The majority of writers I know personally are very schizoid about the self-promo thing. Mostly they’re midlist writers, an odd appellation because it implies a bottom list, which doesn’t really exist. It’s like actors, I suppose: there’s the A-list, and then all the others, who have to duke it out for parts. Old joke: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Ten, one to change the bulb, the other nine to say, “That should be me up there!” For a time, back in the decade between 1985 and 1995, I was that guy up there.
My books were widely reviewed in major newspapers and magazines, sold well, went into paperback reprints and foreign language editions. I also did a fair number of bookstore signings.
Book signings, or author events, as they were called, were an act of blind faith that set you out there for the world to see and mostly ignore. Although no one threw rocks at least, and there were people who’d come and you were glad for the contact with readers, these were sometimes exercises in absurdity. You’d sit in a mall or a book emporium (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, and a lot of independent booksellers were still around then), amidst a soft insinuation of Muzak, and wonder: is tonight the night? Will rockets flare and sales soar? Does the industry see me poised for takeoff to the stratosphere? Or will it be another grind, an agonizing crawl of minutes until the appointed hour arrives when, chagrined, you pocket your pens, and whatever tatters of pride remain, and slink home?
There was the crazy side to all this, too, that you grew to appreciate. “Please join Mr. Daniel in the cookbook section, reading from his new mystery . . .” Or the lonely party who’d hang around, fondling your book and asking questions for an hour, then set the book down, murmur, “Be right back,” and never be seen again.
One afternoon at an urban mall, a boy came to me with a pen and a scrap of paper and said, “Can I get your autograph?” You want my autograph? “My mother says you’re wicked famous.” Wicked famous? I realized they didn’t know me from Adam but figured, dude’s sitting here on display in a mall, he must be someone, go get his signature.
But that’s okay; it’s all good—still is, although all those bookstores except for Barnes & Noble are long gone. Now there are other options, but one thing remains the same: you take your chances and try to be a sport about it. People pass and you smile, the way I remember shy girls smiling at junior high school dances when boys would walk past, cruising for partners—though there’s something forever heartbreaking in that smile.
I sat in a Waldenbooks in Manhattan one sleet-shot February night, and the manager, perhaps apologizing and wanting to assure me that it wasn’t my fault, kept telling me that if it were a different night, a typical night, there’d be a lot more traffic through. Behind me, several of the sales staff had begun to erect a ziggurat (that’s the only word for it) of copies of the late great Michael Crichton’s newest—probably more copies than my entire first printing. As the slow evening went on, the tower grew ever higher, just feet from where I sat. If it toppled, I’d be crushed. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Crichton, of course, was a major writer, and over my head Waldenbooks had strung a banner with his name and THE LOST WORLD on it.
Toward the end of the evening, an elderly gentleman entered the store, shaking rain off his hat. Spotting me, then squinting at the sign overhead, he approached. “So that’s you, huh?” he enthused, nodding at the banner. Afterward, I wished I’d held up one of my books and said, “Yep, and this is my other new book, written under my pen name.” But I didn’t. And it wouldn’t have mattered. He didn’t buy either book.
David Daniel’s most recent work can be found in Fungi, Sleet, Pound of Flash, and Insanity Tales II and on this blog.
He teaches fiction writing at UMass, Lowell.
Visit him at Facebook or Macmillan Books.