HOLT UNCENSORED #103
by Pat Holt
Friday, October 29, 1999:
THE WRITER AS MEGACELEBRITY
THE WRITER AS MEGACELEBRITY
It's always a thrill when readers turn out to see an author, and what an education it's been to watch independent bookstores handle overflow crowds with generosity and grace during J.K. Rowling's American tour.
No one wants to see more of the fiasco that Rowling experienced at a Borders store in New Jersey. There police turned away angry customers who had been standing in line for hours, many with useless tickets and with children who were exhausted and heartbroken.
And yet, don't we all worry about this? Isn't there a fiasco going on at the best of times? Somehow, it's not enough for bestselling authors to write the books we love. Now we make them go on public display. We turn them into megacelebrities. We line up by the mile to get something back - an autograph, a glimpse, a nanosecond of a hello.
"When [Rowling] came in it was like a rock star, like the Academy Awards," Andrew Pollock of Politics & Prose told Bookselling This Week. That's a great image - you can see the electricity going through the crowd, everybody applauding and cheering, the kids ecstatic.
Of course, when you think about it, no one ever takes rock stars or famous actors to the next grueling step, as we do authors. No one asks Mick Jagger to sit down at a table for eight hours straight and sign CD covers, nor do we make Kevin Spacey sign rose petals to promote "American Beauty" or Arnold Schwarzenegger give out vitamins or protein powder.
Baseball stars now STOP themselves from signing trading cards to keep their marketability high; politicians only pretend to press the flesh of voters, then split. Astronauts, football players, special prosecutors, spiritual leaders, Nobel Prize winners, heart transplant surgeons and others who become famous never have to meet with individual fans, hour after hour and city after city, in order to keep their fame.
But authors, it seems, are ours. We buy them, we read them, we make them. Especially those who came from nowhere, who were once grateful if a handful turned out for their early books - these are authors we "love" the most. We want to see them, meet them, talk to them, even if it takes eight hours of standing in line for us and six hours of grueling labor for them.
But let's stop a moment and hear from a reader, Louis Silverstein of Scottsdale, Arizona, who describes what must be the Ideal Author Booksigning. His subject is Sue Grafton, who signed her latest book, " 'O' Is for Outlaw," at The Poisoned Pen bookstore on October 12.
"The signing was scheduled for 5:00 to 7:30 p.m.," Silverstein writes. "Sue arrived mid-afternoon and dived in, signing copies that had been reserved by mail order customers, and as early as 4:30 started signing copies for early arrivals.
"I and my roommate had been warned to get there early, so we arrived about 4:50, and by then the line snaked through the store (which is on a corner), down half a block, and up an alley. My roommate cheerfully joined the line to hold our place while I wandered about, observing the crowds, chatting with various friends and acquaintances, watching Sue as she so graciously chatted with fans, posed for photographs, and signed books--even had my caricature drawn by Scottsdale artist Pat Noonon while I waited!
"The line was extraordinarily calm, patient and pleasant--and the outside temperature initially was in the upper 90s if not 100 degrees (a nearby coffee shop had been opened just for the event). The staff of the bookstore periodically canvassed the line, offering people the option of purchasing copies of the book and leaving them to be signed and picked up later (very few people took advantage of the offer - Sue Grafton certainly has her devoted following with good reason, judging from the stories that some people waiting told me of how kind and generous she was).
"We finally arrived at the head of the line about 7:30 p.m. and Sue wasn't even showing signs of wilting-- she spoke with us cheerfully and signed our copy of both the new title and a cookbook, 'A Taste of Murder' (to which she had contributed 'The Kinsey Millhone Famous Peanut Butter and Pickle Sandwich'), in a lovely flowing and graceful handwriting. As we said our goodbyes to friends and took our leave, we noticed that the line was actually longer than when we arrived! We later learned that Sue signed the last copy around 10:30 p.m. and that there must have been 700 and 800 attendees. So Sue must have signed 1100 copies of the new title plus around 900 other books. Impressive!
"If you want to read Barbara Peters' report of the event and see photographs you can do so by clicking on the 'Whats New' portion of The Poisoned Pen website (under 'Upcoming Events') ( http://www.poisonedpen.com/html/mainpage.html )
"Louis H. Silverstein, Literary Anthropologist "e-mail: email@example.com"
Well, who can not love Sue Grafton? Here is an author who has corresponded with her readers from the beginning, sent them gifts, encouraged them to connect with her personally, taught them how to write novels themselves. In person she is delightful to interview, always fresh and spontaneous, either as funny or as serious as the questions put to her.
And who couldn't love the Poisoned Pen reception? Clearly the booksellers knew how to care for the crowd, which turned the waiting period into a community get-together, complete with caricature painters and coffee shop, grateful to wait for their moment with the author when the time came.
Still, I asked Louis Silverstein, who refers to the author as though he's known her all his life and monitors her behavior like a kindly principal, if he didn't think the way we as readers turn writers into megacelebrities is a bit worrisome.
Not at all, says Louis, who puts the idea of the "megacelebrity author" in historical context: "I do disagree with you that writers are the only megacelebrities. Actors and musicians do this as well, or have in the past - that is, attract long lines of autograph hounds and fans wanting a sense of intimacy, even if for only a moment or a few seconds.
"Many examples come to mind: Think about Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, also Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. As a high school junior I was thrilled to have the opportunity to stand in line and get Harry James' autograph on a paper napkin and about six or seven years later I stood in line at the back door of a Big Apple theater waiting to have Judy Holliday autograph my copy of the program of 'Bells are Ringing.' "
Louis goes on to chronicle the fame of Elvis, the Beatles, Princess Diana, and fans who flock opera and ballet stars today. "Doesn't this tell us something?" he asks. "[It is] that the state of reading in this country is perhaps more healthy than we normally tend to believe! Even mid-list authors draw healthy crowds at The Poisoned Pen events - and these are authors who don't get much national advertising or are not really promoted by the chains. They attract READERS who are actually and actively reading.
"The authors can damn well afford to take some time off from writing and creating and mix with their fans - I even suspect they themselves gain some benefits . . . "At one of the Poisoned Pen events, two women described to author Robert Crais their efforts to find the house where his character, Elvis Cole, lives in Los Angeles! Don't you think an author like Robert Crais would benefit from hearing about how alive his characters and settings are to his readers?"
Probably, but is that our decision to make? Isn't the more pertinent queston whether Robert Crais' career will suffer if he DOESN'T want to hear these things? If he'd rather not make the kind of appearances that require so much contact with readers, shouldn't we respect his decision and leave him alone? No, says Louis, "the authors can damn well afford to . . . mix with their fans."
That's one very committed reader talking. Shedding more light from the independent bookseller's point of view is The Poisoned Pen's Barbara Peters, who's been working with authors for years on book signings like the Grafton event.
Barbara agrees that "America's fascination with celebrities" has reached a point where "a star-anything draws admirers."
But, she adds, "I think one can go deeper. Reading is still a private experience in which "we are engaged in a dialogue with the author [so deeply that] . . . when a reader meets an author, the reader brings to the experience a myriad of conversations the reader has ALREADY had with the author via the printed page. There exists communication, a sense of intimacy, occasionally a sense of ownership."
Hm. "A sense of ownership," you say? I can understand how readers who have discovered unknown authors in obscurity and followed them to fame may feel an investment in the success of the work. But isn't a "sense of ownership" really beyond the purview of readers? Why can't we just enjoy the books, attend an author event (Peters conducts open conversations with authors in which readers can participate), but try NOT to meet and greet the authors as though we own them?
Not too many readers are going to make that choice, Peters indicates, and here is the best part: Maybe America is lost in consumerism, indulges its consumers, cares little for the craft of writing and loves the personality of the writer instead. Even if all of that is true, the independent bookstore makes a difference, just by the way it conducts the megacelebrity author signing.
"At the Pen, it's not just about being a bookstore," says Barbara. "Although we cherish the old-fashioned virtues and are electrified by the undiscovered and unsung, it 's about being a community theater, a literary center. We started in 1989 ahead of the Ecommerce curve. We're starting 2000 reinvented to fit our new Phoenix marketplace, one of two indies left standing (a third is likely soon to close, hence two)."
And talk about backing authors before they become known. "As an aside," Barbara adds, "before anyone else sang about author Susan Vreeland, we shipped her beaucoup cartons to sign as she offered to inscribe personal bits of poetry in each an every book. We're a mystery store, 'The Girl in Hyacinth Blue' isn't, but I loved it. And having those inscribed books allowed us to sell a boatload. Just another example."
Okay, but tell me this: Is there a little blackmail underlying all the reader adoration? Some authors (not Grafton) find the personal autographing part to be increasingly taxing, but they're afraid of stopping precisely because of that claim of ownership you mention. They feel that if they don't do this any longer, readers will feel abandoned and stop reading them. Is this true? Do you think even Grafton's sales might suffer if she didn't make these appearances?
"There is no question that if Sue didn't generously encourage the dynamic," Barbara responds, "my staff and I wouldn't kill ourselves for her, nor she for us . . . Nor, do I believe, as both reader and bookseller, would her Alphabet Series continue to spin as it does if she quit or even held back on connecting with her readers. In todays' marketplace, bestselling books equal entertainment.
"Case in point: Having started at 1 picking up Sue for lunch, we staggered on through more mail order (she'd signed the bulk Monday), backlist, collections, and moved public at 4:30. At 11:30 p.m. I drew a breath, looked around and discovered two of my staff cheerfully ripping open the last box or two. Working just as cheerfully alongside them were two customers, one who'd been there all evening, one who came in about 9. They couldn't have been happier slaving and schmoozing with Sue. One could ask: Why were any of us there? But I've already answered that."
Indeed. No wonder Grafton said at the event, "I always fight for the independents. I understand the chains can buy 40,000 copies of one of my new books, and that I have to say 'thank-you, sir' to them, but I certainly think it was the independents who put me on the map."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I hate to see Borders, Barnes & Noble and Tower Books all lumped together as "chains." They are quite different. Tower, for example, has never even been rumored (to my ear) to be predatory in any way. Borders, while certainly predatory in some (too many, of course) cases, does open stores in areas where there is no other book store. Its West End Richmond (Virginia) store is a community center; if it had existed when I was growing up there, I might have stayed in that sad and anti-intellectual town.
It is pretty established that B & N's idea of research into new locations is to find already successful stores, then vamp right on top of them - I'd love to hear of any exceptions . . . Tower is so good at selecting titles of interest to alternative thinking readers that my students (teenagers, many disaffected) feel welcome and at home there. Borders' staff is somewhat well read.
I guess my main point would be that people come to bookselling as a calling, a lot of us anyhow. Some choose to work at a chain because being surrounded by books and dealing with people who are seeking access to Truth seems close to heaven. They are aware, often, that there is a difference in types of book shops--cynical bottom liner businesses versus neighborhood liberal arts centers.
They all deserve honor for their intentions and efforts. It is not the book clerk anywhere, but rather the chairman of the board, who says, "The progress we brought to bookselling is to treat books as just another commodity," and"If smaller rivals perish, so be it."
Bob Williams, Book Darts
Dear Holt Uncensored: OK
What a delightful column (regarding the authors' panel)! I love to hear other authors talk about the process and the risk of writing/developing a story. It reminds me that I'm not alone (or crazy) when I begin to develop a relationship with the imaginary characters who "speak" through me. Thanks.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read with interest today the couple of letters responding to Henry Wessell's complaint about Borders' handling of the crowds at a J. K. Rowling event. Both seemed to be of the opinion that Borders did the best they could.
Coincidentally, today I also received the October 25 issue of "Bookselling This Week". One of the cover articles is about the tour, and describes as two typical events:
-- Politics & Prose, a medium-sized independent bookstore, who through a carefully designed ticketing system were able to help Rowling sign about 900 books in two hours while still talking with every kid who came.
-- Booktenders, a tiny (only 1000 square feet!) independent bookstore, who were able to keep a signing with a thousand attendees running smoothly, also in about two hours.
If Borders really was doing their best when they, with all their space and money, couldn't handle more than 800 people for their signing, then maybe they need to get out of the business and leave it to the professionals.
Grand Poohbah, The Space-Crime Continuum Bookstore
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding Amazon Bookstore v. Amazon.com], in my mind, "Amazon" always referred to women. I have done some research on the original Amazons, and the Minneapolis group is worthy of the name I wrote down the titles from the shelf talkers [staff recommendations at Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis]. I will read a book recommended by a true Amazon any day over a filtered, computer-generated, number-rated, on-line conglomerate.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just sent the following to Amazon.com:
"Strike one was putting your link on every word in the dictionary (I wrote you about that).
"Strike two was expanding your site to so many kinds of junk that I can't find the books any more.
"But strike three [depositions in which Amazon.com lawyers asked about the sexual orientation of Amazon Bookstore's owners] is the worst, the last straw: for heaven's sake, what kind of mind does it take to invent that sleazy attack on the owners of the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative? This might come as a surprise to you: I first became interested in Amazon.com because I thought YOU were a woman-owned and woman-oriented enterprise! I learned differently, but became a regular shopper anyway. Not any more. You're out of my bookmarks and out of my life, at least until you grow up.
"Pay the women some damages for the expense you've put them to by moving in on their name and making them spend endless hours explaining that they're not you. Then get on with trying to make an HONEST profit (and good luck)."
Linda M. Maloney
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I attach for you my recent correspondence with Amazon.com TRYING to cancel my account. You will note their requirement that to cancel my credit card information, I had to write an actual letter, in actual writing, to their actual legal department. (I'm sure they hoped that would be too much trouble for me to do. To the contrary, no problem whatsoever.) Considerably easier for them to take one's credit info than to return it. So I actually wrote the information they requested (in the actual margins of the printed-out directive from them) and spent 33 cents on Amazon.com to mail the thing. THAT was the painful part - to actually spend one cent on them.
My letter is nowhere as polite nor eloquent as Ms. Kirch's nor Mr. Colbert's, but it made me feel better for having written it. . . .
Here is Amazon's response to my original request that they cancel my account & delete my credit card info. firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
"If you would like us to deactivate your Amazon.com account, please write back or call with the last five digits and expiration date of your credit card (so that we can verify that this request is coming from you)."
"It's coming from me. as you requested: 00000 exp. 10-02
"If you are concerned about security, I have a much greater motivator: Amazon.com's shameful, inexcusable behavior in the depositions of the Amazon Book Cooperative lawsuit. I have e-mailed the transcript to lots of people, esp. those I know were your customers.
"& please do not waste my time sending me that BS nonsense drafted by some misguided spin doctor who thinks readers don't know the meaning of words. We do - & we know just exactly what the meaning is of sentences like, 'However, we have regrettably been drawn into the unpleasant task of inquiring into the inconsistent statements made by the plaintiffs in the ABC case. As you probably know, ABC has a long and proud history of marketing and describing themselves as being owned and operated by lesbian women and serving the lesbian feminist community.'
"No matter how you obfuscate garbage, it still smells from a real long distance. I'm a lawyer. I know something about representing one's client to the best of one's abilities. & I know lawyers don't go into this kind of questioning without the full & informed consent of their client. Let's face it: Amazon.com hoped to get away with something shabby & disgusting & they didn't. If this is the way Amazon.com fights a legitimate lawsuit, I can't trust anything else about the way they do business."
"Therefore, forget you ever heard of me."
Amazon's excerpted response:
"If you would prefer to have your credit card permanently removed from our records, we will be happy to assist you. However, we do need to receive your request in writing . . . "
Williamston MI (that's MICHIGAN ;)