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An Open Letter to Authors At Tables In Bookstores

Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

MISSED CONNECTION: You were an author of some age and gender, sitting at a small table at the front of the book store, radiating keenness, surrounded by some of your books, and various sundries. I am a strange man bumbling around a bookstore with all the grace and delicacy of a stunned badger, and I too am radiating a sort of keenness, because I will buy more or less any book I can get my hands on. We missed each other because I saw your table, and I went the other way and avoided you like the plague. Like a literal plague.

And I’m so sorry.

This happens with me constantly, and has done since I was a teenager. Mostly at bookshops, occasionally at craft fairs, or anywhere that an author can persuade someone to let them set up a table. Once or twice, it’s happened in malls I frequent. It’s very often a self-published author, but not always. Most recently, it happened at a convention, where I had an amazing time…but I spent half the time skirting a couple of hallways like they were minefields, because they were full of such elaborate tables and keen to the max authors.

It’s a shame that I don’t approach, because — I’m not kidding — I am interested in practically every book ever. And even if it’s not something I’m going to buy, I will very happily take bookmarks, web addresses, all sorts of info…and they all get hung onto (usually stuffed into books as bookmarks, whether that was their use or not).

I’ve had to think about why I veer off. For a while I just assumed it was because I 1) am shy and awkward as hell and 2) was raised Catholic. So I will both be uncomfortable in the conversation with the author, if it isn’t a casual chat but exists as a selling opportunity, and because I have eternal Catholic Guilt, I feel terrible if I don’t buy the book. (Now I feel guilty for making a Catholic Guilt joke.)

But then I thought further about it, and I decided that maybe it wasn’t just me…because I can listen to people making complaints, from various similar areas, and realize there is maybe a small problem here.

For one thing, you listen to authors talk about the misery of signings where they’re propped at a table at the front of the bookstore with nothing to do and no one to sign for, sitting around glumly directing people to bathrooms or something. Or other more affronted authors (there are some authors who are affronted by friggin everything you guys) furious that people are bypassing them to go buy Twilight or something. It’s no good.

But then I thought about salesmen set up in a similar way to authors sitting in bookstores/conventions like that. There’s a “product demo” building at my local State Fair, which I somehow get stuck going into every year. It’s nothing but booths for businesses that do me no good, populated by the most pushy salespeople on the planet. You walk through trying to simultaneously look at the stuff, without meeting anyone’s eyes and getting Sold At. You see it in malls, too. Bored cell phone jocks, or strange “want to try a sample?” people whose nebulous jobs I never understand but am not going near to try and figure out. People avoid them. No one likes pushy salespeople, or that level of focus. That, yes, keenness.

Then I thought about the information desk at a Barnes & Noble, and I realized that maybe part of the reason people are okay with approaching it is because the workers are busy. Maybe not so busy that you feel like you’re intruding, but busy enough that it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not. You can approach, or not, of your own volition. I spent years selling video games and electronics to people, and the key for me was always to be around and visible, friendly and chatty but with the clear string attached that I had stuff I was doing and there was no sales-string attached to saying hi to me.

Now, back to the authors at their tables: First, I gotta say that I hope none of this is too critical sounding for them, because I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong necessarily. They aren’t behaving unreasonably. But maybe we could improve the situation so it isn’t miserable for the authors sitting there, or awkward and worrisome for people approaching.

(Because it can’t just be me who feels like this)

One solution: sit there and read. You’ll still have to go back and forth from book to whoever is by your table, because getting too immersed in a book is a good way of sealing yourself off from anyone talking to you. But reading, lowering the book to say hey, and maybe keeping it lowered while the person hangs around, makes a nice prop that says “I’ve got a thing I can get back to when you’re done, no worries.” It takes the edge off. It relaxes.

Another solution: Set up a second, smaller table, adjacent to your big display table, plop a laptop on it, and write. Selling your stuff and working seems like more fun for the author, and a good image for anyone approaching. Again, it gives an escape hatch and keeps that edge away. BONUS FUN: Do a Harlan Ellison! Get a small portable printer or write by hand if your handwriting is good enough, write a short story that you start while sitting there. Put the pages on the table somewhere, laid out, so someone could read them if they wanted. Selling books, occupying yourself, getting some attention with a stunt, and making everything a bit too busy to be that acutely focused on the sale.

Those are my ideas, those or variations of them. I think it’s a pretty specific little problem, and maybe not all that hard to solve. At the very least, it’s solvable just by a change of frame of mind. Understanding that the less you push, the more you might achieve.

(Or, it might just be me, I might just be a neurotic nut, it’s possible, there’s good evidence, and if that’s the case then I’ll go quietly.)