A lot of newly published authors, and the people who love them, believe that any book signing in any book store is the first step on that golden ladder to success. Just get yourself hooked up with your local Barnes & Noble and people will line up to get an autographed copy of your book, right?
Wrong. Unless you’re already a celebrity.
I used to work for Barnes & Noble (just like every other wannabe writer of my generation). I’ve seen successful signings and unsuccessful ones. The major difference, aside from the celebrity factor, was the author’s attitude. Authors with interesting, well-produced books, who worked hard to promote the event, usually did okay. Those with unappealing books, or those who showed up expecting the store to provide them with a crowd of instant fans, usually spent the day sitting by themselves.
The following short story is based upon my experiences with book signings. It is a cautionary tale for less-famous authors and their biggest supporters.
Lester came around the corner of the book rack just as the first police officer addressed the store manager. “We got a 911 call that some kind of troll creature was accosting customers in the bookstore,” the cop said.
Lester huffed at the indignity of the assertion. “I am not a troll,” he insisted to the group of them standing in the main aisle of the store. “I’m Chook-Choo, the mischievous elf.”
The second policeman pointed at Lester. “There he is! Get ‘im!”
Sales of Lester’s self-published fantasy novel, “The Merry Elves of Gleemin Glen” had not been very encouraging. He had invested nearly $200 in producing the POD paperback. If not for the fact that he was such a good artist, it would have cost him plenty more to hire somebody to design the cover. Fortunately, Lester’s mom didn’t charge him rent, so he was able to save up enough money to publish the book he had been working on since he was 14.
Lester didn’t have a lot of friends. People couldn’t understand why he always wanted to talk about elves. Even his best friend Arnold, who had once been into elves almost as much as Lester, didn’t want anything to do with them anymore. All Arnold could talk about for the past 15 years was his job, and his family, and his mortgage. Who cared? Lester and Arnold had grown apart.
Lester’s mom was his biggest fan. She beamed with pride whenever she talked about her Lester’s book, which she did at every opportunity within her little circle. She couldn’t really tell anybody much about the plot, but she had a mother’s certainty that it was just about the best book ever written. Certainly, it was the best elf book ever written.
Lester’s mother kept a copy of his book on the shelf by the door. Every time she went out, she took the book with her, in case she ran into somebody who had yet to hear her wax poetic on the subject of her boy’s extraordinary talent. When she came home again, she put the book back on the shelf and left it there until the time of her next sojourn from the house. The few copies of Lester’s book that had been sold were sold by his mother.
One day over dinner, Lester’s mom said to him. “Lester, I was walking downtown by that big chain bookstore today. That one guy from the TV was having a book signing. The one with the nice teeth who’s been on all the talk shows. People were lined up out the door waiting to get books signed. I think you should have a book signing at that store.”
This was a new idea to Lester. That was a big store with a lot of strange people roaming around. It was not at all as comfortable as his basement bedroom. “I don’t know, Mother,” he said.
“What’s not to know?” his mom admonished. “It worked for that guy, and I bet his book isn’t even about anything as interesting as elves. Besides, it would take a lot of the pressure off me. You want to be a famous writer, don’t you?”
“Yes mother.” In fact, Lester did indeed want to be a famous writer. Then no one would roll their eyes at him when he talked about elves. He would buy and sell everyone who ever called him weird. Then, who would have the last laugh?
So Lester went with his mom to the bookstore to try to arrange a signing. The first person they talked to called the lady who was in charge of signings to the front to speak to them. When she saw them she let out a long sigh. She leaned her elbows on the counter and held her head in her hands while Lester’s mom explained why the store needed him to do a book signing for them.
The lady heard Lester’s mom out. Lester’s book sounded wonderful, but as fate would have it, they were all booked up with signings for the foreseeable future. Lester and his mom should check back sometime after the foreseeable future. Lester’s mom promised she would do just that.
Lester’s mom couldn’t see more than about a week into the future, so the next week she went back to the store. The lady’s shoulders slumped when she saw that it was Lester’s mom she was being called up front to speak to. They were still booked solid.
Lester’s mom went back the next week, and the next week after that. She went back for seven weeks straight. On the seventh week, Lester’s mom discovered that the lady in charge of book signings had quit her job. There was a new lady in charge of book signings. The new lady was young and bright-eyed, and didn’t know enough to sigh and slump her shoulders when she saw Lester’s mom coming. She had a lot to learn.
The new lady was very enthusiastic. She said that Lester could do a book signing in two weeks. She couldn’t find his book on their computer, so they couldn’t order it. Lester and his mom would have to bring their own copies. The bookstore would pay them afterwards (minus the appropriate discount) for each book sold at the registers.
The new lady smiled and nodded a lot when Lester’s mom talked. She seemed very excited about having Lester in for a signing. After Lester’s mom left, a customer, who noticed the new lady was wearing a name tag, came up to report to her that someone had puked all over the floor outside the men’s room. The new lady smiled and nodded as the customer told her this. She seemed very excited about all the puke outside the men’s room door.
Lester’s mom made sure they ordered lots of copies of Lester’s book from the on-line company that printed them. From the one signing she had seen in passing, she had determined that a lot of people turn out for book signings. They didn’t want to run out of books.
Every day for the next two weeks Lester and his mom went to the bookstore to “get a feel” for the venue. Lester’s mom explained to him how the people would line up and where the line would snake through the aisles. The store had made a little sign announcing the event. It was near the front doors, sandwiched in between some other signs about the store’s returns policy and their customer rewards program. Lester’s sign looked homemade compared to the other signs, but his mom didn’t make mention of that. She didn’t want to give him a complex.
A few days before the signing, Lester’s mom came home with a surprise for him. She had commissioned a costumer to make a Lester an outfit matching that of one of the elves on the cover of his book. “You really want to create a buzz,” she told him. “This is how the professionals ‘hype’ their events.” Lester wasn’t sure about wearing a costume to his signing, but since it was the way that the professionals ‘hyped’ their events, he went along with the idea.
The signing was on a Saturday afternoon. Lester and his mom carted all their boxes of books to the store. Lester’s mom went to the front counter to announce their arrival and get things going with the new lady in charge of signings. The teenager behind the counter told her the new lady in charge of signings didn’t work on Saturdays. That was no problem though, because they had everything all set up already. The teenager led them to an upstairs corner of the store. There was a folding card table and a folding metal chair set up in the corner. “We didn’t know there was gonna be more than one person,” he explained to Lester’s mom. Then, as he was going back down to the front counter, he took a good look at Lester’s costume and said, “Whatever.”
Lester and his mom set up their books on the card table. There wasn’t a line yet but it was early. Lester got out his fine point roller ball signing pen and sat down. His mom made sure all the books were stacked just right. Some customers passed by but they didn’t form a line. They just arched their eyebrows when they saw Lester’s costume. Then they went to a different part of the store.
Lester’s mom went back down to the front desk. A different teenager was standing behind the counter now. “Where are all the people for the signing?” Lester’s mom asked the new teenager. At first, he didn’t know what she was talking about. After he caught on, he assured her that they would make an announcement over the store’s P.A. system in a few minutes.
Lester’s mom went back upstairs to see how Lester was doing. He was still sitting all alone at the card table behind his neatly stacked pile of books. He was scratching himself under the fabric of his elf suit.
After a while, a voice cracking with puberty came over the P.A. system. It directed the customers’ attention to the west atrium, where Lester would be signing his books. The voice mispronounced Lester’s last name, and left the word Gleemin out of the title of the book. This made it sound as if the merry elves were the property of somebody named Glenn, which was completely inaccurate and misleading. Also, Lester and his books were stationed in the east atrium. The announcement ended when the voice burst into outright laughter.
More people passed by, but no one stopped at Lester’s table. “You need to come out from behind that table and interact with the customers,” his mom told him. Lester came around front of the table and tried to mingle with the customers. They sidestepped to get around him. Children stopped cold in their tracks and ran the other way. People looked at him out of the corners of their eyes, but no one would give him direct eye contact.
His mother put a copy of his book and his pen into his hands. “You need to start up conversations with people about your book, so they’ll know how good it is,” she told him. “Engage, engage, engage.” Lester didn’t like starting up conversations, especially with people. But he was determined to make his mom proud, so he decided that he’d better do as she said.
The first person Lester tried to strike up a conversation with was a young woman browsing the fiction section. Lester sauntered up behind her. “Hi. Do you like elves?” he asked. The woman spun around and dropped the book she was holding. After one look at Lester, she let out a cry that was something between a shriek and the bark of a baby seal and ran off.
Being a soon-to-be famous author, Lester was a perceptive man and realized that he should tweak his opening statement a bit. The next lady he approached was older. “Hi,” he said. “Do you like elf books?” The lady gasped a little bit, but she did not run away. The not running away gave Lester the time he needed to begin extolling the virtues of his book.
The lady did not interrupt Lester’s sales pitch at all, though she did spend the better part of it making mental notes about the surrounding area of the store. When Lester asked her if she would like him to autograph a copy of his book for her, she hemmed and hawed. Lester sensed that he was on the verge of a sale, so he pitched a little harder, just to close the deal. When he asked again, the lady nodded meekly and said, “Okay, I guess.”
Lester wrote a nice, personal note to the lady on the front page of the book, telling her how much she would enjoy it. Then he handed her the book and went back to the table to get another copy. The lady disappeared around the corner. She looked to see that no one was watching her, then quickly set the book down on an end cap and hurried away.
Lester, having found his groove, used this same sales pitch on several other customers. Some of them excused themselves from his presence before taking a book. Others found it more expedient to take a book and find a secret spot to deposit it before leaving the store.
The last customers Lester had the honor of addressing were a pair of elderly ladies in the mystery section. “Hi. Do you like elf books?” Lester asked them. The two ladies whirled around in unison. Four eyes grew wide in their alarm.
One lady held an umbrella, which she poked at Lester, crying, “Get back, you little imp!”
The lady with no umbrella clutched the umbrella lady. “What’s an arf book?” She asked the umbrella lady. “I bet it has something to do with pornography.”
“Not an arf book,” Lester insisted, “an elf book. Elf. Elf. Elf.”
The umbrella lady continued to poke at Lester. The other lady gasped. “Now he’s barking at us, Mildred. It’s worse than I thought. Bestiality!”
Lester decided he should maybe try some customers who could hear him more clearly. He went away to search for someone who more closely fit his target demographic.
The umbrella lady kept her weapon ready, in case Lester should try to find some avenue by which to outflank them. The other lady pulled a cell phone from her purse. She dialed 911. When the operator answered, she said. “We’re at the bookstore and a little person is assaulting us with sexually explicit material.”
The umbrella lady, still on guard, corrected her out of the side of her mouth. “I don’t think it was a little person, Helen. It was just the pointy hat that made him appear smaller. I think he was actually some sort of urban troll.”
The 911 operator overheard this and asked. “Ma’am was it a little person or a troll?”
Helen thought for a second before answering. “It’s all a matter of perspective, really,” she told the operator.
That was when the police showed up. It was hard for Lester to run fast in his elf suit, so the chase was a short one. As he was being handcuffed, he heard the store manager tell the cop who wasn’t handcuffing him, “We don’t make any money on these local author signings anyway. We just do them to show that we support the Arts in the local community. It’s more a headache than anything else.”
Lester was taken to the county lock-up. His mom had to come down and bail him out. It took her a while to get there because they had spent all their money on copies of Lester’s book and she had to go to her little circle and borrow some cash for bail.
When they got home there was a message on the machine from the book store. They wanted to know if Lester would come and pick up all the signed copies of his book that they had found secreted around the store. The store didn’t have any use for them. If they didn’t hear back, they would throw them out.
Lester had an epiphany. He realized that he was a writer. He was not a publicist or a promoter. He would leave all that to his mom from now on. Lester felt better once he had reached this conclusion. He went downstairs to his office and began work on a sequel.
©2012 Scott Nagele