During my stay in college, I discovered that some of my professors had written books that were published and available for purchase in the campus bookstore. Because I aspired to the writing profession, and dreamed of people buying my books, I bought some of theirs, asked for an autograph and then did my best to read them.
What did I learn? That some academic publications, even from impressive university publishers, are badly edited. Beyond prose densities, specialized vocabulary and the kind of righteous, barely edible flavor of reminiscent of my first efforts at baking bread, the text itself showed spelling mistakes, missing words, fumbled punctuation and what appeared to be a proofreader’s urge to punish the author for the pain of reading the work.
That, and so much of what was sold was reconstituted versions of the very lectures I had attended, sometimes with jokes intact. A conclusion: that some of the necessity to publish had to do with the same compulsion that makes an artist make a self-portrait, as if to say, this isn’t me, but it looks like me. It never occurred to me at the time that publishing was a chore that academes had to do, to bring prestige to their employer and, perhaps, establish themselves as something more than the creator of entertaining intro courses, intellectually stimulating seminars, and that rare but intense faculty office discussion that clears up confusion about the paper topic, the final exam and that other question that I had that nobody could answer.
It was so awkward when I asked my favorite professors to sign their books. I usually ambushed them at the end of a lecture, when they were putting away their notes while their brains had left the building. There followed an awkward pause during which I could not explain that I wasn’t trying to curry favor as much as I was genuinely paying forward an expectation that someday, something like this would happen to me.
They signed the book to me, “a student” with some odd and impersonal blandishment–that I should succeed, that I should keep asking questions–or a date, as if this incident was now historical, to be included in my professor’s biography, or, perhaps, mine.
I no longer have the signed books. Some were destroyed when water filled the basement of an off-campus house where I had stored them. Others were culled in moves.
And, yes, I had a chance to do book signings, which, when they’re in a bookstore, or at a writers conference where you’re one of a thirty people with a product to sell. Sometimes you show up, all ready to personalize your literary toil, and you find out the store or the conference doesn’t have any copies of your book. I know other authors who have signed someone else’s book. I don’t quite have that chutzpah.
Usually they have a stack of copies and some nice person has put them on a folding table in part of the conference room or store that–you hope–that generates some foot traffic. You suddenly find yourself on par with those people who wander the country with collapsible booths where they sell strange, weird, sometimes wonderful but usually odd things that you can’t imagine yourself ever wanting in your life.
You get to know the evasion tactics of people who don’t want to buy your book but must pass by to get to someone whose book they want to buy. There’s a second pause when someone hesitates beside the stack of copies and I force myself to make contact with a person I don’t know. Must the shy guy that I really am become an AUTHOR? What should I say or do to interest this person in making a purchase? Or should I just let it all go and not worry?
I’ve put in places where customers fear to tread, far from the section where people would normally go for a book like mine. So I would hang around in the section and see what people where examining. If the book was similar to mine, I’d make contact and talk about mine.
I know–that can be obnoxious. But it also can be fun. Most people still find some novelty in meeting a published author.My first job was working in a bookstore, and, as a science fiction enthusiast, when I saw anyone hanging around the section, I used my genuine love for the writing to overcome my shyness. I’d ask them what they liked and try to steer them toward my favorite authors.
When my first novel (which wasn’t science fiction) came out, I was very personable at greeting people at signings, trying to start up a conversation and NOT caring if they bought the book, knowing that the bookstore or conference that was hosting me DEFINITELY wanted every book to sell, not so much to make money (though that always has something to do with the arts) as to avoid having to box the books up and send them back. Also, those authors whose books sell well, for whatever reason, are more likely to welcomed back when their next book comes out.
But then I did a “twin” signing with another author who, instead of talking to people about his work, raided the bookstore’s cookbook section and copied out recipes for Italian delicacies (this was, alas, pre-Internet, though the contemporary equivalent of this aloofness would be noodling on a cell phone). He grew increasingly irritated every time someone walked away with my book without buying his. He became so angry that I was afraid he’d keep everyone away, so went to some friends who had come especially to buy my book, slipped them some cash and begged them to buy his book. They did, and the guy settled down, just a little bit.
Of course, I encountered a third awkward pause when, after the prospective buyer finds out who I am, what the book is “about” and what the critics said (I printed out some favorable reviews and, I must confess humbly that I am lucky most of the reviews of my efforts have been favorable), that person just doesn’t want to buy the book. Sometimes they have reasons, sometimes they don’t, and I know I should accept this because I am definitely not interested in most books published. When you go into a supermarket for frozen peas and somebody’s selling canned corn that he personally grew, harvested and packed, you shouldn’t feel obligated to add to your shopping cart.
A few times I sold all the books in my stack. I felt just great. I had done my bit. I had made a dent in the number of copies that publisher printed. Surely, I was on my way and my next book would be published to even better reviews and stronger sales and maybe, just maybe, the publisher would send me around the country?
Didn’t happen. My second novel was too different from my first. A few years later, a sequel to the first was published, and there I was, standing in front of a stack of books, dealing with awkward pauses, grumbling fellow writers, people who were looking for the cookbooks and did I know what section they were in?
Then, at the end of every signing, I autographed the remaining copies because the publisher told me that, unless you’re a celebrity, autographed books are considered “damaged,” so, if you sign every copy before you leave the store, the store can’t return them.
So I signed every copy and then, when I ran out of copies of my book to give away, I ordered some from the publisher. I opened the box, picked up the first copy, opened it and saw the autograph.
At least the signature was mine.