When you tear the tape on the heavy cardboard box delivered by UPS, dreams tend to pour out.
You run your fingers across the matte covers of a hundred books, and you almost can’t believe it’s your name printed on them, your words in black ink inside. It’s surreal.
You have grand visions for your future. You see a line of people out the door at Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble, clutching your book for you to sign. You see news articles about your book in publications across the country, praising its prose and description, and maybe it’s even on the bestsellers list. You see royalty checks rolling in that pay for vacations to the beach.
Those are all extreme examples, but you dream of them, at least a little bit. Why do something if you don’t want it to be the best? But the harsh truth is very few authors reach the mountaintop of writing books, where all you do is write bestsellers that are turned into blockbuster movies. For most of us, it goes a little something like this.
Your first book signing ever is held at a posh store near Birmingham, Alabama, where your name and photo appear on a large poster outside. You feel like royalty. You sign a couple dozen pre-ordered books in a back room. You expect to do the same in the two-hour event that follows, but mostly you chat with the store owner about his business model, and with your parents about what’s for dinner later. You sell two books to the same man.
Your next signing is at a bookstore not far away from the first one, and maybe ten customers come in the two hours you are there. About four acknowledge your existence, as if you are the DirecTV rep begging for people’s time in Wal-Mart. You play Hangman on notebook paper with your wife to pass the time, which helps. You sell no books, but you beat your wife in at least one game of Hangman.
Your next signing is the one you are looking forward to the most. You just know that the third time is the charm. It is in your hometown, which is also the focus of your book. The event is in a high-traffic area, near an Old Navy and a Target. It’s on a Saturday. This will be great. The publishing company has sent posters previewing your signing to be taped to the windows, so folks will know when to come by. You arrive, and the employees have no clue who you are, or about any book signing event, for that matter. You have been forgotten, and you sell one book. You try to ease your anger about the store’s forgetfulness with more games of Hangman. This time, it doesn’t help much.
Your next signing event is a true act of desperation, held at a large grocery store in a city full of people who have never heard of you or your book. You wonder why this was even scheduled. You sit near the small section of books the store carries, and awkwardly watch as people push shopping carts full of Gatorade, chicken breasts and vanilla ice cream. One man is intrigued by your work, and he asks you a dozen questions as he flips through your book. He does not buy it.
This is rock bottom. You wonder if those eight months of research pressed into more than one hundred pages was worth it. You didn’t write the book for the money, but sitting for two hours without selling one is embarrassing and seemingly a waste of time. Then, something great happens.
You publish your second book, and a church invites you to talk about it and sign copies. You are nervous, because talking in front of a crowd does not exactly seem easy. But you do it anyway, because it is marketing for your book. It goes surprisingly well. You talk for half an hour about your inspirations and the book’s plot, and answer a dozen questions. You connect with this group, and their laughs don’t sound like pity. Almost every little old lady that Wednesday night buys a book. You make five hundred bucks and give some back to the church. You are energized to do more.
You put out a third book, and it’s back to the drawing board. You promote as much as you can on social media, begging for likes, retweets and positive Amazon reviews. Mostly, those come from your wife and mom. You spend hours looking up independent bookstores in every state, emailing them about your new book. You email a hundred stores and get four responses, all with words you weren’t hoping for. You do the same with various newspapers, hoping for any bit of publicity. You get three stories locally and one in Mississippi. You take your new book and the first two to many locations to snap photos of them for social media promotions. You take photos at a river, baseball field, church parking lot, abandoned business with a rusting door, Turner Field in Atlanta and even your driveway. You hope those images, along with excerpts from the books, draw attention.
Finally, it’s time for another book signing. You’ve never attended one where there are a dozen authors, but it sounds like a good idea. There will be many people with various tastes, you believe. It is held at a general store just outside the main shopping district in town, where there is not much around. You load your own table and chairs, and a box of books. Because it is held in December, your wife bakes Christmas cookies for the event. Authors are scattered all over the store, between old Texaco signs, a crock pot, carved crosses and other antiques.
One author has written about her experiences with cancer. Another has written a children’s book. A woman has written about adoption. One man, with more than five books to his name, plays a guitar at his table. Another man, who calls you “Brother,” passes out a poem he wrote that he printed on computer paper. Not many people come to this store during the four hours you are scheduled to stay. Four hours feels like eight. You sell one book, to a man who is about to undergo surgery and needs all the reading material he can get during his rest and rehab period.
Six months later, you sign up for another large event, this one at a state park along a huge lake. It’s summer, and you assume that it will be well attended, with people swimming and fishing nearby. There is room for fifty authors. Fifteen or so show up. The authors are set up right on the lake, and you’re visited more by hungry mallards than locals seeking the latest in Christian fiction. You feed chili-cheese-flavored Fritos to the ducks and kick yourself for not bringing your rod and reel.
You sell two books: one to your mom for one of her friends, another to the wife of a co-worker. You mostly spend the day talking with fellow authors, about their inspirations and writing processes. You learn about how a man stumbled upon hundreds of documents that told the story of his father in World War II. You learn about adoption. You learn what it takes to write more than three hundred pages. More than anything, you learn about people. You get to know these people better. They become friends and supporters.
You sell only the two books that day, but you soon realize that might be more than the others sitting near you sold. Some have traveled far for this event, and you feel for them. You help one author take his books back to his car. But they are happy, not deterred by going home with the same amount of books they brought. It is their passion, this writing thing. You learn, after three years grinding in this industry, that money isn’t everything. The industry, like most everything else, is about relationships. Your wife has been to all your events, baking cookies for them, taking in the little bit of money you make, smiling through dozens of games of Hangman. Your mother-in-law has driven to each book signing since she’s lived in Alabama, and even made you a book-themed tablecloth that is asked about and complimented by fellow authors at every event. Your parents and brother have come, and they have bought copies at signings even though they know you’d give them books for free.
I didn’t get into this industry to make thousands of dollars, though a few hundred would be nice. I did it to tell stories that are worthy of sitting on your bookshelf or coffee table, to put something in print that provides some light in an increasingly dark world. Who knows, maybe some day long after I’m gone someone will read one of my books and say, “I needed that.” I’m going to keep writing as long as I’m able, with that in mind. These authors I sit with in an old general store or in the blazing heat to sell maybe one book inspire me. They fuel my passion. I hope I fuel theirs.
And that’s worth more than any royalty check.