Merrill » poor attendance

What to say to the 3 people who come to hear you read at a bookstore.

Posted March 10th, 2012
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Whenever I have a book come out, friends ask me if I will be appearing at any bookstores. I shrug and smile. This is what I am too embarrassed to tell them:

There are many perks to being an author. I bet J.K.Rowling would tell you that the only down side to a bookstore appearance is achy cheeks from smiling at so many well wishers. Steven King is probably tired of the hand cramps from signing so many books. But for a lesser luminary…oh, who can I use?  For the sake of a handy example, let’s just say me… things are rather different. And when I use the word ‘rather’ I mean it in the sense of the word “vastly.”

The truth is that ever since I first made an appearance at a book store where very few people showed up, even book stores where I have never been asked to appear seem to hold nerve wracking future memories. I am talking about the kind of commonly scheduled event for a newly published book in which an optimistic store manager has gone to the trouble of making an enormous sign bearing the author’s name. The sign I’m thinking of may have been big enough to have been visible from the surface of the moon.

Of course everything about being asked to speak anywhere is an honor. After all, during the writing process, every author hopes for some kind of acknowledgment and validation eventually. He or she is probably imagining groups of the kind of interesting people they would be honored to have as friends.  They are certainly not  hoping to one day drive in to a completely empty parking lot, then gingerly tip-toe thru the tumbleweed in a completely empty store,  the haunting sounds of a lone harmonica echoing in the distance, as they find their way to a carefully arranged unoccupied seating area just in front of the afore mentioned enormous personalized sign .

Now the self recriminations begin as I realize that if I had acted more aggressively, weeks before, this moment might have been averted. My other author friends all have the right combination of smarts and ego that pushes them to send out high pressure invitations to relatives and acquaintances, insisting they attend .But I am always too uncomfortable with the idea of inconveniencing busy friends in the middle of dinner so I am relying on maybe some actual fans? Good luck to me!

Usually I begin the process of adjusting to the unnerving scenario that awaits me by taking cover behind a bookcase, where I can have some privacy while I calculate the right moment to ask if its okay if I cancel. While I am trying to figure out how to make a facial expression that looks relaxed and at the same time preoccupied by more important things,  I am drowning in waves of terrible memories from junior high school about being forced to attend an after school social event, only to find myself trapped and standing around all dressed up, never getting asked to dance. The paralyzing unpleasantness that this feeling awakens is  so intense I can hardly breath as I  carefully weigh which are my best  options for an excuse that will get me sympathy: a sudden onset of the flu, a sudden death in the family, or  a sudden onset of the flu due to a death in the family (from the flu.)

But sometimes, before I can make this move and exit the premises, two middle aged women, dressed in down parkas and wearing knit caps, carrying a million paper bags, sit down in the front row.  By start time, they have been joined by a balding man in a too tight plaid shirt who looks pleased to be sitting anywhere at all, period. Is it possible they are here to see me? I suppose they could be three fans. But if that’s the case, why is no one smiling or saying hi or even looking up from their I phones when I walk in to the room?

“Have some perspective.” I start to remind myself, “Nothing awful has happened. Its not like you’re trapped under a collapsed building in an earthquake in Turkey or have been kidnapped by The Taliban in Iraq.” Though even as I’m thinking this, it is also occurring to me that both of those things would have generated a lot of great publicity for my book.

Now a story told to me by the novelist Elinor Lipman comes flooding back: about a friend of hers who, facing a 2 person audience, rose to the occasion. She bravely delivered her best reading ever , size of the audience be damned, until mid-way in  when a policeman led the whole two person audience away in hand cuffs. For a few minutes, they’d assumed they’d found the perfect place to hide out from a chase.

So I take a deep cleansing breath, knowing that others before me have survived this, and say hello to the cheery store manager who tells me how honored she is to meet me and apologizes for the small turn out. This of course makes me feel even worse. If only she had just said something like “This time of year, even Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t draw a crowd.” But no, she simply shows me to a small podium on which is mounted a microphone so large I think I recognize it from the famous photograph of Pres. Roosevelt declaring War on Japan in his day of infamy speech. “Thank you,” I say to her,  realizing that before I have even tried to speak in to it, the mic is creating noisy feedback.  So now I must deal with stadium miking in order to speak to three people who are 14 inches away.

Anyway, obviously a new outlook for this situation seems to be called for. I will probably have to appear at a bookstore again. But next time I will be prepared with a whole new approach.

 My New Speech for the three people who come to see me at a bookstore.

“Hello! Hello! Hello!!” Yes! That’s right! A very special personal hello to each of you! You know, you’re probably going to think I’m exagerating but I swear to you: This very morning,  I said a prayer that only a hand full of special people would attend tonight. So you three are actually a literal dream come true for me!

In fact I have to confess, I am instantly so comfortable with you that I’m going to take you in to my confidence; Its really not my nature to gossip about people behind their backs. But from what I have heard, quite a few of the people who didn’t show up here tonight are dicks. I heard from a reliable source that one of them is just finishing book four of the Twilight saga. I mean, come on! Anyone who made it through 2,000 pages of that crap couldn’t keep up with people like us.

So let’s begin! Just as soon as that guy hovering by that book shelf in the back either commits to sitting down or gives up and leaves the store. I can tell he’s trying to decide if he knows who I am. Sir! Do you need me to tell you who am I? You have an I phone…go on my website and  read my resume! We’ll wait! Uh oh. You’re leaving us? There he goes! Never trust a man wearing a radio station free giveaway shirt.

Listen, before I start over again: How about if the three of us make a pact? Next person who sneaks in late, when I clear my throat, can we please all turn in unison, then break into a big hollow smile and, all at the same time say,“Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you!”. After that we’ll just  keep smiling and staring and smiling and staring for like two or three more minutes! Come on! How great would that be? I’ll videotape it and we’ll put it on You Tube! It’ll get a ton of hits. I’ll title it “Creeeeeeepy!!!”

Actually since its  just us three…does anyone mind if I  skip the reading  and…lets have a show of hands! How many of you have been hypnotized? I haven’t had any hypnosis training but the fact that you’re here on a Wednesday night at dinner time in the dead of winter tells me you have a limited choice of destinations. So if you’ll all just play along, and when I snap my fingers, we’ll all count backwards from fifty. Then somewhere around 30 , you can just drop your heads forward and close your eyes. It’ll make me feel really powerful. And then when I tell you that you’re a bantam rooster, get up and strut and make crowing noises for a few seconds.You’ll never see me again. You have my word: I’m never coming back to this city. And after the enormous hit my ego has taken this evening, I really need you to give me this moment. Then immediately afterward, I will take the  three of you out for coffee and pie and you can show me whats in all those bags.

Then I’ll go back to my hotel room and drink.







By they way, my new book is for sale here and lots of other places. Buy one and save me from having to go out and read.