As some of you know, I serve as president of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime. One of our newest members is the delightful, motorcycle-riding veteran author Lisa Haneberg. Below is her account of one of those book signing events that didn’t quite go as planned, followed by some helpful prevention tips, her bio, and contact/buy links.
I wobbled into the Kennewick, Washington, Barnes & Noble after a 300-mile motorcycle ride from Boise, Idaho. It was the 30th and last book signing during my 9,400-mile solo motorcycle cross-country publicity tour for Two Weeks to a Breakthrough.
Shellie, the event coordinator, greeted me with a smile as I downed two Starbucks espressos to prepare my weary brain and body for the question-and-answer segment after my reading. She’d told me there had been articles in two local papers and had set up a table chock full of my books. The staff had taped up several large posters about my reading. All indications were excellent. As I sat down in the store café with my drink, I heard Megan, the customer service clerk, make several announcements that went something like this:
“Good afternoon, Barnes & Noble customers. We have a special treat for you today. Author Lisa Haneberg will be talking about and signing her latest book, Two Weeks to a Breakthrough, at 6:00pm. This is Lisa’s fifth book and we’re lucky to have her stop here while on her 10,000-mile book tour she is doing by motorcycle. Would you like to zoom toward your goals in fourteen days? Join Lisa Haneberg at the table right in front of the Young Adult section at six.”
Other than botching her pronunciation of my last name, Megan did an outstanding job. She made similar announcements every five to ten minutes until it was time for the reading to start. I wondered if people had figured out that I was the person she was talking about, because my yellow helmet and matching yellow and black motorcycle jacket were hard to miss.
These signings could be nerve-wracking because I never knew who’d show up. In my hometown, I could beg friends to fill some chairs and avoid embarrassment. I didn’t know anyone in Kennewick.
At 6:00 pm, customers packed the store. Many were looking in the nearby Young Adult and adjacent Science Fiction sections. As Megan announced the reading again, shoppers glanced in my direction. I smiled at those who walked by.
After a few more moments, I stood in front of the six-foot table decorated with books, signs, long green skirting, and my bright yellow motorcycle helmet. There was no mistaking this for a book signing, and I its author. Are people afraid of real live authors? Perhaps because they believe we’re drunkards filled with pent-up anger from staring at a blank piece of paper for months or years?
I took out a pad of paper to write notes. I thought passers-by might find me more interesting if they thought I was writing something. Like seeing street artists paint or musicians play songs in subway stations. I scribbled a few words, paused, put the pen tip to my lip like I was thinking of something profound, and then wrote a few more words. The fine folks in Kennewick did not seem impressed.
By 6:10pm, it was like I had an impenetrable magic bubble around me. I checked to make sure I didn’t smell because I’d just finished a long ride in summery conditions. Other than a few bugs splattered on my black jeans, I didn’t think I was offensive.
“Good evening, Barnes & Noble customers. You might have noticed a lonely woman behind the customer service kiosk. Her name is Lisa Hamburger, and she’s here to talk about her book. She’d love it if someone would come up to the table to chat. As an incentive, we’ll give a Mocha Raspberry Frappuccino to the first person who talks with her.”
I held onto a smile and searched the store for a set of friendly eyes. But the yellow of my helmet had become a lighthouse that kept readers away from me. I thought about reading aloud from my book, but doing so with no listeners seemed a low too far. Megan was persistent.
“Attention shoppers. We need your help. We have this author in from Seattle and she’s desperate for people to talk to. Do you see her in the center of the store? She’s wearing black and trying to act cool. You don’t have to buy a book and don’t even need to be interested in her book. We just can’t bear to watch her fail and will give anyone who visits with Lori Hamstrung a coupon worth five-hundred dollars off liposuction from the clinic across the street and a free cactus plant from The Green Thumb.”
A boy who looked about eight years old glanced at me. He told his mom he liked my helmet. She nodded and pushed him along. I concluded I had a contagious disease called author-selling-books-behind-a-table-itis, and that it was deadly.
By 6:45 pm, I planned my exit strategy. Maybe I could slink out unnoticed? My macerated ego didn’t want to talk to bookstore employees or customers. I didn’t need no stinking readers; I told myself in a moment of strange reverse rationalization.
At 6:55pm, I collected my things and checked my phone—no new messages or emails. The last stanza of T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” went through my mind:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
As I headed out of the store, I imagined people were looking at me and that I had soiled underpants. The walk of shame. The tragic irony of the situation was that my book was about how to succeed.
PostScript: Years after the Kennewick book signing, I read “Attention Shoppers” to a group of talented but not yet published writers during a literary salon. I thought the piece was funny and had selected it to entertain them.
Instead, many looked stunned. No one laughed, giggled, or grinned, and from their pained expressions, I concluded I’d traumatized my friends. The catatonic haze I observed seemed driven by fears they might suffer a similarly colossal failure. I guessed this was a defense mechanism designed to prevent them from abandoning their writing careers to work in a chicken processing plant or run for public office. Most writers experience at least one crappy book signing when no one—or worse yet, one person—attends. Writing and rejection go together like fresh bread and mold.
I’m thankful I was ghosted at the end of my tour. Had it happened the day I drove through screeching cicadas or two hours of cold non-stop rain, I might’ve ripped Megan’s mic from the amplifier and strangled her with it the chord.
I’m kidding. A nice mic is hard to find.
In my book, I suggest we need to make unreasonable requests to generate breakthroughs. If I could do it all over again, I would’ve taken my advice and asked Megan to provide Jell-O shots to everyone who attended my reading.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about author events.
- Planning helps. When I started planning the book tour, I emailed eighty of my blog readers and asked them if they would help me arrange and promote events in their hometowns. Each time I got a positive response, I put a red pin on the map where the person lived. I determined my motorcycle tour route based on the readers who’d signed on to help — not according to some preconceived list of cities where authors always go.
- Editors and agents say that it’s important to have an effective author platform. This is true, because our contacts can help support our book tour events. I didn’t know anyone in Kennewick, but it was a different situation and outcome in Fargo because a dedicated reader set up and publicized three successful readings and signings where one hundred fifty people attended. In Fargo!
- My best events were in places like Fargo, Milwaukee, Brookings, Birmingham, Baltimore and Boise that didn’t see many big-name authors. If you’re not Zadie Smith, Stephen King, or David Sedaris, you might find that you’ll get a warmer and larger reception in cities beyond New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I enjoyed being a bigger fish in smaller ponds (although I was clearly a protozoon in Kennewick’s puddle).
- Press releases, volunteer networking, blog posts and email campaigns helped bolster event attendance. I did no promotions for the Kennewick event other than emailing a press release to the local newspapers.
- It helps if you can offer a newsworthy tagline for your book tour. My 9,400-mile motorcycle trip was newsworthy in some cities. Others found it interesting that I was a biker chick, like in Grand Junction, Colorado, where I got to drive Hazel (short for Purple Haze) right into the room where I spoke.
- Multi-task! Use each event to build relationships and your platform. Take video and pictures that you can plaster on your social media channels. I’m glad no one videotaped me flicking fly wings off my pants.
Lisa Haneberg is a founding board member of the Lexington Writer’s Room and has an MFA from Goddard College. She has published over fifteen nonfiction books and the first four books in her mystery series. She’s worked with agents, publicists, six traditional publishers, and has self-published print and e-books. She lives with her husband and dog Hazel in Lexington, Kentucky. Her website is at www.lisahaneberg.com, and email is [email protected].