Friday, August 26, 2005

Let your fingers do the walking

I was originally going to blog about an article I read in the New York Times Book Review called, Hell Is Other Customers in keeping with this week’s theme, but then I read a blog entry by Tess Gerritsen entitled, Lessons in Humility from the Road (you may have to scroll down to access it if she blogs again soon). So I’m tabling “Hell” to instead talk about a topic that is often on my mind when I meet authors: drop-in signings (or drive-by signings as we call them). As she gives such an excellent example of what can go wrong (and from an author’s point of view), I think that I’ll let Gerritsen explain:

Since my book VANISH has just gone on sale, I thought I should drop into local bookstores and do some "drive-by" signings. My plan was to say hello to the managers, autograph any copies they had in the stores, and leave a bundle of my flashy new bookmarks. Honolulu, I should add, was my home for twelve years. My kids were born here, I practiced medicine here, and I have colleagues and friends and relatives who live here. So I showed up at the first store full of optimism that I'd be warmly greeted.

Here is what really happened.

I walked into a branch of a national bookstore chain, and introduced myself to the manager.

Me: "Hi, I'm Tess Gerritsen, an author, and I'm in Honolulu for the day. My new book VANISH has just gone on sale, and I wondered if you'd like me to sign any store stock?"

Manager: "What's your name again, and how do you spell it?"

I tell her.

Manager: (dubiously) "And you say you've written a book?"

Me: "Yes. The title is VANISH."

Manager: "I'm not familiar with that title. Let me see if we have any in stock." She checks the computer. "Oh. I guess we do. I'll go find them."

She heads to the back of the store and finds sixteen copies. In the BACK of the store. You'd need a bulldozer to excavate them.

And my book has been on sale for exactly ONE day.

Ouch. Talk about a blow to the ego.

“The woman is a NYT’s bestselling author and she doesn’t get recognized at a bookstore?” you’re probably asking herself. “Don’t they hire people who read?”

Yes, yes they do, however the problem with a large format store is there will be a group of people who almost never have to touch a book if they don’t have to. This complaint is not uncommon from authors, Geralyn Dawson blogged on her abysmal time doing drop-in signings a couple of months ago. If I were in her situation, I’m not sure that I could keep from crying after that. You mean you don’t know my baby! How dare you? There would be a big ol’ smack down to be sure. But the size and disconnection in the big bookstores are not the only problems here; in fact, the biggest one is that Tess Gerritsen expected to be recognized, expected someone to know immediately who she was.

Now you’re thinking, “My God, you’re a bitch! You’re saying it’s the author’s fault? Didn’t you just say you would cry if that happened to you? I’d never drop by your store to do a signing!”

Hey, I know how it sounds even though I’m not trying to bitchy. The truth is that I love authors. Love them. I love owning signed books (and have several in genres that I wouldn’t normally read). If you or any author walked into my store at this moment, I would not only bend over backwards to have you sign your books (if I had them in stock), but I could probably find them without using my computer. I can say the same for most of the people who work for me too(except my new girls, but give them a few weeks) because it’s a small store, and we’re all very familiar with our stock. We don’t have so many divisions in labor that we can’t keep track of the newest discounted books or bestsellers like the big box stores which means we actually know where things are. I empathize with Gerritsen at the shock of walking into one of those stores and not only going unrecognized, but having your book buried. How awful. But she could have saved herself a lot of pain by calling ahead.

When I was young reader (without automotive transportation), often after finishing a book by a new (to me) author that I loved I would want to get everything this person had written.

“Moooom,” I’d whine, “take me to the bookstore so I can by the next book.”

“How do you know they have it?” she’d ask.

“Not have the book?” Outrage! Unacceptable! How could a bookstore not have a book that I would want!? Their very name implied they would.

“What if they are out of stock because someone else bought it, or they don’t have the new book in yet?” My mother was a wise, wise woman, well versed in the ways of the book market.

“Well, I won’t know unless we go,” I’d crow, thinking I had found the loophole that would get me back into the sacred confines of bookdom.

“Or you could check without us even leaving the house.” She would hand me the phone. “Let your fingers do the walking.”

How simple. Call and ask if they had the book in stock instead of spending time searching only to feel the burning disappointment if it wasn’t there? Brilliant!

“And then, if they don’t have it, they can order it for you.”

I told you she was a wise woman.

Okay, you’re saying. I get that your mother and you were book-geeks, but what does this have to do with Tess Gerristen being to blame for her disappointment?

Ah, Grasshopper, count the pebbles in my palm, the words on my page. If she had just called ahead someone would have transferred her to the person in charge of signings (as they have those in the big box chains) or to me, and that person would have gushed appropriately and found the books. She never would have known that her books were buried in the back. She never would have had to deal with a book-lacky who not only didn’t know their stock, but didn’t know that you can indeed return signed books. She wouldn’t have to deal with the bookstore flying monkey at all, and her books would have been at the counter waiting for her when she came in.

You can make the arguments that she didn’t have time, or that she was doing the bookstore a favor by signing the stock because people like owning signed books (I’m a living example), but the equation doesn’t work. How long did she have to wait while they dug out her books? A long time, especially if they were in the back. Who’s going to really benefit by her book being sold? Sure, the bookstore will turn a profit, but if people really want to buy something, they will find it, and big boxes have many different ways to make money (cafĂ©, music, journals, movies, candy, cards, etc).

The moral today, kids, is call ahead! Brought to you by the letter B.

I know, I know, I don’t sound sympathetic at all. I'm not taking into account the author's time constraints, or the last minute-ness of the whole thing, but in the age of MapQuest and other search devices, you cannot claim that it is hard to get the phone number for various stores. And dispite everything she went through, Gerritsen appears to have handled the disappointment like a champ (which is more than I can say for some authors who had official signings go badly), and that’s great because the bookseller who found the books for her will remember her next time (and maybe even handsell a few books in between). Author’s who are class acts in my store make me want to sell their books, even those who drop-in with no warning, and when it works out for both of us it’s a beautiful thing.

Which brings me to my absolute favorite author drop-in of all time who (ironically) was not a call ahead, there was no warning from a publicist or notice of an official signing going on somewhere in my town in my newspaper. Nothing to indicate that this person would be stopping by, and yet, I was standing behind my counter receiving some product when I heard this soft voice, “Excuse me, Miss?”

I turned around to find this little man standing on the other side of my counter: sweet eyes, salted beard, tweed jacket and a fedora in his hands. “I’m sorry, Sir. Can I help you?”

“I think that you might have some of my books in stock.” His voice sounded hopeful, but not convinced that I wouldn’t laugh in his face.

“Okay, what’s your name?” I asked heading over to the computer just in case it was super obscure like the Dragon Lance author I had the week before (I never said I was perfect).

Gregory Maguire.” I paused, and he must have thought I was confused because he continued in that same soft voice, “You may have heard of me? I’ve written Confessions—”

And here is where I turned into a raving fangirl, cutting the poor man off so that I could finish his litany of titles, “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Wicked!”

Yes, it ended in a squeal, and he was much to kind to wince. Bless him.

After yanking my coworker off their break, I ran around the store grabbing all his books while he stared at me with this bemused expression on his face. He signed everything we had and I hand-sold all of them before the month was out.

I also managed to restrain myself from asking if I could have his babies.

I’m such a book-geek.


Anonymous said...

Your perspective on this phenomenon (When Drop In Signings Go Wrong) is interesting, but I have to point out a couple things.

First, I didn't get the impression that Tess expected anything but common courtesy. She approached those booksellers the same way Macguire approached you. I imagine she would have been more than satisfied with an exchange like this:

--hi, author, maybe you've got, thought I could sign--
--hold on, please... oh yes. could you wait a moment please?

At this point Courteous Bookseller goes off to find the books and/or the person who handles author signings. Courteous Bookseller makes no comments like 'huh. we've got a lot of your books' or 'are you sure that's the title?' or 'no such book in print'. (I have had booksellers tell me these things about my books. I've also had a bookseller say, 'I don't find any author by the name of James Joyce in our database' and then when I pointed to the bigger than life-size mural of JJ on the wall, I got a shrug).

It's not that every bookseller should be familiar with Tess's work, or mine, or Joyce's, even. It's the dismissive tone. It's the 'oh no not another nut' look. In Tess's case, it's the outrageous comments about returning books. We all know that happens, but you don't have to rub it in on the second day of release.

Just my two cents.

Sara Donati said...

wait! wait! I was sure I put in my info for that comment, didn't mean to have it come up anonymous. I hate anonymous comments.

Jen said...

I'm so jealous! I just finished Wicked (I'm behind the times, I know) not too long ago. I'm planning on reading his others, but mainly I need to get through all the other books I manage to buy and never read (so many books, too little time).

Corey Wilde said...

Sara, if it's an issue of common courtesy then I have to agree with Bookseller Chick: Call ahead! The folks who work in bookstores have a lot of work to do, much of it manual. They are often on their feet 6 or more hours a day, trying not only to serve customers, but also to make sure that as many books as possible make their way to the selling floor. With more and more authors doing drive-bys, a call ahead probably would have garnered Ms. Gerritsen the recognition and cooperation that her appearance out of the blue apparently calls for.