The stack of books — my novel 2000 MILES TO OPEN ROAD — was a beautiful thing.
Call it twenty books. Stacked in nice piles of three or four each, spread out over a beautiful Arts and Crafts style table, a nice splay of matching bookmarks, a glass of water, a poster announcing my arrival and signing, giving a few critically praiseful words about the book.
A great display at the Crystal Lake Barnes and Noble.
Until the idiot chick with the coffee. Until the idiot chick with her mother, a cup of coffee each, and a bag of donuts or bagels or some crap.
Let me say this: those kinds of appearances, where there is no particular reason for you to be at the store, where there is no discussion of writing in general or a panel exploring great crime fiction or even a reading from your book, are odd. It’s always like you’re not quite supposed to be there, like you don’t quite fit it. There are lots of readers, lots and lots and lots, but they are general readers; few of them are specifically crime fans. They are there for the magazines or the romances novels or the latest non-fiction political assassinations parading as journalism.
It’s different at mystery/crime bookstores. Those people are specifically mystery fans and so you start on the same page as they do. Usually you’re there for a specific event: a reading or a discussion or whatever. Because of that, you never feel like a shirt two sizes too small on fat man.
Anyway, the staff at this particular Barnes and Noble did an amazing job of making me feel comfortable. I didn’t have a reading or discussion, but I had the book to sign and every few minutes, they’d make an announcement over the store system, letting shoppers know I was there.
When I do signings like that, I keep an eye on the mystery section. Again, in a general bookstore, most customers aren’t going to be interested in whatever you’re selling. Maybe I’m a failure as a salesman, but I simply can not sell, much less pitch with excitement, a gritty, bleak crime novel to someone thumbing through Pico Iyer’s latest travelogue. Don’t get me wrong, I love Iyer’s work, but his fan base and mine are on different mailing lists.
I know writers who can sell any book to anyone in any section of any store. That’s not who I am.
So I keep my eye on the mystery section and when someone wanders into it, I’ll head over, novel in hand, introduce myself, and pitch them the book. Usually, because we’re both into crime fiction, we’ll end up talking for a little bit, discussing favorite authors and techniques and books and whatnot. Most times, they’ll take my book and give it a look or two, many times they’ll buy it. Sometimes, they shrug, never touch the book, and head to the bathrooms.
(A quick aside, the worst moments during these kinds of cold-call sales are when I approach single women. Picture it this way: your sister or your mother or daughter is trolling a bookshop, looking for something to juice up a long road trip. While she’s looking, a man she’s never met, hiding behind a full beard and without a store namebadge, holding a couple of books, comes up to her and starts talking. “Hi, my name is — ” kind of stuff. She looks around, unsure of what’s going on, unsure of who this guy is, to make certain A) there is an employee or a cop somewhere near and B) an escape route even closer.)
So last Sunday, I’m trolling the mystery section of the BN, managing to sell a few copies of the novel, and when I get back to the table near the front of the store, a woman and her daughter (call Mom late 30s and daughter mid-teens) are at my table.
Cool, someone interested in the book.
No, someone who stopped at my table because it was simply on the way to their next appointment. These two ladies stopped long enough to pull a friggin’ donut out of the bag from the in-store coffeeshop. They emptied their bag, left it sitting on my books (not on the table but on the books themselves), spilled quite a bit of their coffee on my bookmarks, then strolled toward the front door as I returned to the table.
“Excuse me,” I said, holding up the stained bookmarks so they could see.
Both ladies tossed me a glance, then without even a dismissive shrug, left.
All I wanted to do was grab the stained bookmarks (and no, they don’t cost me much but that’s hardly the point), chase them down in the parking lot, and jam the wet paper into their faces. Stain my bookmark with your coffee? I’ll stain your face with my bookmark, how’s that?
An ugly impulse, wanting to bang these cheap chicks around for fouling up five or ten bookmarks. But really, it wasn’t about messing up the marks, it was about the lack of concern that they’d messed up the marks. It was about the balls it took to leave the donut bag on my books, to stain the bookmarks, then ignore me when I pointed it out, as though it simply wasn’t their problem.
That was what it was about.
But I played nice. I chuckled (probably more to save face with the sales clerk standing next to me) and shrugged them off. I planned to simply toss the stained bookmarks, but the lady who’d stood in line to buy a copy of my novel said she’d take them. So I signed them for her.
Her name was Christina and, unlike the other two, she was cool. Enjoy the book, Christina.