This Sunday I had a signing of my new book, That Forgetful Shore, at a local bookstore. I would characterize it as a “good” signing: one where I signed and sold a few books, chatted with lots of nice people who had liked my last book and were happy to hear about this one, and ended the two-hour stint feeling generally cheerful and positive rather than desperate and hopeless (which does sometimes happen after signings). There were definitely stretches where the table wasn’t busy and I was left to make encouraging, smily eye contact with people coming through the door who were anxious to play “avoid the author,” but for the most part, I felt good about it. Not tons of sales, but a respectable few, and good PR to let people know about the book.
Then I came home and read on Twitter that Rick Riordan, a YA author whose books my kids and I enjoy very much, had a signing in Seattle that same afternoon. He tweeted that he’d signed 3000 books and was going home to ice his hand.
There are times in life when it’s really better not to start making comparisons.
I won’t say exactly how many books I sold on Sunday, but it’s safe to say that had my publisher sent over 3000, just in case, not only would they have exceeded the entire initial print run, but I would have had more than 2,990 books to send back after the signing. So there’s a “good” signing if you’re me, and then there’s a “good” signing if you’re Rick Riordan.
For a long time I’ve thought about writing a series of blog posts on “The REAL life of a published author,” aimed at all those of you out there who someday dream of getting your book published. Most of what we hear about being a writer (unless you have a lot of published writers in our circle of friends and family, which fortunately I have always had, so my expectations were realistic going into this thing) comes from people whose books are on the New York Times Bestseller List. They complain about the hardships of getting sent on that book tour, hopping from one city to another and being away from their families while they read at various events and sign all those hundreds and thousands of books that people line up with. The bad coffee, the restaurant meals, the bland hotel rooms, the hoarse voices from all that reading. Having to ice their hands at the end of the day.
And unpublished authors read about this and think, “Yeah, I wish I had your problems. If only a publisher would accept my book, I’d have it made in the shade.”
The fact is, the vast majority of books released every year, in every genre, do not make any bestseller lists. And if you’re an unpublished author and you do someday get that “big break” you’ve been hoping for and dreaming of, the odds are overwhelming that it will be with a smaller press, a genre or regional press whose initial print run is in the four figures and whose royalty advance is one digit less (if they pay an advance at all). And the job of promoting your book will not be tedious because you’ll be hopping on and off planes and dealing with jet lag and long lineups. It will be tedious for entirely different reasons.
I would love to tell you about those reasons in detail, and someday perhaps I will continue this blog series with a few more glimpses into the glamourous life of a non-bestselling author. For today, I will leave you with the truth that if you’re very lucky, your small publisher will give it their all and do their very best to promote your book with their tiny, by which I mean non-existent, marketing budget (as my publisher does). So when you have a signing, going home to ice your hand probably will not be your biggest problem. Your biggest problem will be sitting at a table in the front of a bookstore, catching the eye of busy shoppers who are just there to buy the latest bestseller or a card or a magazine or even a coffee, and hoping they’ll glance at your display long enough to pause and say, “Oh, what is your book about?”
Your idea of a wonderful day will be when someone stops to say, “I loved your book! I can’t wait to read the next one!” This may be followed by the person actually buying the book, or it may — as in one case yesterday, when I met a person who had not only loved my last book but talked it up to a lot of important people and was generally a huge cheerleader of my work — be followed by the person saying sadly, “I can’t wait to read it, but I just spent $100 on books and I can’t afford any more this month — but I’ll pick up your new one as soon I can afford it.” This is life out here in the real world, folks.
At the end of the day, when you have that day, cherish your few minutes with that person and the dozen or so others you chatted two during your two-hour stint of sitting behind the bookstore table. You may feel a bit like the writer in this satirical-yet-oh-so-true Onion article, but that’s OK. Be glad people are reading your book, and that people who might not otherwise have read it saw you today and at least have now heard of the book. Maybe they picked it up for a couple of minutes; maybe they’ll remember it when they’re buying Christmas gifts in a couple of months.
Whatever you do, do not start reading tweets from your favourite bestselling authors. Do not start comparing your signing to Rick Riordan’s or Jodi Picoult’s or John Grisham’s signings. Do not, if you value your sanity, even utter silently in your mind the name “J.K. Rowling.” Comparisons will not make you happy or content with your writing life.
Just go to your quiet bed at home (not in some bland hotel room) and clasp your un-iced hands in a prayer of thanks that your book got published, and people are reading and liking it. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.