Monday, May 11, 2009

Adventures with Authors

We had a nice little book signing here on Saturday. Dave Crehore, former Manitowoc resident, read from his memoir, Sweet and Sour Pie. Although I was disappointed at the turnout (not everyone who signed up to come did) those who came spent a lively two and a half hours reminiscing about Manitowoc, and picking Dave's brain about publishing. Like all authors, Dave was proud of his accomplishments, and rightfully so considering his first book was picked up by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Dave's visit got me thinking about the adventures we have had with authors, and how much I have learned about publishing - both paid press and vanity press. Each week, I make it a point to check the forums on my professional association website. At times, I have used the site to ask business questions, or to solve a mystery about a particular book a customer has been searching for. People have funny memories of favorite books..."blue cover with a picture of a dog with a tail," "347 pages long, and ends with a chapter about Albert Einstein,"...and last week's teaser - "the book is about a little Asian boy who takes a tree for a long walk across the mountains." Believe it or not, with a simple post, a bookseller in Maine came up with the answer for me, and my customer is thrilled. That same day, a new bookseller posed this question, "I have been open for one month and am wondering how to get local authors into my store for signings." This first reply came rather quickly. As a matter of fact, it was the only answer needed since it said it all. The reply? ..."Don't worry, they will find you." That was so right.

LaDeDa had been open less than a month when the first "author" came calling. At that point, I knew nothing about self-published/vanity books, and was a little skeptical about why someone famous (aren't all writers famous?) would want to come to Manitowoc. Well, of course, it turns out he wasn't famous, his book was indeed self-published, but he and his wife were absolutely charming. At age 60, Dick Swinnerton rounded up five buddies, and they bicycled across the United States. His wife, Marianna, journeyed ahead of the group in a luxury camper the Swinnerton's bought after selling all their worldly possessions in preparation for the excurusion. Yes, they even sold their house. Marianna was on the lookout for a nice campground for the guys to rest, or some sights to take in. After the adventure, Dick wrote his book, They Passed this Way, and began peddling it to independent bookstores.

My first signing. I had no clue what to do or what to expect. The prospect scared the bejeepers out of me. We had little room in our previous location, and since hundreds of people were sure to line up to hear this big time writer, I conned UW-Manitowoc into letting me hold the event in the campus Fine Arts Room. Dick and Marianna arrived early in the day to get their bearings. I had invited them to spend the night at my house. I thought that might be all part of the author experience, and certainly part of my responsibility as the hosting bookseller. Feed and house the author! Makes sense. They went berry picking late in the afternoon, and brought several quarts of sun-warmed strawberries to share with those attending. The berries were sweet, and Dick pretended he had a room full of avid listeners as he recounted his six month journey, complete with slides, for a captive audience of two.

We've gotten a little better at book signings...known authors, larger gatherings, and my introductions aren't as lame as they used to be. Mike Magnusen (The Right Man for the Job, The Fire Gospels, Lummox) was our first author with a ready made rep. He actually visited us twice, although why he agreed to come back after his first reading, I'll never know. Mike read in our old location, and we crammed in about forty people - far too many for the space and for the 80 degree heat. Did I mention that my landlord had not put the air conditioner in at that point? As I watched Mike read, I also watched him melt. And, he turned out to be so darn engaging (and a little naughty) that everyone kept asking for more...and so he kept right on reading and melting. He came back a few years later. We had relocated to our New York Avenue building, and once again, Mike had a warm welcome. We're not talking temperature, but temper. Oh my! The ex-wife of Mike's former college roommate was living in Manitowoc at the time. She came to the reading, stepped up to him and asked for the money (apparently hundreds of dollars) that he owed her from many, many years ago. Mike graciously signed a book and sent her on her way...sans payment! He hasn't been back since...although he does surprise me with a note once in a while.

We packed 'em in for Mike Perry's impromptu signing and mini-concert stop, and for Jean Feraca. Lesley Kagan had a respectable crowd, and many of those attending called to thank me for the event. I had the flu, and missed her, one of my favorite writers. GRRRRR!

For the bookseller searching for local authors. Just wait. In time, you will be wondering how to graciously decline some of thse requests. You will be torn between the desire to support local writers proudly carrying in cardboard boxes of books they paid to have printed, and the knowledge that just because someone wants to write does not mean that they should. Heck, I have a novel half done, and every time I dedicate myself to another few pages, I laugh at the abusrdity of housing so much nothing in the cyber world. Of course, people who have read partial chapters have loved it. Of course, those "people" who have read partial chapters are all my friends, and they fear I will cry if they say something negative. If and when I finish, I will go the traditional route...find an agent, and have him or her shop it to publishers. I will receive a huge advance; the book will be released first in hardcover, and after several successful printings in that format, it will go to trade paperback; that is where all literary fiction settles. No no no to mass market pocket books. Not for my novel.

The reality is that I may not fnish, although the complete picture is clearly in my mind. I will not seek and agent, because I am not ready to be confronted with enough rejections slips to wallpaper my living room. And because I know it is not good. Neither will I seek out a vanity press and pay thousands of dollars to see my work in book form, sitting on a few shelves, the rest doomed to be remaindered at Big Lots, or worse, The Dollar Tree. Nope...better for me to read than than to write.

I owe the Swinnertons a big thank you for being so tolerant of a new bookseller who was making things up day by day. I tried to contact them a few weeks ago, but came up empty. I just know they are still driving that enormous bus around somewhere, enjoying the freedom of owning nothing but having it all.