Recently, I had a discussion with an author about a particular facet of writing that a lot of us dread, the book signing event. He resisted the whole pomp and circumstance involved, including the arduous tasks travel and setting up his table. Mainly, his criticism of it resulted from his feeling that book signings are contrived to make the author seem superior to the reader, and thus to be adored. Indeed, many of us also hate self promotion, but for some of us our aversion, instead, stems from feeling inadequate. We wonder why someone would want to talk to us. More so, we cannot imagine that someone would want to meet us. Unsure of our worth, we face the moment with trepidation. Sometimes, this feeling comes from a writer’s relentless desire to avoid anything that would distract him from the important bit, writing. We all can attest to feeling this on occasion. There is the writer who selfishly refuses to modernize, believing it to be the job of the publishing houses to get the novel or book into the hands of the reader. This author feels burdened by having to present himself to the throng. All these issues are relevant concerns. This small paragraph presents several topics which need to be addressed separately.
What is a book signing event and what is its function? First and foremost, it is a celebration of the author, the reader, and of writing. Positive emotions generally fill the bookstore during one of these events. It is a type of party held by the bookstore, arranged by the publisher, and hosted by the author. Likewise, it also serves as meeting place that fills the gap left by the loss of front porch meetings and other bygone social gatherings. Unlike typical parties that allow people to abandon themselves in a maelstrom of joy, it also has a specific function. Partly, that function is about creating potentials. The potential for: increased sales, creating a new reader, gaining notoriety, and to make the public feel connected to the author. Mostly, however, it is about interface. A properly publicized event provides a platform for the author to interface with the public. This interface, though controlled, makes the author visible to the public. The low intensity festive nature of the moment and the setting, a place filled with books, brings out the best in readers. In order to be able to do this, the event needs to accomplish the creation of a distancing between the reader and author. The scene must be set. We have books galore in a bookstore. Surrounding the author with books gives credibility to him as an author. The other bit of staging required is a table piled with the author’s novels. Because he is sitting behind the table, he will be perceived as separated from the attendees. We now have what we sought, critical distance. This may seem odd, especially since this event is held so that the author can meet the public. My friend Chris Philbrook (thechrisphilbrook.com) and I discussed this very thing.
I contended that it is this slight distancing between them that elevates the author to the superior status. This is important. Readers need an author to be superior so that it is worth expending their time reading his work. Thus, it is elevated status that makes the author readable. We need our authors to stand above the crowd and to be excellent. It is this excellence that helps to make them established authors. Granted, when the author is unknown, he will likely be perceived as some guy sitting at a table in a bookstore during the book signing event; but, as he gains notoriety, they will begin viewing him as an author at a book signing event. The author needs to accept his role in the relationship forged between author and reader. In order to attain this status, he must interface with the public in engineered and accepted ways that are designed to make him seem superior. The book signing event is one such way.
If instead, one’s aversion to the book signing event stems from a feeling of inadequacy, we must look to its cause and address this problem. Someone who feels unworthy or insecure about his standing as an author has a problem that results from a distrust of his abilities or he does not see the value he has as an author. People who are shy or feel inadequate typically shrink from presenting themselves to public display. Public scrutiny, they fear, causes exposure. But, this is exactly what the book signing event is designed to accomplish. The wordsmith compears to his readers in naked form; however, it is only through interfacing with him that they can accurately pass judgement. This type of measuring can be unsettling. It is a violence that strips the author of everything save data. Properly used, interfacing can ameliorate some if not most of this violence, soften it. A revealing of himself, more fully than less, allows him to retain some if not most of who he is in their eyes. This is why the author needs to be more than the reserved, distant writer when at a book signing event. It is a place of violence and he must, without fear or reservation, fling himself into that darkness. The shy person cannot do this. He shrinks from view and hesitantly reveals small portions of himself to his audience. Even worse, the terribly shy person virtually removes himself from life and society. He does not want any attention, only desiring to slide past life without grasping it. Thus, he does not want to interface with people or society. Quietly, he moves, ghost-like, through life, unable to truly experience living. This type of person shudders at the mere thought of interfacing, and thus exposing himself.
On the other hand, if this distaste comes from a belief that writing is king, then we have forgotten that there are two thrones. On one throne sits the author, and, upon the other, the publisher sits. These two kings work jointly to oversee the kingdom of words. The publisher is the inveterate risk taker, companion, and kinsman to the author. The four ring circus he creates with book tours, book signings, conferences, and workshops, along with advertising in all its various forms, serves the sole function of providing platforms where the author can interface with the reading public. If we desire to sit on the throne reserved for authors, then full advantage should be taken of the well-crafted moments created by the publisher king. After all, the author, if he is to be a good king, knows that he serves best by assisting the publisher in securing his reign.
The small man began to wander from his hearth. The thousand-stepped journey brought him to Experience. She was a mighty woman, full and new. Excitement was her husband. They welcomed him to this new land, finding such a small man amusing and cute, if not quaint. He drank of their tea and was changed with every sip, somehow causing him to grow in stature and ability. After tea, the couple conducted him around their fine palace. The many rooms and passages it contained would have stunned most, but fortified by the tea as he was, he could contain their essence. Then, the three approached a door gilded with stars, reliefs of children at play, and friends. “May I enter?” he asked. “As you are, you cannot. You wear the raiment of structure and confinement. Come, we will release you with garments of color,” they spoke. So, they undressed and dressed him. Thus adorned, he approached the fabulous portal. Pausing, he asked, “But how do I open it? It has no handle.” Smiling with joy, Excitement and Experience said as one, “You need only interface with the gateway to continue your journey.” He approached the door placed both hands on it and pressed his face into it. “May your path find you well and your hearth open,” the couple said as he withdrew from their dwelling to enter the new realm. With each step, man grows.
I would like now to turn to the concept of interfacing with the public. Authors most often interface with the public through events designed to bring them notoriety. As previously mentioned, this occurs through a critical distancing of the author from the reader. [For more information on critical distance read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment.] This allows the reader to view the author as an author. More so, it creates potentialities. (More about potentialities in another post.) This system of promotion works for all types of writers, both unknown and well known. Controlled interfacing with the public is both necessary and desirable. Since the spectacle is structured, the author cannot, by design, interface closely with the reader. There are others waiting in line or the superiority of the author distances the person so that insightful questions about the author’s personal information are not asked. Thus, intimacy is denied. As a result, unknown authors and authors who are writing outside their accepted genre will have difficulty in increasing readership outside of those who either already read him or read that genre.
What then to do, since the book signing event is one of the accepted ways of interfacing with the public? Again, we return to our friend Chris Philbrook and his method for interfacing with the public. I must thank him for making it possible for me to see this subject about which I am writing. Chris’ genre deals with horror or fantasy. As such, he is a prime candidate for interacting with the public in a different manner. He attends, on occasion, tabletop gaming conventions. These events have board gamers, role players, and miniature wargamers attending them for the sole purpose of playing games and having an enjoyable time. The attendees are also there to meet new people and to learn new games. Also at these events, are vendors who sell merchandise that the gamers need and want. The author who writes in a genre that blends well with gaming should also be considered a proper vendor. Examples of these types of genres include zombies, vampires, cyberpunk, steampunk, or fantasy. These players also read. So, the vendor booth or table for the author functions as a book signing event at these conventions. If all the author does is stay at his table to discuss his books and writing, then there is minimal gain for the author, except for the potential to gain readers who do not go to bookstore events.
What then should the author do to take advantage of the table top gaming convention? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand why he is here in the first place. If properly aimed, the author attends these events so that he can interface with the reader in a more intimate way. He needs to reduce the critical distance, but still maintain it. This is done by having his booth while also hosting games during the convention. The attendees can now view him both as an author and as someone who is approachable (i.e. knowable). Because the author gains this dual status he can retain most of his author nature as he opens up to the players. This depends upon the type of game he runs. He needs to game master games that have light to medium strategy involved in the game play. This makes it possible for there to be moments where all players but one have nothing to do. When there is an extended delay between a player’s turn, and there are multiple players, conversation naturally follows. If the game is too simple or too complex, then there is either no down time or no conversation because the players are having to plan too much to be able to chat. If it is the right sort of game, the author, now turned game master, becomes someone who is fun. The players, already in a good mood, discover the person side of the author and begin, hopefully, to like him for who he is. After the convention, if all goes well, they will return to their social groups and talk favorably about the author. They may have even purchased a work from him during the convention and are discussing it.
Both aspiring and freshman authors should look for events where they can interface with the public in unique ways than formal book signing events. Attending these non-traditional ways of interfacing increases the author’s potential to become established. So, whether it is the gaming convention, the coffee shop, the art show, or any other moment that seems applicable, authors should seek these alternative avenues as they, too, will find them personally rewarding, insightful, and enriching. The magic created through them may even be inspiring. Interfacing with the public may seem a daunting task, but done correctly it will prove a boon to both the author and his readers.
In discussing the types of aversions to participating in the book signing, I would suggest another category: the Humble Author. Unless it was a labor of love, he might simply be happy the work is done. “I hope you enjoy it.” is his standard comment. For this author, the book signing can have a different effect altogether. At the venue, some fans and the curious gather around. Their enthusiasm energize the author, filling him with enthusiasm to hammer out the next work. He didn’t actually need this energy, but he has it now, and he will channel it. He’s still humble, as that is his nature, but the encouragement of the fans cannot be denied.
Concerning the writer “who refuses to modernize”, I think this version is nearly extinct. I might allow a writer in her very advanced years, still cranking out work after work to a grateful publisher, be given leeway to continue to function the way they did fifty years ago, assuming she still has that star power. Everyone else not prescient enough to have locked those outdated perks into a contract has adapted to the modern way of doing things.
It is now that I see your statement is incomplete: it is the job of the publisher to make the book available for purchase, but your thesis is about publicity, not publishing. Of course publicity is the job of both parties. A writer with enough fame can put off the PR while scratching the writing itch. Once he reaches break time, he may schedule a block of a month or two for PR. This is when he would do radio interviews, podcasts, and the personal appearances. These can help clear the mind of the work just done so it is fresh when he returns home to read through it. Technology makes everyone reachable, and people today have the expectation that one day, they can meet or interact with that writer. It is the good writer who grasps and embraces this.
There is also the writer who had just one story to tell, like a Harper Lee. By accounts, she told the story she wanted to tell, regardless of it finding an audience, or money, or fame. Then, despite its success, she refused to appear or make comment but only rarely, and that was in 1960. She has said, “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money.” (Daily Telegraph.Au, 2011) For some writers, this is their one and only time on the stage, and despite any success and pressure from a publisher to keep that train a-rollin’, she is done.
I’m not sure what the point is about the introverted author. He is creating his work, and if it is good, what is the harm of not making appearances? Will it affect sales, maybe, but, again, with today’s technology, he can present himself to his readers online, and for some readers, that is good enough. Is that the best way to reach new readers? Maybe not today, but tomorrow? Who can say?
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