Words by Marlin Bressi
Live from my first book signing: I'm here at a lovely little bookstore in York, Pennsylvania, on a cold December afternoon, two feet from the front door, at a rickety folding table.
Sitting across the aisle are two other invited authors, one a writer of children's books, the other a writer of Civil War history. The children's book author seems like the type of person who always won the blue ribbon in school science fairs; his table is draped in decorative skirting, with a colorful banner announcing who he is and what he's doing here. All that's missing is the fizzy volcano.
The historian is dressed like a Union soldier, his table a miniature museum of military memorabilia, right down to the ancient rifle placed next to his stack of books, its muzzle unintentionally pointed at the head of the cartoon koala gracing the cover of his neighbor's book. It's quite an interesting juxtaposition.
Meanwhile, I'm sitting with my Sharpie, sans costume. The Sharpie is one of 20 I purchased for this occasion. Out of an abundance of precaution I also popped two aspirin in the parking lot, in case my hand starts to cramp up from signing autographs. Judging by the tumbleweed blowing down the reference book aisle, this is not likely to happen.
I hope I didn't lose the receipt for those Sharpies.
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On my table there's a card with my name printed on it. Potential customers read the name out loud and study me like a zoo animal. "Ah, so that's what a Marlin Bressi looks like," I expect to hear them say. One picks up a copy of my book, flips it over, thumbs the pages. She looks at me, then says that my publisher made a smart decision to omit my photo from the back cover.
The authors pass the time re-arranging their stacks of unsold books, as if a different configuration might appease the publishing gods and result in a sale. I've got three hours to kill, so I'm writing.
"A teenager asks where he can find a copy of 'The Awesomely Exciting Life of an Author: A Tale of Black-Tie Parties, Bibliophile Groupies and Shitloads of Moolah'. I direct him to the fiction section."
More authors have arrived. There are six of us now. Whenever a customer enters the store, they spring into action like mall kiosk employees hellbent on selling seamless acrylic veneers that can be installed directly over an existing bathtub.
It's not in my nature to be a salesman, and so I have yet to make a sale.
Sure, selling a copy of my new book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits would be nice – it is a darn good book – but I'm not going to entrap some poor sap who came here for a copy of Harry Potter for his kid.
The customers are mostly women. I'm the first person they see when they enter, and they ask me where they can find Nora Roberts. I direct them to the romance section. A teenager asks where he can find a copy of The Awesomely Exciting Life of an Author: A Tale of Black-Tie Parties, Bibliophile Groupies and Shitloads of Moolah. I direct him to the fiction section.
Intermittently, I overhear the children's book writer name-dropping the identities of famous authors. His audience is obviously impressed.
Seriously, if this schmuck drops the name of one more famous author, I'm stealing Stonewall Jackson's musket and clubbing him over the head.
'...funny thing happened to me recently while I was golfing with James Patterson and Garrison Keillor...'
'Let me guess,' I finally interrupt. 'Keillor launches into a long-winded monologue about Lake Wobegon and suddenly Anne Rice, drunk on absinthe, stumbles out of the clubhouse dressed like Count Chocula? Your caddy turns out to be Chuck Palahniuk's nephew and he says, "Just wanted to tell you that Uncle Chuck really loved your new book, the one with the koala bear on the cover." Then David Sedaris pops up from behind a shrub and regales you with a zany story about his awkward childhood? Am I right?'
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Boredom. I'm contemplating grabbing a copy of my own book and reading it. But, since I already know how it ends, that would be pointless.
'Are there any vampires in your book?' asks a young man. I tell him to go bother William Tecumseh Sherman, assuring him that vampires played a pivotal role at the Battle of Manassas.
I want to go home, but I'm not sure if I'm allowed. What if the bookstore owner calls up my publisher and snitches? What's the proper etiquette in this situation?
As I'm packing, a woman teeters by holding an armload of books with cartoon koalas on the cover. I cannot see her face. 'How do I get out of here?' she asks.
'I was wondering the same thing myself,' I sigh.
In this age of social media and technology, why does the archaic ritual known as the book signing still exist?
It now occurs to me that the very answer may lie in the question itself. It is a hazing ritual, an initiation into the brotherhood and sisterhood of authors. And maybe, like all hazing rituals, it's supposed to be awkward and uncomfortable, because book signings are antithetical to what we do and who we are.
Writing is a solitary pursuit, and most writers I know (except for those who golf with Garrison Keillor) are a reclusive bunch. We aren't exactly social butterflies, and shameless self-promotion is not our milieu. Our milieu is using words like antithetical. And milieu.
If you are reading this, it may be because you are about to experience this hazing ritual yourself for the first time. Yes, it will be awkward. It may also be humiliating; I returned home with 96 unsold copies, and was so excited to sign my first book that I actually spelled my name wrong (true story).
Will I put myself through this torture again? Probably not. But I did it once and that's all that matters, because now I am a full-fledged, card-carrying member of a very exclusive club. And when your first book signing is over, no matter how disastrous it may be, you'll be part of the club too.
Marlin Bressi is the author of Blow Me – Hairy Adventures in the Salon Industry; Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits and The Gatsby Gourmet: Authentic Recipes from the Roaring Twenties
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