I miss Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore (not its real name), a small, independent bookstore that thrived for years in a nearby college town. With the advent of the mega-bookseller and the Internet, the prime real estate occupied for decades by this merchant is now a Venti-sized Starbucks.
Aside from fulfilling my desire to support locally-owned, independent stores, Bob and Betty also brought a string of “big name” authors twenty minutes from my home so I could come hear them read from their books and hopefully grab a moment of conversation or a sliver of writing advice while they signed my newly-purchased copy.
Even though I was not a published author back then and had not yet put on my first book “event,” I was apparently soaking up knowledge from watching these authors, tucking it away for my first release.
Author A had been published in the New Yorker when I was still learning the proper usage of the semicolon. He rarely landed on bestseller lists, if ever, but had and still has a motivated fan base. He was a college professor by day. He had also made it his personal mission to breathe life into what was often a deadly dull exercise: the marketing of the literary novel. Therefore when he hit the road and took the improvised stage at Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore, he dressed less like a college professor and more like one of his students, and one who was barely hanging on by his polished-black fingernails, no less. When he read, he performed, with no trace of that studied, sing-song-y lilting thing that normally put half the audience to sleep and made the other half perturbed that they missed “American Idol” for this. During the Q&A he was engaged, interested, and gave thoughtful answers. He made eye contact. He gave each signer personal attention. When I left with my signed book, I felt important, and not just because I put a few dollars in his pocket.
Author B, a skilled and experienced writer, hit it out of the park with her first published novel. Her quirky love story plucked a nerve with the tender thirteen-year-old that resides in every woman and some men, and quickly rose to the top of many bestseller lists. Word had it that a movie was in the works. Gaggles of excited women (and the men they dragged) queued up around the corner and down the street to see and meet her. But she seemed tired. Too many cities, too many interviews and her anecdotes were shopworn. At Bob and Betty’s Bitty Bookstore, she did that sing-song-y, lilting thing, but mainly sounded like she’d rather be home in bed. She appeared uninterested in the audience during the Q&A, and worse, at the signing desk, an appointed minion hustled people along. I got to ask one question and she brushed me off. When I left, I felt like something she scraped off her shoe. If not for the signature inside my book (Did she spell my name right? I wondered), I would have returned it and gotten my money back.
So…when I was preparing for my first book event (unfortunately, Bob and Betty had moved on, but I had the great luck to be supported by Tina’s Tiny Bookstore, a new local venue, and again, not their real name), I did not want to be Author B. But I didn’t have the experience in front of an audience to look and feel as confident as Author A. Regardless, this is what I hoped to accomplish:
1. Show up rested. I meditated and did some deep breathing before I left for the bookstore. It helped me cope with the inevitable things that would be out of my control. For one, the venue’s fan was just behind where I would be reading. No big deal; I’d have to talk a little louder. Imagine how Author B might have responded to that.
2. Show up prepared…but allow spontaneity. I rehearsed. I rehearsed again. I rehearsed some more. But when the task started feeling tiresome, I stopped. Okay, when I had the floor, I was still nervous. But I did it without wetting my pants.
3. Show the audience why they’re there. They didn’t come to hear me flub a word or two. (Or a couple dozen.) They came to see me and buy a signed book. I vowed to try to be like Author A in this respect, and not make my audience regret missing “Minute to Win It.”
Most importantly, I wanted to simply show up. Be present. This was harder; staying in the moment was like herding cats. Would we run out of books? Would I forget my character’s names? Would I forget my own name? Mess up a signature? Oy. At some point it occurred to me to just enjoy and focus on the one thing in front of me. Sign a book. Answer a question. Smile. Much better.