Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

Michael Shellenberger
Author Michael Shellenberger at a D.C. bookstore. Image via Wikipedia

When your books start heading out into the wider world — bought (paid for!) by libraries, schools and civilians — it’s hard not to be intensely curious about just who these people are.

Four months ago today, my memoir “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published. To my relief, it is still selling very steadily nationwide.

It’s a thrill to know that some people are appreciating your skill and hard work and ideas — especially when you get “reviews” like the nastiest one (of many) so far at that called me “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”

I recently read to/spoke with a small group — perhaps 15 or so — at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Fun! A local blogger kind enough to feature me came out with his friends. They had lots of questions and comments, as several people had worked in retail themselves and had much to offer.

It was a lively conversation, and  so satisfying to have a chance to share with people who care as much about this stuff as I do.

When you’re writing, hunched alone in your sweats over your umpteenth revision, it’s these moments I especially look forward to as my reward. Writing books is such a crapshoot. You pray you’ll find readers, and when you find enthusiastic ones and can see their faces and hear their reactions, it closes the loop between your initial private ideas and the act of publication.

I was especially touched there by the woman whose response to “Malled” was “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and told us she keeps telling friends to read it.

For some people, authors are a mysterious breed. Unless you hang out in those circles, you might never meet one, while our products keep pouring out in a hopeless Niagara, each of us trying in every possible way to claim your attention. Booksellers see a ragged parade of us, persistently cheerful in the face of even the tiniest tiny turn-out — sometime one person, sometimes none.

The bookseller at M & Q was relieved to find me relaxed, schmoozing the audience before we began. “Some writers are really high-strung,” he told me.

Why, yes they are. I once interviewed a famous women humorist whose work I had revered for years. Disaster. She was rude, abrupt and distinctly not funny in person.

See: illusions, shattered.

It’s even a real challenge finding venues to read and meet your readers. I’m not sufficiently high profile to read at any of the Manhattan Barnes & Noble stores, and couldn’t find a single store in the city to set up an event for me. I did one event here in the New York suburbs where I live — and one person came, a fellow blogger I know.

“Book tours” paid for by a publisher willing to send you around the country are only for the uber-successful. The rest of us call a few stores in whatever towns we’re about to visit, and hope to piggyback on their local and loyal buyers to come out and meet us. Even if no buyers appear, we sign some books, shake some hands and hope we leave a good-enough impression that the bookstore staff will talk up our book — only word of mouth makes a book truly successful.

Not ads, not reviews.

And we really need enthusiastic and knowledgable retailers to hand-sell our work, recommending it with enthusiasm even while thousands of our competitors line their shelves.

Have you ever gone to a reading to meet an author?

Was s/he what you expected in person?

12 thoughts on “Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

  1. jacquelincangro

    When I did several readings for my book The Subway Chronicles, each event had its ups and downs. Some readings were standing room only – wonderful successes. But I remember one reading had two people in attendance – one was just walking through the store and the other was a store staffer who probably felt sorry for me. I’m not outgoing so I have to fight my natural instincts to hide behind the podium at these events. You have to be “on” all the time.
    I wonder about that humorist. Maybe it had taken her three delayed flights to travel to the reading that night. Or maybe she was at the end of a long tour and couldn’t wait to get back to her own bed. Of course that doesn’t excuse being surly. It sounds like you were looking forward to meeting her and now you were left with a bad impression from that moment. I hope no one felt that way at any of my events.
    One last thing: I don’t understand why “reviewers” can’t keep their comments to the merits of the work itself. Personal attacks are irrelevant and ignorant.

    1. I agree that the humorist might have been having an off day — but when you’re meeting someone for a media interview (as she was with me) it behooves you to be professional and gracious. Or cancel the meeting. As you know, you do have to be “on” and prepared for that.

  2. I tried to see Henry Miller once, but he was a no-show. A regular columnist for the LA Times, Jack Smith, used to show up every few years at our local library and I bought a book and he signed it. Wonderful guy – the Everyman column about his daily life in LA, his hand-built second home in Baja California and his “man,” senor Gomez, who kept everything running and supplied. My wife’s mother – long deceased – wrote a self-published spiritual guide to child-rearing. This was a brutal irony considering several years later her oldest daughters sued their father for abuse suffered as children while the mother turned her head in denial. She had a book-signing in our living-room attended by my in-laws and a few weirdos. There have been a few others – poetry books, local histories, etc – no heavy-hitters ala, (well, Henry Miller was a heavy hitter but I think he died a few days after my attempt). “Book Soup,” a big LA shop features moneymakers and the like. Financing your own tour would pretty much wipe out profits – the law of diminishing returns. Tom Medlicott

  3. Over a decade ago I had lunch with Anne George. The leader of the mystery readers’ book club I attended set up the luncheon. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was completely enthralled by Anne. There were several aspiring authors in the group and one of them asked her how she dealt with rejection. She said she wasn’t sure because she’d never had anything rejected.

  4. A close friend of mine who has been toiling away on manuscripts for years finally got an agent this week. To see her beaming with pride, and to hear the reactions her work is finally getting in that agent’s circles is exciting. I told her about Malled; she had indeed heard of it, as had several of her friends. They all thought it was a great read!

  5. I’ve been to official readings and even have some books signed with personal advice. However, have to say my favourite author meeting involved gin, good food, and a kindred spirit. 😉

  6. I love the new super stores, like Barnes and Nobel, just for the sheer joy of being surrounded by the promise of thousands of books.

    But I miss the days of the independent bookseller, who knew each book that lined the shelves and “lived” their enthusiasm for books.

    It doesn’t seem possible to have that kind of atmosphere in today’s superstores.

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