Last weekend, I did my first signing for Thirteen Orphans. As such events go, it couldn’t have been more ideal. The books arrived on time (which doesn’t always happen), and attendance was fantastic, so much so that more and more chairs kept having to be set up. (Thanks, Tori and Rowan, for taking charge). Even so, a few people ended up standing.
I did a short reading from Thirteen Orphans, and followed this by answering the audience’s really intelligent questions. Finally, I signed lots of books. Like I said, as an event, it couldn’t have been much better.
Why then did I feel afterwards as if I’d been hit by a truck?
One of the ironies of being a professional writer is that, if you are even moderately successful, the very traits that let you succeed as a writer are not much help when the time comes to head out as “The Author.”
To be a writer, you need to like spending a lot of time by yourself, in the company of imaginary people. There are entire weeks when, Monday through Friday, the only people I talk to face to face are my husband, librarians, and store clerks.
So suddenly, there I am, Lady Solitude, up in front of the room, dreading I’ll disappoint those who have been kind enough to show up. After all, these people haven’t really come to see me. They want to see Firekeeper or Mira or Pearl... They probably don’t expect to see any of the guys, but one never knows.
There are other types of public appearances a writer does in addition to book signings and readings. Each calls for different skills. None of these skills, needless to say, are those that go into writing books.
Panel discussions are different in that you can’t be sure who the audience has come to see or hear. Does anyone care what you have to say or are they there for the Big Shot two seats away? Or maybe the topic of the panel is what drew them. If so, curses on your head if you can’t address it intelligently.
Even with this uncertainty, I find panels fun, whether at conventions or elsewhere. I usually learn something or have my imagination sparked. I like to moderate, because that way I can make sure everyone has a chance to talk.
(I can’t help it. I get frustrated if one person motor-mouths over everyone else.)
Here in New Mexico, I have a good number of friends who are also writers. Sometimes when invited to sign at “hard” venues, like chain stores, I’ve arranged to transform a single author signing into a panel. Too often, when doing a single author event at chain stores, you end up sitting awkwardly at a table near the front door. It seems that most of the people who stop just want directions to the bathroom.
Trade shows are another type of gig entirely. There, your audience is more narrow. They are not necessarily readers of your books or even readers of your genre, but instead are people who work for bookstores and who are trying to decide what to put on their shelves.
Usually at a trade show you have a set signing slot, and about two seconds per person (among those who even bother to stop) to tell them what they want to hear. You get used to hearing, “I don’t usually read ‘that stuff,’ but...”
I’m not much good at summarizing into a few words a book that took me between 600 and 1,200 manuscript pages to write, but I give it my best. During this last set of trade shows, I designed two summaries for Thirteen Orphans: the short and the long. I was pleased to see that, especially when asked to give the long version, I’d gather a crowd.
Booksellers—even those who don’t read “that stuff”—are usually captivated by a story, so they’re basically a friendly audience.
In fact, the nice thing about Author Events of any sort is that, most of the time, the audience is on your side. That’s a real relief, especially after the place where I first learned to shed my stage fright: teaching English Composition at 8:15 in the morning.