Monday, March 11, 2013

Never Compete With a Blind Raccoon

So with a brand new novel released last month, I’ve been scheduling “events” and signing books.  You do that, with a book just out.   Visit a few bookstores, attend a few readings and parties and scribble your name on the title page and thank everyone (quite sincerely, as a matter of fact) not only for showing up but also for shelling out for a hardcover copy.  It is truly amazing how grateful you feel when you see people … some who aren’t even your mother’s friends … fill the chairs at a reading or line up to purchase an autographed book.   You want to hug them all and invite them home for dinner.

In the years when I have a new novel out,  I gratefully accept invitations to sign books and speak on panels and visit schools and Skype … that sort of thing.  The reality of the writing business is that it’s not enough to simply create a book and let your publisher do all the promoting:  you have to be willing to put some energy into selling the work, too.

Of course, there are productive and not-so-productive uses of your time, and while I’m definitely no expert, this is my third go-round with all this and I do have one important piece of advice for newcomers to Authorhood.

Never compete with a blind raccoon.

I saw someone try. You don’t want to go there.

It happened just the other day, at Bailey’s Grocery Store on Sanibel Island, Florida.  Bailey’s is one of those lovely local institutions which has been here forever and has this wonderful tradition of hosting local authors.  On any given day when you pop in to pick up a key lime pie or some fresh shrimp, there’s a table set up near the entrance, between the grocery carts and the display of freshly baked coffee cakes, where a hopeful novelist/artist/memoirist sits, surrounded by copies of his or her newly minted novel/memoir/picture book, signing pen at the ready. 

It’s a tough gig.  People have certain expectations when they enter a grocery store.  They’re thinking about dinner and whether they’re out of toilet paper at home.  They’re not on a literary quest.  They’re not necessarily in the mood to make conversation … let alone eye contact … with some random writer peddling her work.  If you decide to do the author thing at Bailey’s, you have to be prepared to smile brightly at a lot of people who will walk right on by.  You can’t appear overly eager and grasping when someone pauses to ask if you’re selling Girl Scout Cookies.

Of course, all that changes if you bring a fuzzy animal.  Then, you can guarantee a mob.  That’s what I witnessed at Bailey’s the other day, when I wandered in for limes and had to navigate around a crowd of oohing cooing women and girls.

When I pushed in closer to get a look, I saw a woman holding the most adorable little raccoon.  He had his eyes closed, and was contentedly snuggled in her lap, which, if you know what absolute fiends raccoons can be, was a miracle.  He was, she explained, the hero of her picture book (displayed on the table behind her) and had been blinded when someone hit him with a golf club.  She subsequently rescued him, wrote a picture book about him, and the story had just won a Florida state award for children’s non-fiction writing.  His name was Trouper.

I no longer have children of picture book age, yet I almost bought a copy; that’s how cute the little fella was.  I was in a hurry, yet I lingered, and longed to pet him.  What a champ!  What a “poster child” for the importance of kindness to animals!

And, of course, the writer in me couldn’t help but notice: what a genius idea!  Cute, fuzzy animal.  I would have to get one for my next signing.  Once I wrote a book about a cute, fuzzy animal ….

I spent so much time admiring Trouper, that now I was late.  As I sped off toward the produce I noticed something:  another author, on the opposite side of the baked goods display.  He was dressed island-author-smart-casual, with light stone khakis, sandals, and a bright print shirt.  He had neatly stacked copies of his books … murder mysteries set on Sanibel … and even a professional looking poster.  He paced, restless as a lion, behind the table where his work was displayed. 

Not one single person approached him.  Not even me, and I understood his agony all too well.  Usually I stop by author tables, even when I have less-than-zero interest in the book, just to chat.  I'm also one of those people who search for friends' book in stores, and turn them, cover side facing, on the shelves.  But on that day, in a hurry, I didn't pause for the island author.  I know: shame on me.

But what folly!  Had he known?  Had anyone thought to tell him that he would be going toe to toe with Trouper, the most adorable disabled raccoon in the Sunshine State?  Maybe he thought (in error) that the crowds drawn to Trouper might result in some traffic at his table?  Just the opposite occurred.  They used up their limited energy for grocery store authors with Trouper, then sped off to buy food.

Here’s what I’ve learned about signings:  unless you’re fairly well known and can draw a crowd, or bring a fuzzy animal, only schedule signings where you live, where your mother lives, and where your sister lives.  There, at least, they can coerce their friends to show up, and you can count on mom to buy a carton of books.

If you decide to go ahead and put yourself out there anyway, at random venues where you can’t guarantee an interested audience?  Well … you might want to keep a stash of Girl Scout Cookies handy.  Just in case.

Trouper’s story is real, and you can read more about him HERE

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