There’s no better way for an author to remind herself that, however long she’s yearned and hard she’s worked for it, being published resembles in certain respects the more ingenious forms of torture inflicted by sadists, dictators, and fanatics and endured by martyrs religious and political than participating in a kind of book tour event known as a “meet and greet.” The format is that a bookstore, usually one of the larger chains, sets up a display of the author’s new book either just inside or just outside the bookstore door, where the author is committed to sitting or standing by the display for two or three hours, meeting and greeting passersby and potential customers, and charming or cajoling them into buying the books, which the author then graciously signs, or if the customer chooses, inscribes personally to the buyer or the intended recipient of the book. There are indeed passersby, since the bookstores that host such events are usually located in malls. But do they buy? Ah, that’s another story.
Right after Bouchercon this fall, I toured a number of cities in the midwestern states between Indianapolis and New York, during which I endured—er, enjoyed—several of these meet and greet events. As a formerly shy person, I’m rather proud of my ability to do a meet and greet, even to get some fun out of it. I have a pretty good technique. I stole from the legendary Sarah Campbell, author Chester Campbell’s wife, the opening line, “Do you read mysteries?” Actually, I usually ask, “Are you a mystery reader?” I hold a book in each hand, so I can hand it over with a smile and an invitation—“Here, take a look”—to two prospects at a time.
Let no one tell you that people don’t read the jacket. Some start with the front flap, others with the blurbs and review excerpts on the back. A smaller number flip immediately to the first page of Chapter One. A dreaded minority riffle through or even make a beeline for the last page. A few check out the back flap, studying my photo to make sure the pictured author is really me.
I did sell some books at these events, and it was delightful to meet not only those who bought, but even some of those who didn’t. But the best part—what made me resolve to blog about it—was what people said. It seems to me that the excuses for not buying have gotten more memorable since the economy tanked, ie between when I went on the road with my first book and this fall, when the new one came out. Stationed outside the door through lunchtime at a downtown mall, I found some people admitted, “I got no money.” Others couldn’t stop because they were on their way to job interviews. “Sounds like a good book. How long will you be here?” they asked. Alas, not long enough for them to get the job and make it to the first paycheck. Many wanted to know the price before they bought. My publisher priced this book higher than the other, though it’s not substantially longer. In fact, I’ve weighed them both, and the new one is half a pound lighter. Cheaper paper, maybe. Publishers, too, are feeling the pinch and trying to compensate in whatever ways they can.
In the chains, you get a lot of, “Oh, I don’t read.” Only one woman laughed self-consciously and added, “Even though I’m in a bookstore.” A gentleman laden with shopping bags said, “I just spent all my money on a coat.” One lady confided, “I’d buy it for my daughter, but she’s a proofreader. She says she can’t stand to look at words once she gets home from work.” Another identified herself as a psychologist. “I’m not going to buy your book,” she announced. “But I’m very interested in your online psychotherapy practice.” As my protagonist, Bruce, would say, Thank you for sharing.
Some readers’ browsing patterns in the stores made it evident they were interested only in the remaindered bargain books, the paperbacks, or the steeply discounted bestsellers. One fellow whom I asked if he reads mysteries—I wish I could remember the slogan on his T shirt, but only the F word remains in my mind—said, “Only if it’s got a vampire in it.” Some would consider only local authors. “Is it about Cleveland?” one man asked, disappearing when I shook my head regretfully. Both inside and outside stores, about half the customers breezed past me with their cell phones to their ears, their mouths working, and their eyes gazing into space, impossible to engage.
Among both buyers and those who declined the book were some who were thrilled to shake my hand. “I’ve never met an author before,” they said. “You’re the first author I’ve ever met.” This was heartwarming. I needed to travel to Cleveland and Toledo and Pittsburgh to have it happen. Back home in New York City, I suspect everybody who enters a bookstore has met an author at least once. It was heartening to see children going for the books, even some of those whose parents aren’t readers. And I was surprised and pleased to meet at least three poets. Poetry must be on the upswing. One said he’d look up my poetry online. Another delivered perhaps the best line of all: “Sorry I can’t stop—I’m on my way to a poetry slam.”
But my very favorite was a guy who bought. We had quite a conversation. I told him what the book was about. He asked a few questions, hesitated, then, with a little encouragement from me, decided to go for it. He went in to pay for the book, but stopped to talk to me again on the way out. I could see him move toward me as if he wanted to hug me. He checked, then held out his hand for a shake. I thought, Why not? and gave him a brief hug. He held up the book and waved goodbye, beaming all over his face and calling back, “Now I have something to do this weekend!”