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Of book signings

I’ve noticed that a good sign of the approaching Christmas is the ever growing number of book signings in my local bookstores. They’re usually held by bestselling authors who publish their books right before Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or Christmas to make sure it's their book that is found in all those presents. Equally often, they’re held by writers whose books I’m not particularly interested in reading. Judging by the queues in front of their desks though, I’m the only one.

Sour grapes, perhaps?

Back when I still dreamed about fame and glory as a traditionally published author, I occasionally imagined what it would be like to sit behind that desk, signing my bestseller for people eagerly lining up for them. Since it was my fantasy, there were always long queues; reality wouldn’t interfere. 

I imagined singing books until my wrist was sore. Would it be fun? Would it feel like I’d achieved something, seeing those people? Perhaps I would be extremely successful and do hectic book tours around the world. In those fantasies, the publisher would be happy to pay for hotels and expensive restaurants. Not very realistic, I know, but it was my fantasy, so I got to imagine them the way I like.

That was before I read an article by Andrew Mueller, Australian rock critic and travel writer, about his book signing tour (in three parts: 1, 2, 3). Written some years ago when he was marketing his then new book, it tells a different story. In a humorous and self-deprecating manner, he lets the reader understand that in reality – for a less known author at least – the book signings draw modest crowds at best and most people are there only to tell their own stories, or no crowds at all; the only audience the bookstore employees and crazy old men holding rain. 

After reading his account it was really difficult for me to imagine my book tours would be different. I would notice, too, how most authors – those who weren’t bestsellers – sat alone behind their desk, desperately trying to look like it didn’t bother them that shoppers avoided them like plague. So it wasn't hard for me to let go of that dream when I became a self-published author.

It isn’t necessary all that much fun for those successful authors either. At least if you believe Terry Pratchett who claims that his latest tour was almost the death of him. Of course, he was suffering from a food poisoning, but even without that, he makes a book tour sound very exhausting.

One doesn’t have to have Pratchett’s level of success to have an annoying book signing experience. A while ago, the biggest bestseller of my small country held a signing in my local bookstore. A media darling, she draws in huge crowds where ever she goes. However, perhaps to limit the attendance, the signing was held in the middle of a working day and not even during the lunch hour. The only people who had time to attend it were pensioners, stay-at-home mothers, unemployed and – dare I say – those not employable. Still, there was a respectable queue, long enough that I decided I didn’t want her to sign my copy that badly. Especially since the line didn’t seem to be moving.

I wanted to see the author in person though, so I walked around the queue to take a peek and learned the reason for the holdup. A middle aged man, one of those not so easy to employ, was chatting with the author. Judging by the look on her face and those next in line, the conversation had been going on for a while already without actually going anywhere. She writes historical fiction about events that are recent enough that some readers have personal experience about them and controversial enough that everyone has an opinion too. This man definitely had an opinion – and it wasn’t shared by the author. She listened to him patiently though, nodding politely, all the while trying to get him to stop and go away so that the line would start moving again. She may be a big name, but she didn’t have a handy helper from her publisher who would get rid of such blocks for her.

I left the scene before the man did, having heard enough. But I couldn’t help thinking that the reality of any book signing was probably closer to what I had just witnessed than to my dreams: long lines of harried people trying to squeeze in a moment with their favourite author, and the author trying to keep from getting provoked by know-it-alls. Still, it might be fun to find out in person. Who knows, maybe someday I will.


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