The low point of last Saturday’s Author Meet and Greet at Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore in Carmel, CA involved me sitting down and declaring in a resolute and defiant whisper, “Fine, I’ll just sit here until three o’clock (the scheduled end time for the two hour event),” that declaration followed by my wife scooping up our nine month old and announcing that they were leaving. The high point came just a few moments later.
The bookstore events I’ve participated in since Parnucklian for Chocolate’s release in March have fallen into one of three categories: readings, author panels, and author meet and greets, the readings being the more common and—along with the panels—the easier and more comfortable, given that in such situations, similar to the teaching I do every workday, one is addressing an audience that has freely chosen to be a part of that audience (or, in the case of high school students, have been forced by the state to be a part of that audience). In any case, with a reading or a panel or a lecture, the expectation of the audience, going in, is that you are going to talk to them, and as a relatively shy and perhaps even anti-social person, these seem to be the only conditions under which I feel comfortable or able to speak to strangers.
Author meet and greets don’t necessarily feature these conditions. Based on my cumulative experience of two author meet and greets, author meet and greets seem to work like this: the author is positioned in a designated area of the bookstore, adjacent to a carefully arranged stack of their books, and instructed by the friendly and gracious bookstore owner to feel free to introduce themselves to and chat with the customers. Some people may come to the store specifically for the meet and greet, but, especially if you’re a debut author no one has ever heard of, for the most part you’re dealing with the regular traffic in and out of the store, which in Carmel in the summer is mostly tourists.
So the flaw in the design, for a fiction writer, is that said fiction writer may not be the most likely candidate to speak to complete strangers about anything at all, least of all their own writing. Nonfiction writers seem to be better at it; my anecdotal evidence of this consisting of having been seated at an author panel next to a woman who had written a nonfiction book called Sexy Feminism. The woman spoke tirelessly and had the uncanny ability to somehow incorporate the phrase “Sexy Feminism” into every sentence.
The first meet and greet I did, at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, was scheduled for 6 to 8pm, and I ended up doing pretty much what, as mentioned at the start of this post, I would threaten to do at the next meet and greet. I just sat there. I only spoke to one person, who came up to talk about the book only after being buttered up by the clerk. My just sitting there wasn’t a matter of attitude—I smiled and said hello to everyone who came in—I just couldn’t bring myself to take the next step. I couldn’t bring myself to walk up and impose myself on people who had innocently come in to browse. If I were them, I’d want to left alone (I think) and it was this precise notion and my inability to counter it that led to the aforementioned “low point” last Saturday in Carmel.
The most important difference between the first meet and greet, in El Dorado Hills, and the second, in Carmel, turned out to be the accompaniment of Liz (my wife) and Tommy (our baby boy). If I had gone alone to Carmel as I had to El Dorado Hills, the result probably would’ve been the same: sitting, talking to no one. But as the event last Saturday began and as the shoppers came in and out, Liz encouraged me to approach and talk to them. She even gave me a script: “Hi, my name’s Bill and I’m here today promoting my book Parnucklian for Chocolate (gesture toward display). Please let me know if you have any questions.” I then explained to her, a bit panicked, that it was impossible. I couldn’t do it. She compared it to getting into a cold pool; once you dive in, it’ll feel better. I explained, beginning to sweat, that I’d choose a root canal over walking up to strangers to tell them about my book. I’d choose amputation. She explained that talking about the book was the reason I had been invited there, the entire point of us coming. I begged her to do it. I’d stand by the books and sign them if she’d talk to the people. I suggested she use the baby as a prop. Or as a conversation starter. She refused, at which point, as described, I declared my intention to just sit there, after which, as described, Liz loaded Tommy in the stroller and said, “We’re going.”
When the next person came in, I did nothing. The next, again nothing. When a third person came in, I began to think about letting down my wife and my publisher and the long drive home if I allowed myself to continue to just sit there, and I made the decision to take the plunge just as a German family of four crossed the threshold. The matriarch let me get a third of the way through the script before cutting me off and asking me where the children’s books were, but my feet were wet nonetheless, and the next person let me finish and took a postcard. But the ice—if you’ll allow my metaphor to change states—was completely broken by the next customer, a localish man who was out shopping while his wife competed at a nearby dog show. This gentleman also cut me off a third of the way through the script, but to tell me he wanted to buy a book. He had me sign it, had our picture taken, and came back later to introduce his wife (Ann) and dog (Norman).
And Liz was right. It got easier, and it felt better. I ran her script on everyone who walked through that door. Some brushed me off, which, it turns out, is okay, but others didn’t, and by the end of the day I’d met some nice people, had some pleasant conversations, and placed my book in the hands of several people who hopefully will read it and perhaps will enjoy doing so. And, of course, I once again demonstrated that if I’d just do everything my wife tells me to do, I’d be better off.