For the Sake of Appearance
by Jeffrey Thomas
In about three hours, my friend Clint LeDuc will pick me up to drive me out to the South Shore Plaza Mall, where at the B. Dalton Bookseller from 2 pm to 5 pm I’ll be autographing copies of my new novel DEADSTOCK – or not, if no one is keen on buying it! Back in August, Clint and Eric Markiewicz, the store’s young manager, did a terrific job of setting up an earlier signing to promote my novel A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: THE DREAM DEALERS. A talented illustrator and graphic artist, Clint created a groovy poster for that event, and I imagine he’s done the same this time. For that signing I was delighted that members of the New England chapter of the Horror Writers Association dropped by to say hello, since they’d had their monthly meeting nearby. It’s been a long time, alas, since I’ve attended one of these get-togethers, though I hope to do so more frequently in the future. Twice in the past – at the Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester, Massachusetts (now relocated to Westborough, MA) and at the Barnes & Noble in Burlington, MA – I joined the New England HWA crew for joint signings. One would think that these events with their multiple authors on display would pull in more book buyers, though I’ve not necessarily found that to be the case. I think much of the buying that goes on is from the authors purchasing books – either out of sincere interest or out of a sense of politeness – from each other. Which begs the question, how successful and helpful are public appearances like author signings/readings, anyway?
Clint told me August’s DREAM DEALERS signing went well, maybe the best single author signing of a horror title the store had done to date, though that doesn’t mean hundreds of copies were sold. I’ve come to find that even selling ten copies of your book can be deemed satisfactory. My first personal appearance of this type was to promote my collection PUNKTOWN at a Barnes & Noble back in 2000. Family, friends and coworkers accounted for nearly all the sales, and this tends to be the case a lot, I suspect, unless your book has HARRY POTTER in its title. (Hmm, HARRY POTTER AND THE PITS OF PUNKTOWN?) Well, there was one lady who kept peeking at me from the maze of aisles before she shyly came up at the very last and admitted she was a hopeful writer herself. But I’m not complaining about the appearance of friends at these events. It’s always great to see long-time pals like Margaret Smith (a brilliant poet, and a belly dancer besides), Paul Tremblay (author of the cool collection COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD) and publisher Paul Miller of Earthling Publications again. Their continued support of my work over the years has meant a lot! And I was floored when Jack O’Connell came with his young son to the signing for my novel EVERYBODY SCREAM! back in January 2005, at the Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough. Jack lives in nearby Worcester and is the author of one of my very favorite novels of recent years, WORD MADE FLESH, which has something of the literary noir feel of Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko series, but so dark and macabre that one could almost consider it horror. Jack had read about my signing in a local paper, and recalled that I had asked him about giving me a blurb sometime (I’ve never got around to soliciting one for a particular book, though DEADSTOCK would have been perfect for this). Like my Punktown, Jack’s fictional city of Quinsigamond has been heavily inspired by the city of Worcester. Anyway, I was so excited that he came to see me that all I could do was trip over my tongue and lament that I didn’t have my copy of WORD MADE FLESH with me for him to sign.
I shared that event with popular thriller writer Lisa Gardner, who was promoting ALONE and who kindly autographed a copy for me, buying one of my books as well. I was too shy to do something like her brief talk and question and answer discussion, but she was generous enough to plug me during her own. As popular as she is, though, I didn’t see her selling a large number of books herself. What is realistic to expect, then? Is selling ten books at this signing, fifteen at that, the best we can hope for? Every single copy sold is another reader, and it’s one stone at a time that builds a palace, right? But why aren’t there hordes of people lining up at these occasions?
Well, there’s the sad fact that not enough people are enthusiastic about books in the first place, let alone expecting them to stand in line for one that’s scribbled in. Then, there’s the fact that a lot of people simply aren’t familiar with the notion of an author making an appearance to sign copies of her/his book, and don’t recognize it when they see it. Clint has told me that at other B. Dalton signings he’s helped organize, authors were asked if they could gift wrap presents! At my own DREAM DEALERS signing, I guess my table at the front of the store was mistaken for a customer service information counter, because I was asked where a certain cell phone store was located in the mall, and if I had seen someone of a certain description that a woman had lost track of. Sigh. This time I’ve asked Clint to put a sheet on the front of the table that reads: Author Signing, or some such. But I think people are shy about approaching authors, even when they do recognize what’s going on. I’m guilty of this myself, but not only because I’m shy but because I’m simply not interested in that particular book and don’t want to chat and then not buy it. Still, I feel a wince of empathy when I see some lonely author clinging to his table like it’s a scrap of driftwood, bobbing out there on the ocean of obscurity, eyeing each person hopefully like a puppy in a pet store waiting to be adopted. (Yikes, if I keep mixing metaphors like that I’ll never see an increase in signing attendance!)
This time we’ve been thinking of new ways to entice book buyers. One of my editors at BL Publishing (owner of both Black Library, which did DREAM DEALERS, and Solaris, which did DEADSTOCK), Mark Newton, sent me a life-size cardboard Freddy Krueger for a gift, and I wish I had had this at my DREAM DEALERS signing. But because there might be a few copies of that book to sell today, and simply because it will be eye-catching, Freddy’s going to be making an appearance with me. (Heh-heh, sorry, little kiddies. Happy nightmares!) And there’ll be a drawing for prizes, consisting of several of my other books. And most importantly, Solaris has promised $50 or so to reimburse me for this event, as it’s pretty much the DEADSTOCK “launch party,” so I’ll be buying free coffee and doughnuts. Free coffee!? You can’t beat that with a stick!
Recently Solaris has tried to encourage me to attend conventions in LA and NYC, promising to pay for flights, hotels, dinners, but I’ve had to defer – partly out of work issues, partly out of shyness. Would my appearance at these cons have boosted sales of DEADSTOCK, and generated interest in next year’s sequel, BLUE WAR? Sure, but to what extent? I attended Readercon in 2000, and was given an hour in which to read from PUNKTOWN. The only person in the audience was my then-wife Rose. And Rose is deaf, besides! But I said to hell with it, I’m here to read, so I’m going to read. Finally, three more people trickled in, and I was too nervous to look at them until I’d finished, when I realized they were friends of mine. In a way, maybe this wasn’t as satisfying as attracting the anonymous strangers we court most as writers, but I was relieved and grateful that they’d come in. At a reading from MONSTROCITY a few years later, there was a better showing, th
the author who read before me carried over into my spot, cutting it from about a half hour to fifteen minutes (I joked to the audience that I had enough time to read the book flaps, but I did manage a few passages). I’ve also participated in two joint readings, at two different Readercons, to promote the bizarre anthology THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC AND DISCREDITED DISEASES, in the company of other dubious physicians such as Dr. Paul Di Filippo, Dr. Stepan Chapman, and Dr. Jeff VanderMeer. Those readings went over quite well, and I was pleased with the laughter (appropriate, thank God) as I related one of the afflictions I contributed to that important medical reference guide, “Internalized Tattooing Disease.” (Not to concern you, but even now you might have a spontaneously generated tattoo of, say, Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” on your spleen. Hey, read the book, it happens.)
Solaris is eager for me to participate in more signings and con appearances, even offering to call stores to set these up themselves. I’ve promised I’d at least be at the next Readercon in Burlington, MA this July, so as to meet Solaris crew members Christian Dunn and George Mann (editor of THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION, which contains my DEADSTOCK-related short story “In His Sights”). I’ll feel awkward and tongue-tied, as is my way, reclusive and tormented writer that I am, but I’ll do my best, and it will be fun. I hope to read from DEADSTOCK, maybe BLUE WAR, sign some books, and maybe turn on a handful of new readers. Like I say, I guess I can’t expect them to stampede to buy my books as I once fantasized. Stone by stone…stone by stone…
After all, that’s how I read the work of other authors. It’s a personal relationship, a quiet connection between the author and myself. That’s the way it works. The trick is courting and seducing one new lover after another after another. Oh, it’s all so sordid! But all so fun!
I’ll let you know how it goes, at this blog or my own. Wish me luck in this and my future appearances, okay? I hope to see you there. And hey, I’ll even gift-wrap my novel for you – how’s that for enticement?