Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Other Hat

by Libby Hellmann

I loved Sara’s post on Friday. Eloquent as usual, she talked about the need for quiet… a sustained quiet in order to dig down and pull out the words and ideas and feelings that are burbling beneath our psyches. I long for those periods, too, and wish they came more frequently. Like her, I face many distractions, some of my own making, some not. But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.

The Printers Row Lit Fest was held this weekend, and for many authors, Printers Row represents the other hat we wear these days… the promotional one. Many of us appeared at booths, including Mystery Writers of America and the Society of Midland Authors, and Big Sleep Books, hoping to sell our books, because, after all, that’s what you do at a book fair.

I don’t mind doing promotion. But I’m certifiably schizophrenic. Promotion -- especially at a book festival -- is completely antithetical to writing. There I am at a booth, books stacked in front of me, watching hundreds of strangers pass by on their way to ... somewhere. I’m aware that a host of additional authors at other booths sit with their books stacked up in front of them, also eagerly hoping to sell. And that doesn’t include the dozens of author panels, which have their own signings.

This year was especially challenging. It was cold and rainy on Saturday, warm and rainy on Sunday. Last year, if you remember, it was so hot we were shvitzing all day. On top of the elements, someone was either singing or playing French ballads over and over. Very loud, very minor key, very depressing. Note to organizers: no more French songs or I may have to ask my friend Vinny to handle things. Vinny is the type of guy you do not want to meet in a dark alley.

In fact, Printers Row can be overwhelming to an author who is not an extrovert, which is most of us. We have to be enthusiastic, cheerful,and eager to talk, but we can’t be too pushy. We have to smile, knowing most of the people couldn’t care less about us and our books. As opposed to the sensitivity with which we pride ourselves in our books, at book fairs we have to have a thick skin. We have to toss off the dismissive waves of the hands, the “don’t-bother-me” glares when you ask passers by whether they read mysteries. We have to recognize that most people don’t read crime fiction and still think the only books worth buying are “literature.” And that more than half of the others don’t read at all and are just looking for posters, blank journals (someone asked me if I had any for sale) or gifts.

We have to be pleasant, even when they hold your book in their hands (marketing people say it’s a good sign if they pick up the product and actually examine it) but then put it back down. We have to realize that most of the flyers we printed up so carefully and expensively will end up in the trash. We have to understand that we’re competing, not just with other mystery authors, but every author who’s ever written a book. And while we may want to turn up our nose because none of them could possibly write as well as us, most fair-goers don’t know that. And we can’t say anything.

Given all those obstacles, it’s a wonder any author would willingly put themselves in this position. But I do, year after year, because of one reason: when I do sell a book, it’s magic. I am acutely aware that someone has parted with their hard-earned money because they think I might offer them something of value. Usually, it’s someone I don’t even know. Someone with whom I’ve chatted for only 30 seconds.

It’s amazing to me. Absolutely frigging amazing that a stranger is willing to take a gamble on an intangible idea that happens to be my story. I feel humbled, grateful, and slightly awed. It’s why I write in the first place. And if I feel that way, imagine how the hundreds of other authors feel who sell one of their books to strangers. It really is magic.

So thanks, Printers Row and the Tribune, for making the magic happen. I’ll be back again next year... assuming the French music is gone.

For now, though, I’m happy to take off the other hat for a while and along with Sara, hope for a golden day.

What do you think?

18 comments:

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Sorry I missed you there Libby. I signed at Big Sleep on Saturday from 5 - 6. The rain had already driven most of the people away and I sat there freezing the last half hour.

I tried again Sunday morning. I was quite facinated just watching the fairgoers as they passed by. Some wouldn't dare make eye contact, others smiled a pained smile and still others were warm and friendly.

I met some really cool people, especially the Red Wings fan, sho bought a book and made me sign it with a Red Wings reference knowing that I hated the team, (respectful hate it is).

Overall, I had a great time meeting Marcus and Sean and seeing Barb again.

Sara Paretsky said...

did you see the wedding at the fair? I didn't--but what a fun thing to read in this morning's paper (the PRINT edition!) a couple had their 1st date at the fair 2 years ago and married there over the weekend

RaB said...

I was interested to read about this project -- did any of you throw your 2¢ in at the Printer's Row fair?

http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/chicago-subtext/2009/06/chicago-book-classic-chicago-novels.html

I think this will become my new "must-read" list.

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