Columns > Published on April 10th, 2012

My First (Kinda, Sorta) Book Signing

I love book signings.

Almost nothing gets me more excited than when I check the Poisoned Pen’s events calendar and see there’s a novelist I read coming to town to discuss and sign their latest offering. It’s an activity I fell in love with the very first time Mrs. Rawson and I headed down to the Poisoned Pen to see James Ellroy spew his particular brand of entertaining venom. It was an amazing night; Ellroy was caffeinated to the gills and ended up hitting on my wife HARD as he was signing our books. Since that night, I’ve attended dozens of book signings; I even got it into my thick head a few years ago to start interviewing touring authors for my other blogging gig at Spinetingler Magazine.

But what I love most about attending signings is seeing the connection that develops between the writer and readers. For most readers, it's like connecting the final piece of a puzzle, putting a face and personality to the thousands of words they've read through the years. For the most part, when I've met authors such as Don Winslow and Megan Abbott, their personalities further endeared them to me, and I've read their work with new eyes because of the insights they brought to their work. (And, yes, the opposite has happened on a couple of occasions as well, where I've met the author and have immediately stopped reading them because of the asshole equation, or because of how little they seemed to care about their writing or the audience. And before you ask, no, I won't mention who they are.)

As a writer (and I think this is a near universal truth for most of us newbies), you can't help but fantasize about one day getting to be in front of an audience of eager fans discussing your own work and hopefully gaining a few new fans who came along with friends, or just happened to wander into the store while you were speaking. And after all that fantasizing, I was actually going to get to experience that feeling for myself.

At the end of February, Barbra Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, asked me to host a few author appearances while she was out of the country, which I had zero beef with.  Particularly since two of the events would feature authors who’ve vastly influenced my own writing: Joe R. Lansdale and James Sallis. As an added bonus, I would be MCing the store debuts of two of my friends, Johnny Shaw (Dove Season) and Owen Laukkanen (The Professionals). On top of that, I would be able to sell and sign my own books at the events, and if I was lucky enough, I’d get to talk about them to boot.

To say I was nervous regarding all of these events is an understatement. Yes, I’ve been to dozens of author Q & A’s and on more than one occasion I was one of the few audience members (sometimes the only) who would have any questions. But I was always in the audience, just another face in the crowd; I wasn’t front and center running the show. Yes, logically, I should’ve realized that I really had nothing to worry about, but when my brain flips into anxiety mode, well, there’s just no way for me to shut it off.

Would I flub questions?

Would I speak loud enough for the audience to hear my flubbed questions?

Would I speak too loud?

Would I come off as a complete asshole?

I know all of these little items seem trivial, but worrying over these things is just how my brain works, and I ended up losing some sleep. My body would pop me awake at 3 AM with all of these little questions and concerns, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shut myself down. And when you have to get up to go to work at 4:30 every day such as I do, losing an hour-and-a-half of sleep every night for a couple of weeks gets to be a real drain, especially since ye olde grey matter wasn’t giving me any quarter whatsoever, so therefore I wasn’t making up any of the rest I was losing.

Of course, all of these worries came to pass, and, oh yeah, my new book, Laughing At Dead Men, didn’t show up on time for the Lansdale/Shaw appearance. So, so much for selling any books at that one.

But when it came right down to it, it didn’t matter, because when I was in the moment, what mattered was that I was having a blast.

Alrighty, fair warning before I get started, this column isn’t going to be about how to market your book event. Brandon Tietz did a great job of that a few months ago, and when it comes right down to it, marketing and getting people to show up at these kinds of things is a tricky business. There’s no magic formula of what will work and what won’t. Sometimes utilizing social media works, sometimes it's word of mouth, but what I really think makes the difference more than anything else is having a supportive venue that has their own marketing plan in place and its own stable body of customers, and yes, having a readable, compelling book makes a difference, too. But still, I’ve been to events where the novelist has created a simply dazzling novel and only three people have shown up. Simply put, ladies and gentleman, author events are a crapshoot.

Appearance #1: Joe R. Lansdale and Johnny Shaw

This one gave me the biggest shakes. I don’t know why, because if you ever get to meet and hang out with either Shaw or Lansdale, both are the very definition of laid back. Yeah, they’ll chat you up (both Johnny and Joe are talkers, and damn charming ones at that) but over all, they’re just damn good guys and talented writers to boot. The thing which was making my stomach do a bit of the flip-flops is that Lansdale brings in the crowds. Which, of course, is what you want; the whole point of book tours and author appearances is to sell books, but when you’re being as big of a nancy as I was being, a big crowd was ramping up my anxiety to +10.

Fortunately, my friend and book reviewer, Steve Schwartz, was there and we chatted it up until Johnny Shaw showed, and then the three of us talked books and writing for awhile, so that took the edge off a bit. Although, I felt pretty bad, because I asked Johnny to come down to the store a little early so I could interview him, but my trusty little flip camera decided to take a shit and I had it plugged into one of the store’s computers to see if I could get it to reboot, which it did briefly at the end of the night and I was able to interview Lansdale, but then it froze and died.

Before I knew it, Patrick Millikin let me know it was time to get things rolling. Joe’s daughter, singer and songwriter Kasey Lansdale, kicked things off with a few songs, which ended up being a pretty great way to ease me into getting my thoughts organized. Kasey wrapped up her mini set, and then the three of us headed up front.

And you know all those things I listed earlier, yeah, they all happened. Every single one. Plus, I was doing this thing where when I was getting ready to move the questions from one author to the other, I’d shuffle their books like a deck of cards. But once again, it didn’t matter, because I was having a blast. Joe talked up Edge of Dark Water, Johnny talked up Dove Season, they both read brief excerpts, we talked about 70’s and 80’s men’s pulp fiction and Shaw’s retro men’s adventure magazine, Blood & Tacos, and before I knew it, we were done except for the beer drinking.

Appearance #2: Owen Laukkanen

Okay, now I was feeling pretty good about being in front of people, and feeling a lot less concerned about making an ass out of myself. I also knew Owen’s appearance would be a much more intimate event, because Owen is a first time novelist and just starting to develop an audience, thus a smaller crowd. What was giving me a bit of the willies, though, was that I had a wedding to get to at five, and Owen’s appearance was at two and ended at three, which meant I would have to split out right as things were wrapping, make the forty-five minute car ride home, and then get ready for the wedding. My wife was so wigged out that we would be late that she wanted me to cancel. Thankfully I was able to reassure her enough that I would be back in time that she backed off on the idea of me not going, so that in turn allowed me to relax and enjoy the Q&A.

And I did enjoy it. Owen brought in a great little group of readers, we sat around in a circle of folding chairs, discussed The Professionals, talked about Owen’s career as a poker journalist, what books and films helped inspire The Professionals, and as is inevitable with smaller audiences, we talked publishing and the rise of eBooks. It was a great, relaxed day all around, plus copies of my new book made it in and I ended up selling a couple of them.

Appearance #3: James Sallis

I’m going to be the first to admit that I’ve got some hero worship going on for James Sallis. As far as I’m concerned, Sallis occupies the same territory as McCarthy and Woodrell; he’s a master of his craft, and even though I’ve known Sallis for three years, and have interviewed him multiple times, I’m still in awe of him as an artist, so I get a little tongue tied around him.

Which might have been a bit of problem if I was still as knotted up as I had been with Lansdale and Shaw.

Fortunately, I was completely calm, and, honestly, I was feeling pretty proud that I was going to be a part of Driven’s release. That I was going to be asking Sallis about key points in the novel, about his reasoning behind writing a sequel, etc. Plus, it did help that Patrick Millikin and thriller writer Brent Ghelfi (Volk’s Shadow) were right up there with me helping direct the discussion. The other great thing was that Laughing At Dead Men had arrived and that I would get to sign copies alongside Sallis.

The discussion turned out exactly as I expect it to. Sallis is a natural orator, his speaking style is intimate and commanding, and he’s got a great sense of humor. I didn’t feel like I flubbed any questions, and if I did, Sallis was able to take the ball and run with it. It was a great night, and I can honestly say that I only screwed up once during the whole presentation. Yeah, it was when I actually got to talk about my own writing. I rushed through it. Then again, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a tad overcritical of myself. But, thankfully, the discussion ended soon after that, and I sat down with Sallis at the back table and signed books for friends, family, and a few readers who decided to just pick up my book.

Overall, being a part of these three author appearances was a pretty amazing experience, and one I hope to repeat sometime in the near future.

Of course, there are more than a few writers, publishers, etc., who believe that book signings and author appearances are a thing of the past. That it’s become too expensive to send an author on the road to promote a novel,  and that virtual appearances via Skype and social media interaction will be taking the place of book tours. I fully realize that it is a weighty expense on the publisher’s pocket book (and in most cases, the novelists, too.) and on the authors time and energy, but despite all of these things, I believe signings are a vital part of literary culture, so I hope they don't go away any time soon.

Anyway, gang, thanks for reading, and as with most of my columns for LitReactor, I don’t want anyone to go away empty handed, so I’m going to give away some books. I have extra copies of EDGE OF DARK WATER by Joe Lansdale and THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen, and all I want from you is for you tell me who is the one author you wished would come to your hometown for a signing. You know the deal, U.S. and Canadian residents only.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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