By John Gilstrap
I consider myself to be an extrovert, yet I confess that bookstore appearances are a source of stress for me. Don’t get me wrong—I love meeting booksellers and fans (and future fans), and the signings themselves are great fun; but the rest of the show concerns me. I worry that I’m going to bore people.
Let’s be honest: not all author appearances are created equal. Nonfiction authors have the advantage of being able to lecture about their topic, but those of us who write about made-up stuff don’t really have that luxury. Somehow, we need to make ourselves interesting to people who know us more for the figments of our imagination than for ourselves. Along those lines, I had occasion to share an afternoon with Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon), a famous recluse. When I asked him why he never gives interviews and why he never does bookstore appearances, he told me that as a thriller writer, his reclusiveness made him more mysterious and helped to sell books.
Could this be true? I hope the answer is no, but who am I to judge? Maybe it’s not even relevant, because one way or another, I want to meet people. But what’s the best way to do that when you’re also trying to sell books?
The most obvious option would be to read from my book, but I rarely do. Why would people want to hear me read what they’re later going to read for themselves? I’d rather tell them the stories behind the stories. If pressed, of course, I’ll be happy to read, but rather than reading directly from the book, I’ll probably read a section of a special edited-down version of my novel, created specifically to be performed to an audience. Any and all Big-7 cuss words will be eliminated from the read-aloud version, and the scene will be one that really rocks. There won’t be a lot of dialogue because I’m not a very good actor, and I suck at characterizing the voices. Out of respect for everyone’s time, I keep the readings to a maximum of five minutes.
In addition to content, I worry about the length of the show. Since bookstores rarely put out comfortable chairs at these things, I’m concerned that the audience’s butts will go numb even more quickly than their minds. I shoot for twenty minutes total shtick, followed by maybe ten minutes of questions and then the signing. Left to my own devices, I’d go on and on and on; but out of respect for the audience, I think they should be able to hear me say my piece, say a few one-on-one words with me at the signing table and be on their way home within an hour.
What about you? What do you expect of authors at book signings? Are readings important? Is there a perfect format that I and my colleagues should be shooting for? For you writers out there, what has worked for you and what has bombed?