Monday, January 12, 2009

Sanity Can’t Always Be Measured With A Yardstick

Part of the luggage of an author is to promote your books. Aspiring novelists might see the moment their book is accepted by a publisher as the Holy Grail, the pinnacle of the mountain, the point where they can plant their flag and take pictures. The reality is being published is a lot like graduating grade school—you celebrate until you realize you are starting high school as a freshman and everyone else is so much bigger than you are. Suddenly you aren’t comparing yourself to other unpublished writers wondering if they are better at dialog. Instead, you are comparing yourself with W. E.B. Griffin, Patricia Cornwell, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson and Stephen King, and the yardstick is numbers of copies sold. There is no question that you are on the bottom of that pile.

If your book is good then there is only one thing holding you down. No one knows your book exists. Publishers do what they can, but aren’t as interested in promoting unproven talent when they have money-makers. Writing a good book is something an author accepts as the challenge. It is what an author works at, trains for, but the moment the book is published the rules change, goals switch, and abruptly you discover you are now a PR representative. Most of the writers I know didn’t reach the age of eighteen and ponder in the solitude of their bedrooms, “author or salesman?” Yet there you are, confronted with the stark reality that in order to be an author, you have to make people want to read your stuff.

This is done mostly though book signings. The usual ones have you behind a table with a stack of your novels and a pen near the entrance. If you are doing your job you aren’t just sitting there reading, waiting for someone to notice you, walk over, and ask to buy your book. If you are doing your job, you are standing, smiling and coaxing people over, engaging them and explaining all the reasons why they should buy your book. I have yet to meet a writer who is comfortable with praising themselves and their skill to strangers, but let’s face it, “Okay, so my book isn’t Grapes of Wrath, and it will never be as popular as the Twilight Series, but do you wanna try it anyway?” Isn’t going to make too many sales.

Besides signings I’ve done lectures, both about my books and about writing in general. These are never comfortable ventures either. Luckily, I don’t have a huge problem with public speaking or I suppose this would be a nightmare. Instead, the problem arises from not knowing how many people will show up. I’ve stood at a podium with a microphone facing thirty empty folding chairs. Usually I just start speaking to my wife and maybe the event coordinator and hope folks will hear my voice, get interested and wander into seats. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t.

I’ve also been asked to read from my book. I was one of those kids who slumped down behind his desk in English class when it was time for the teacher to call on kids to read aloud. I’m not good at it. I trip over phrases and stumble on words—words that I wrote. I accidently add words that aren’t there but suddenly think should be and leave out words that are. I suppose no one notices anymore than if a pianist misses a note in Rhapsody in Blue, but still I feel like an idiot. Yes, I’m a published author who can’t read my own writing.

You will likely be guessing, and rightly so, that I don’t see book promotion as a perk. It is often tiring, embarrassing and stressful, yet there is one event I do enjoy. They don’t happen often, and it is not the kind of event that can be planned, designed or promoted. Publishers have no control over it, they can’t schedule them and no amount of money buys them. They just seem to happen. Every so often, I am invited to a local book club that has chosen to read my novel for that month. They can range in attendance from forty, to five people. I meet them at coffee shops, bookstores, pubs or even private homes. These are fun. Everyone there already has a book; I don’t have to sell it. Everyone there has already read it; I don’t have to be mindful of spoilers. Everyone there has something to say, a question to ask, an opinion to express; I don’t have to make a speech. And I can listen. I can listen to them talk about my characters as if they are real people, how many liked Royce verses how many preferred Hadrian. I can hear them debate whether the wizard is good or evil, and note the passion in voices. I can explain how to pronounce words and watch eyes widen, or knowing smiles appear.

No one ever says they hated it, everyone is too polite. It is the quiet ones I wonder about and I keep thinking they are listening to their mother’s advice, “if you can’t think of something nice to say…” but the quiet ones are usually silent because they are too embarrassed to say they didn’t get a chance to read the book. Everyone seems happy. They are appreciative that I have come to visit and talk and they tell me they liked the story. When you write in a small, closed room, isolated and alone in your battles against demons and dragons, you have to wonder—does anyone care? For years, I wrote novels that went into drawers unread that eventually made their way up and into cardboard boxes in the attic, forgotten. I would spend a year or more working late into the night wrestling over plot problems or the placement of a single comma. When it is three in the morning, everyone else is asleep and you are alone stressing over the placement of a comma in a hundred thousand word novel you know no one will ever read, it is easy to begin questioning your sanity.

Money would be nice. The number of units sold is the yardstick after all. But hearing a single person say they stayed up all night reading because they couldn’t put the book down, or they cried when they read the sad part, or laughed so loud they woke their husband when they read that joke—the one with the precisely placed comma—that’s when, at long last, you realize you’re not crazy. And knowing that you aren’t crazy is a pretty nice thing.

So to those of you who have reassured my sanity—thank you.

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