01 December 2014

Holiday Blues

Jan Grape
My good friend, Harlan Coben had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on Thursday and he graciously gave me permission to quote from it. I'll actually take advantage and use the whole article and  along the way make comments.
RIDGEWOOD, NJ - THANKSGIVING weekend in1990, I spent two hours at the loneliest place in the world for an obscure novelist  -- the book signing table at a Waldenbook in a suburban New Jersey mall.

[Have any of you had this experience?]

I sat at the table smiling like a game show host. Store patrons scurried past me, doing all they could to avoid eye contact. I kept smiling.

[If I had know Harlan back then, I would have advised him to try his best to speak to people as they walked by. It's not easy if you're shy, but you just have to push yourself. Think of yourself as an actor playing the part of a well-known author signing books.]

I straightened out my pile of free bookmarks for the umpteenth time, though so far none had been taken. I played with my pen. Authors at signings like this get good at playing with their pens. I pushed it to and fro. I curled my upper lip around the pen and made it into a makeshift mustache. I clipped it to my lower lip, in an almost masochistic way, and was able to click the pen open by moving my jaw and pressing it against my nose. You can't teach that skill, by the way. Practice. At one point, I took out a second pen, rolled up a spitball, and then let the two pens play hockey against each other. The Rollerball beat the Sharpie in overtime,

[Maybe offer to give each one walking by a free bookmark and sign it for them. One of my big show stoppers is to ask someone, "Do you read mysteries?" If they say yes, then I point to my book. If they say no, then I say, I'll bet you know someone who does. This will take care of your Christmas list or their birthday list or Father's, Mother's Day? You know, improvise your holiday.]

During the first hour of my signing, a grand total of four approached me. Two asked me where the bathroom was. The third explained his conspiracy theory linking the J.F.K. assassination with the decision by General Mills to add Crunch Berries to Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal. The fourth asked me if we had a copy of the new Stephen King.

I kept smiling. Four copies of my brand-spanking-new-first novel -- Waldenbooks knew not to order too many -- stood limply on the shelf behind me. I missed the Barcalounger in my den. I longed for home and hearth, for stuffing my face with leftover turkey, for half-watching football games in which I had no rooting interest. Instead slow-baked under the fluorescent Waldenbook lights, the early Hipster booksellers glaring at me as though I was some kind of pedantic squatter. I had become the literary equivalent of a poster child -- "you could buy his book or you could turn the page."

Time didn't just pass slowly. It seemed to be moonwalking backward.

Then, with maybe 15 minutes left before I could scrape up the scraps of my dignity and head home., an old man shuffled toward me. He wiped his nose with I hoped was a beige hankie. His eyes were runny. Odds were this was going to be a where's-the-bathroom question, but this guy had all the makings of another conspiracy theorist.

The old man's gaze drifted over my shoulder, "What's that like?"

"Excuse me."

He gestured at the four books on the shelf behind me.

"Right," I said.

He shook his head in awe. "That's my dream, man. Seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore." He lowered his gaze and met my eye. "So what's that like?"

I paused, letting the question sink in, but before I could reply, the old man lifted his eyes back to the bookshelf, smiled and shook his head again. "Lucky," he said, before turning and walking away.

He didn't buy a book. He didn't have to.
 [Harlan Coben is the NY Times best-selling author of   MISSING YOU, TELL NO ONE and the forthcoming title THE STRANGER]

And I know for a fact that Harlan doesn't sit unnoticed anymore at any book signing. When you feel alone at a book signing, think about what you MUST do to make it a fun experience. Bring along a bowl of chocolate kisses or some peppermint candy. Have some ball point pens made with your name and book title printed on them and hand those out when you catch someone's eye. You don't have to give out everyone of them but one every ten or fifteen minutes or so won't wreck your pocketbook.
Have some free bookmarks or postcards to give to everyone. You have to do more to promote yourself than just sit there like a bump on a log. Get creative. If you can't think of anything ask a friend or relative who is a craft person. You know...sell your book.

That's my best advice for the moment. See you next time.

[Harlan's article used with permission from Mr. Coben.]


  1. Jan, thanks for sharing Coben's article with us and also for your comments. I met Coben in Columbia several years ago, but we only spoke a few minutes. He was charming.
    Though you and I have never discussed it, my line at signings is, "Do you read mysteries?" to everyone who passes by. If the person says, "Yes," I respond with, "Take a look at mine and offer a book mark with a quick summary of my newest book."
    If the person says, "No," I smile big and say, "Then I won't take up your time because I write mysteries." Nine out of ten times, the person will stop anyway and let me pitch the book in a chatty conversation that lets me learn about him/her.
    It works. I hate to think that Harlan Coben only had four books at his first signing. Walden, B&N, and BAM have generally ordered 20 to 30, and I've sold out all except one time.
    Jan, it's fun to learn that you and I have such similar styles at signings.

  2. Correction: 4th line above should be "Take a look at mine," and offer...

  3. I was just telling my husband about the Coben piece, which I read earlier in the weekend. It is a good one.

    I do think being charming at a mall table is a real gift!

  4. Good piece, Jan. I have one of these coming up this month at a indie bookstore in Millville, NJ. I'm thinking of telling people that my book is about Mike Trout (2014 AL MVP) who grew up in this town. By the time they figure it out, I'll be out of there!

  5. Not having been published, but being supportive of writers I always stop at their tables as I know there was a long struggle to get there and they really do want to connect with their readers and potential new ones.

    I would think there would be a placard by the table with some short quotes about the book to help passersby get acquainted; something like "Engaging Mystery!" or "This tops 50 Shades of Grey" or "Even Stephen King would buy this book" but that may only be in the movies, as they say.

    On Coben's Wikipedia entry it reads "Coben was in his senior year at college when he realized he wanted to write. His first book was accepted when he was twenty-six..."

    Statements like that make writing seem to be something one chooses and obtains so easily like an ice cream cone. Were it true, there would be tables all over the malls throughout the year with authors (4 books only, of course) waiting to sign. One wonders if he had signed those 4 books what he might have done for those yet to come?

    It seems that NJ, amongst other places, has several author signings throughout the year. This might make for development of a good tour package.

    Delightful article and great commentary Fran!

  6. Jan, it must amuse Coben to look back on those days. Good for him and you!

  7. Wonderful post, Jan.
    I have a new rule this year. I only do signings where I can read from my book first. If I can read, I can sell. If I can't read, then it is a depressing venture and I don't need anymore depression attached to writing!
    I do a lot of library readings and panels, as a result. I try to do them with at least one other person to make it fun. And we DO make it fun! (That will be another post.)

  8. Thank you for a lot of laughs and smiles re this! I loved the post and the comments!!!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  9. I know today is Jan's day, not mine, but I have to say something to Bradley:

    That line "Even Stephen King would buy this book," is great. May I use it when my horror book hits the stores?

  10. Thanks, Jan, for a nice look at Coben's early days. And for the great tips you passed along!



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