Book? No? How about a cookie?

No matter how much we stay-at-home workers enjoy the hermit lifestyle, there comes a time when we have to go see other humans.

For many telecommuters, it's a trip to the main office to meet with bosses and seldom-seen co-workers. For others, it's seeing clients. For an author, it's that great annual outing, the book tour.

Most of you, when you leave the house, have some idea who you're going to see. But authors travel to bookstores not knowing who -- if anyone -- will show up. We go with the uneasy knowledge that success or failure hinges on the whim of the marketplace, and we all know what a crap shoot that can be.

Sometimes, it goes well and nobody is more surprised than me. When people buy my books and ask for my autograph, it's the sweetest feeling in the world. It's automatic validation, better than any performance evaluation a boss could cook up.

But past experience has taught me to go to every book-signing expecting the worst: Two hours of solitude, a frozen smile pasted on my face, while customers hurry past, trying not to make eye contact. You'd think I was asking for spare change (which in a way I am, but never mind).
For those of you who haven't written a book and gone on tour (and I'm assured there still are such people, Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding), think of it this way: It's exactly like being a captive at the city dog pound. You try to look perky and ingratiating, hoping someone will notice and take you home. But on the inside, you're panicking, thinking: "Help, help, I'm dying here!"

Sometimes, bookstore owners have two or three or even four authors signing books at the same time. This adds an element of quiet, desperate competition to the mix. Nothing's more uncomfortable than sitting next to an author who has a line of happy readers going around the block.

My best friend attends most of my local book-signings, just in case. If no one shows up, he sits with me and we chat and tell jokes and I feel less like a pariah. If a customer shows any interest, my pal melts away, prowling the stacks until he's needed again. Every author should have such a friend.

Local signings usually go best because relatives and acquaintances, moved by charity or guilt, show up. Of course, they all expect me to remember their names, which presents another set of problems. A writer works alone for months at a time, then suddenly is thrown into an ersatz cocktail party, expected to recognize everybody and make sure everyone has a good time. It's like being the host of a high school reunion, and nobody's wearing a name tag.

Out on the road, an author can get as lonely as a Maytag repairman. And there's the added bonus of knowing it costs plenty to travel from city to city. Soon, the author's thinking: Why am I doing this? I could stay home and be ignored for free.

If the author gets bold and starts flagging down customers, they come up with creative ways to say, "No thanks." I've had some tell me they only read non-fiction. Some only read books written by women. Some wouldn't touch a mystery novel with a redwood tree.

Once, a lady asked me to move out of the way so she could get to the cookbooks displayed behind me. Another time, I had a customer ask whether I knew a famous author and whether I could get him to sign a book. Then there was the time the bookstore set out a tray of cookies as a bribe for people who'd stop and talk with me. The cookies went like, um, hotcakes. The books just sat there.

Such snubs are painful to the writer's fragile ego, but they serve a purpose. They make it easier to return to the isolated life of writing the next book. After a few weeks on the road, solitude starts looking pretty inviting. And it doesn't require smiling.

No comments: