They buy a book to give to her father for, yep, Father’s Day. Later, the store manager says she thinks my book will be a good seller for Father’s Day. Okay, fine by me. And hey, if you need a gift for the man who has almost everything, you can buy my book at fine booksellers in New Hampshire and Vermont or online at http://www.johnswalters.com.
Any creative person faces a two-part challenge. First, create. Second, sell. I, like many creative people (if I may award myself that distinction), am lousy at #2. I’m not naturally outgoing or forceful, not very self-confident. I’d like it if the quality of the work would sell itself, but it doesn’t often work that way.
I once attended a talk by a very successful freelance writer. She’s always marketing herself, pitching story ideas. (The vast majority are rejected; she keeps on pushing.) She crafts story ideas that she thinks will sell. I like to write stories that interest me, and make me want to tell them. And I like to explore a wide range of stories; but it’s better for marketing purposes if you find a niche and exploit it with all you’ve got. This writer makes a good living, but her path holds no appeal for me. It sounds a lot like life in a cubicle farm.
I have learned a lot about selling a book by doing it — and often fumbling around in the process. If I do write a second book, I think I’ll be quite a bit better at selling it. Hmm, guess I’d better get writing.
(Speaking of which… I have the sudden thought that I should be offering bookmarks to anyone who stops at my table, whether they buy a book or not. They’d go away with a small gift and a reminder about my book. Might land a sale in the future, who knows.
(How is it that we can do something over and over again — and then suddenly think of a better way to do it, a new twist? When this happens to me, it’s a moment of happy realization tinged with self-flagellation: why didn’t I think of this before?)
A small gaggle of humanity passes by: two parents with a set of toddler triplets. They’ve got a cute little strap system for keeping the kids in check: soft padded straps attached to a harness/backpack thing on each kid. Each “harness” is shaped like a stuffed animal. Each kid has about six feet of leeway. Mom and Dad are holding the ends of the straps. Nice: it keeps the triplets under control without being too restrictive.
This is the first time I’ve “live-blogged” a book signing. It certainly helped pass the time, but it also kept me more strongly in the moment. It prevented me from turning in on myself.
My three-hour shift is winding down, and it was actually quite an enjoyable experience. I sold five books on-site; the store manager asks me to autograph the other 20-odd copies, which is a good sign. It means she believes she will actually sell that many books. Nice.
My takeaway: If you see an author doing a signing, feel free to stop and say hello. Stand and chat for a couple of minutes, or simply walk on. We’ll appreciate the moment of contact and the chance to talk about our work, even if we don’t sell a book. And who knows: you might learn something, or even discover a book you’d like to read.
One more little victory: while I’m signing the last store copy, two women walk up. They remember my radio show. They’re happy to meet me, and glad they caught me before I left. They buy two copies. A nice coda for a pretty good rainy day.