I heard a best-selling author once say that he paid a vanity press to publish his first novel. Then, loading his car with copies, he drove from bookstore to bookstore throughout his home state, trying to persuade sellers to stock his book.
What a sap.
Here I am at the Illinois State Library in Springfield on a Saturday at the end of March. I'm one of 39 writers peddling books at the eighth annual Illinois Authors' Book Fair, and all I have to do is sit behind a table and wait for customers to come to me.
"We expect over a thousand people," one of the organizers said at this morning's orientation session. "That's what we've had in the past, and I fully expect we'll have that many again."
My job is to autograph my books for the people who buy them. Someone has put two black pens on my table so I'll have plenty of ink for signing, and the way they're lined up so neatly parallel to each other on the white tablecloth fills me with hope. It's a glorious early-spring day. Sunlight fills the first-floor atrium. Outside on the lawn the grass is greening and dogwood trees are white with blooms. On my table a flowerpot wrapped in festive purple foil anchors a hand-lettered sign bearing my name. I also have a blue ribbon pinned to my lapel that says, "Author." In the hospitality room on the third floor, a free lunch awaits. The book fair's organizers even left me a baggie filled with peppermint candies so I'll have fresh breath when I chat with all my new fans.
What more could a fella want?
Each time I agree to appear at one of these state book fairs (this is my first time in Illinois), I put on a happy face and tell myself I won't be disappointed. But let's be honest here. I write literary fiction and memoir--the sort of books that the general reading public usually doesn't buy. "Quiet books," editors and agents call them. They sit for years on bookstore shelves, for the most part unnoticed. "You know," my wife once said to a friend who asked what I write, "the books we hated to read when we were in literature classes in high school."
But I grew up in, and now write about, Illinois. Most of the stories in my first collection, The Least You Need to Know, are set in the state, as are my two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. Only Quakertown, a historical novel set in Texas, has nothing to do with my home state. The week before I came to the fair the public radio station in Springfield interviewed me about Turning Bones for their Living in Illinois program. I have reason to believe, then, that since I'm an Illinois author--since I'm home--this state book fair will be more satisfying than the ones in Kentucky and Ohio and West Virginia, where I've watched authors with solid local ties do a booming business. I have faith in the people who have put this fair together and in the people they've assured me will come to buy my books.
Or, as it turns out, my book.
I take a quick tour of the bookstore area, long enough to see that the organizers have stocked only one of my titles--The Least You Need to Know--and only a few copies at that.
"Frankly, I'm surprised," I tell the man in charge, "that you don't at least have my most recent book, the one the public radio station interviewed me about."
"We're sorry for the mistake," he says with a slight shrug.
I could be gracious. ("Oh, these things happen. Nothing to worry about. I understand.") Or I could be angry. ("Sorry? Look, mister. Sorry doesn't cut it.")
Neither response will make copies of my other three books magically appear.
So I say, "Hmm." And leave him to think about that.
I'm a nice guy--for the most part even-tempered and hard to ruffle. I come from the prairie, and like the flat land I'm generally imperturbable. But my optimism, like spring in Illinois, proves to be short-lived. At the orientation session, one of the fair's organizers pointed out a cart containing library copies of the books all the attending authors had written.
"We'll be coming by with the cart," she said, "and asking each of you to sign your book."
My book wasn't on the cart.
"Well, I know we have it somewhere," the cart mistress tells me later when I point this out. "I remember reading it. I'll try to find it. Turning Bones, right?"
"Could be," I say. "But that's not the book you're selling today."
"No, it's not."
Again, that embarrassed shrug.
As far as I can tell by glancing at the list of my fellow authors, I'm one of two writers of quiet books here today. For the most part, our compatriots fit neatly into a specific genre: young adult fiction, children's literature, true crime, mystery, romance, sci-fi.
At the continental breakfast that began the day, the authors at my table included a woman who has written a book about Sears kit houses, a man whose mystery novel is packed with DEA agents and meth addicts, a woman who writes histories of the various American Girl dolls, and a man who's written a novel about futuristic interplanetary travel. No one asked me what I write about, and if they had how would I have answered? Could I have explained my work by quoting Flannery O'Connor's neighbor, who said of her books, "Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do"? Could I have said that I write books like that, ones that are interested in the everyday come and go between people, the inner lives they carry around with them, and the small moments that change them forever? A boy touches his mother's lover on the wrist and tells him he should leave their house; a wife whose husband has lost his hands in a farming accident holds a drinking straw to his lips and understands the binding power of loss. You know, the books you hated to read in your literature classes.
The genre writers more easily find an audience. Their readers are now coming into the atrium, many of them with their children. On the second floor the kids can get their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny, have their faces painted, listen to stories, get balloon animals, eat free popcorn.
I've put a copy of Turning Bones on my table, and one young girl actually picks it up. Before she can look at it, though, her mother spots a well-known young-adult novelist. She grabs her daughter's wrist and says, "Put that down. There's your favorite writer."
I'm getting used to this sort of thing. At other fairs, I've had people cover my books with their coats while they waited to talk to the popular guy next to me. I've had event volunteers ignore me as they asked other authors if they'd like a soft drink or some water. Once a woman hurried up to my table, an excited look on her face, as if she'd been waiting years for this chance, and lord-a-mercy, she'd finally found me. "Can you tell me where the 'Little Whistle' books are?" she asked. "They're around here somewhere, right?" I pointed to my left, a few tables down, where the line of customers stretched well into the aisle.
Today I'm next to a pair of brothers who have written a book about Chicago firehouse dogs. The brothers are perfectly pleasant young men, and their book, filled with photographs, is just the thing for dog lovers. Children in particular are drawn to the cute pictures.
A woman stops by to chat with the authors. I overhear enough of the conversation to know that she has something to do with making television programs. "We've got a lot of talking dogs these days," she says in a very earnest voice, "but we don't have any heroes. Your book would be perfect for an animated series."
When she's finished with the brothers, she moves over to me. "What's this about?" she asks, picking up Turning Bones.
I always hate the moment when I have to boil a book down to a one-sentence pitch. But, as always, I try. "It's about six generations of my family," I tell her, "and their migration from Kentucky to Illinois."
"Uh-huh," she says. "Uh-huh."
It's a deadly response, those two syllables. So I quickly switch to telling her about Quakertown. "A story of romance set against the backdrop of racial tension in 1920s Texas," I say.
That seems to catch her attention. "Can I get a copy of that here at the book fair?" she asks.
"No," I say. "For some reason they don't have that title."
"Oh . . . well . . ." She shrugs her shoulders and gives me a grin that says, what's a girl to do?
"You can order it online at Amazon.com," I tell her.
She snaps her fingers. "That's exactly what I'll do."
And I say to her, "Uh-huh."
As the day goes on, I sign six books: one for an old friend, two for fellow book-fair authors, one for a man who teaches creative writing at the local community college and is trying to write quiet books of his own, one for a former teacher of mine. Then there's the woman who comes to my table, my book in hand, and says, "It's for my son, for his 23rd birthday." She's smiling at me, and I get a good feeling knowing that for whatever reason she's chosen my book as a gift. "Would you please inscribe it to him?" she asks, and doing so is one of the rare pleasures of the day.
For the most part I spend the hours watching the brothers next to me sell every single copy of their dog book (www.firehousedogs.com, in case you're interested).
I keep thinking about why these book fairs exist--to encourage the general reading public, to provide this opportunity to talk with writers, to improve literacy--and though I agree with all these goals, I leave at the end of the day telling myself, as I always do, that this is the last time I'll ever appear at one. They're just too disheartening for writers of quiet books. They remind us that our work isn't much of a commodity among buyers who, for the most part, gravitate toward books that fill a particular need. Maybe they want to know whether they live in a Sears house, as Davy Jones of the Monkees did, or so the author of that particular book told us at breakfast. Maybe they want to escape their own lives to a different planet. Maybe they want action and suspense. Maybe they want to figure out whodunit. I begrudge none of them their cravings, but the thing I can't stop thinking about is why, in a culture filled with reality television, sporting events, DVDs, CDs, MP3s, and Nintendo, so many people also choose books that take them outside the self rather than inward to show them how some folks would do. It makes me wonder exactly what we're accomplishing with readers other than encouraging them to seek out books that will entertain without asking them to think too much about the way they live their lives and the way we all move through a common world.
I know I sound like a snob, a crank, a curmudgeon. I sound like that English teacher you loved to hate. Please don't misunderstand; I like entertainment as much as the next person. I confess that I like to watch certain reality television shows, that I will from time to time read a sports biography. I want the books like the one about firehouse dogs to be there on the bookstore shelves for anyone, as the Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation says in his blurb, "who likes dogs or firefighters--or both." I just don't want that--or the books about Sears houses, or American Girl dolls, or futuristic planet pilgrims--to be the only game in town, and that they are is the impression I have as I step out of the Illinois State Library on this warm, sunny day. I've come to Springfield with high hopes, but, as I leave, I have the distinct impression that, as in the old song, I've stayed too long at the fair.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.