My Best Worst Book Signing

I was talking to a writer friend the other day about book signings. Mainly, what it is about a book in particular that makes the reader even want a writer’s signature on it. We buy tons of things every day that don’t require the maker’s signature. Maybe because a book, like a painting or an original photograph, is considered a work of art? Signatures of famous people in politics are often sought after, and those of athletes on sports memorabilia. But why writers?

When I self-published my novel The Lake Poet in 2001, it was a total DIY operation. I wrote it, edited it, decided on the fonts and the cover, got an ISBN number, wrote for permissions to use a few lines from poems, hired a printer, and it was off to the races. Since my book was a novel (historical fiction) about the town I was living in – Lake Forest, Illinois – I figured I at least had a good base of book-reading and book-buying enthusiasts who would want to read my book.

Also, Ragdale, a world-renowned artists’ community/retreat is located in Lake Forest, and they had kindly allowed me to write much of my book in a small space on their property.
It was off to the races. We have a really great independent bookstore in town, and they kept a steady supply of books. Ragdale hosted a reading and signing for me at the Deer Path Inn, and many friends who were book group members invited me to their book groups. I also marketed my books to local realtors; and the Lake Forest Historical Society, and the local library also made me part of a few community events.

In short, I found myself interacting with a huge swath of the local population. My very first “private reading” was at the beautiful artist studio of my friend Barbara Trentham, who has since passed away. I will never, ever forget the magic of that first reading in that magical space that Barbara had created for local artists.

Oh, one other thing. Neither Facebook or Twitter had even been invented yet. I thought I was pretty hot stuff because I had figured out how to sell my book on Amazon, and I had also set up a Google Blogger account for updates on my book and readings.

Of course I was the person selling my book, arranging signings, keeping track of finances (including payment of taxes as a local “vendor”), and still working on other writing projects. Granted, I didn’t have another job, so I was able to devote time to this that I might not otherwise have had the ability to do.

It may not sound like it, but this was actually fun! What could be better than toting your books around to people who actually wanted to read them? It was a writer’s dream come true. Again, it was because my book filled a niche in the community – a community of readers.

Believe it or not, I quickly sold out of the first printing of 2,000. And then a second printing of another 1,000. I did one last printing of another 1,000, and then decided that would be it. Unless I was able to find an agent to take the book on I was going to call it quits, and move on. I didn’t.

Looking back on that crazy DIY year, I remember how much fun it was, and how supported I felt by a reading community that wanted me to succeed. But the “literary event” that stands out the most, and that I will never, ever forget was when I did a book signing at the local supermarket during their annual Meat Sale.

Now, this was no ordinary Meat Sale. This was a yearly event that normally staid Lake Foresters beat the door down to get to. I didn’t get it, but this market had been selling my books at their cash registers, and I had been steadily replenishing their supplies every few days. (I know, who would have thought. Another note to DIY authors – you have to hustle and get creative in setting up your “distribution network.”)

Back to the meat sale. The store owner had set me up at a rickety card table with a full view of the pandemonium at the meat counter. My sister had suggested I get in on the fun, and had sent me a few ideas for signage: “Don’t be a chicken. Buy my sister’s book!” was one memorable one (I did use it, and got some good laughs). Also, “Meat the Author.”

Customers seemed almost feral in their desire to get their prime steaks at a dollar off per pound. But, hey, what did I care? I was also selling books by the pound. I sold over a hundred that day, and well over a thousand at that grocery store alone over the year I kept it stocked there.

So, go local, if you think you have a supportive base to draw on. Use Facebook and Twitter and all the other great social media tools. Trust me, your readers are dying to “meat” you!


The Brain Is A Really Weird Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain for the past five years or so.  Something lucky, before I begin: My brain still works pretty well.  I do crossword puzzles, I am physically active, and I read and write all the time.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t care all that much about what you’ve done to stave them off.  To say nothing of brain injuries.

Here are some of the reasons I think about the brain – maybe more than the average person. First – one of my sisters suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago, and I have been very involved in her rehabilitation, and in her life since her accident.  This is a sister I never had a close relationship with, but who I would now kill for.  This is basically the premise of a memoir I just completed about being a sister.  Second, my father died of complications from dementia, a harrowing experience I wouldn’t wish on any family.  Third, I started writing a novel that was based on the premise that you could “freeze” your brain (or something like that), and “live” forever.  Or, at least your brain could.  I got well into this novel until I hit a wall and set the book aside for a while.  But in the meantime, I did a ton of research into the brain.

So, this is a subject I obviously find fascinating.  Just recently I read a brand new memoir called Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes On My Dementia by Gerda Saunders.  It is an amazingly raw and tender and sad and joyous story.  I had originally heard the author a few weeks ago being interviewed on NPR, and immediately went to the library to get the book.

A few out of many memorable passages:  “I write to remember, to inhabit for a while, my earliest self…”  And, “I convinced myself that shining light into the lonely and scary place of my mother’s dementia – and mine- could possibly be of value to other people who live with dementia, whether it’s their own or that of someone they love.”

I highly recommend finding the interview on NPR, and also reading the book.  And if you can bear it, and haven’t done so yet, read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and see the movie by the same name (with Julianne Moore).  I know it’s hard to talk about this, and read about it, but the more we face these issues with some type of understanding (and even humor and grace) the better equipped we might be to survive with our humanity intact, and maybe even enhanced.

(I also shared an essay I wrote about my father’s dementia in a post on 4/27/17.)

Is It All In A Name?

Writers don’t spend all of their time writing. Far from it. Unless we are doing it just for fun, we have to spend a good amount of time sending our work out, and marketing ourselves. I have been a writer who sends out her work, and publishes a fair amount of it. Even though I have been doing this for thirty years, I am far from a “household name,” nor am I guaranteed publication. I know that I do get a closer look from editors because of my publishing credentials, but acceptance of a piece still rests on several variables: what an editor’s needs might be at the time, whether they may have just run a similar piece, they are overrun with submissions, or maybe they just don’t like what I sent them.

Of course, if I took any of this personally, I would have stopped doing this a long time ago. I seriously don’t think I am a masochist! If I honestly didn’t think my best work was still ahead of me I wouldn’t keep doing what I am doing. Which is writing, and getting published.
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How Writers Deal With Rejection

First of all, I changed the name of my file where I store my rejections, to “returned.” I know I’m only fooling myself, but I choose not to live as rejected. (Dejected, maybe, but not rejected…)

Second, I look the returned piece over (whether it is a poem, short story, or essay) and then do more research on where I might send it next. By this point I feel as confident as I will ever feel that it is good piece of writing, or I wouldn’t be sending it out. I have been writing and publishing long enough that I think I have a sense now of when something is good.

I don’t really spend that much time sending work out, because most of my writing time is spent actually writing. Or reading, or researching, or attending author events, or tweeting, or writing blog pieces. However, every couple of weeks I set aside a day, or a big chunk of a day, to do what I call a “blitz.” Wherein I do a major perusal of my unpublished work, and try to find a home for it by researching potential publications.

Many of my essays were published by the first places I sent them to, because I had developed relationships, over years of writing, with op/ed page editors. Or I had a regular gig as a columnist. Or I just hit the right chord with the right editor.

It’s hard not to give up on a piece that you love and have faith in, and I’m not sure how you know when to stick a fork in it. I have had several stories and essays that have been rejected (“returned”) after at least twenty or thirty tries. For real! I think you have to keep your faith in your work, or you just couldn’t do this for too many years.

If you want to read a humor piece that appeared in The Writer magazine (“Thoughts on Rejection in the Middle of the Night”) go to my posting on Jan. 17th, or go to the category “Writing” where you will find other essays I have published about writing and publishing.

Here is a note I got years ago from an editor at The New Yorker (when I once had the nerve/guts to send them a short story). In writer pep talks, they always say that a handwritten personal note means something. I still haven’t figured out what…