Lest an author ever start to feel too cocky, all it takes is a visit to an out-of-town bookstore to remind her of her lowly place in the universe.
I’m in Honolulu at the moment, en route to the Maui Writers Conference. Since my book VANISH has just gone on sale, I thought I should drop into local bookstores and do some “drive-by” signings. My plan was to say hello to the managers, autograph any copies they had in the stores, and leave a bundle of my flashy new bookmarks. Honolulu, I should add, was my home for twelve years. My kids were born here, I practiced medicine here, and I have colleagues and friends and relatives who live here. So I showed up at the first store full of optimism that I’d be warmly greeted.
Here is what really happened.
I walked into a branch of a national bookstore chain, and introduced myself to the manager.
Me: “Hi, I’m Tess Gerritsen, an author, and I’m in Honolulu for the day. My new book VANISH has just gone on sale, and I wondered if you’d like me to sign any store stock?”
Manager: “What’s your name again, and how do you spell it?”
I tell her.
Manager: (dubiously) “And you say you’ve written a book?”
Me: “Yes. The title is VANISH.”
Manager: “I’m not familiar with that title. Let me see if we have any in stock.” She checks the computer. “Oh. I guess we do. I’ll go find them.” She heads to the back of the store and finds sixteen copies. In the BACK of the store. You’d need a bulldozer to excavate them.
And my book has been on sale for exactly ONE day.
She goes back to the computer. Frowns at the screen. Looks up at me with a look of surprise. “We’ve got a lot of your titles here. Have you been writing a long time?”
I walk out of the store with my tail tucked between my legs.
Store visit #2(to another national bookstore chain) is even more humiliating. This manager has never heard of me either. He finds eight copies of VANISH in the store. “But you can only sign two of them,” he says. “We need to be able to return them when they don’t sell.”
ONE day on sale, and he’s already talking about returning the books. And he won’t let me sign any of the paperbacks because… well, you guessed it. He needs to be able to return them.
It’s useless to explain to him that signed copies CAN be returned for credit. He’s been told “at a seminar” that they can’t be. I slink out, having driven an extra 30 miles to sign exactly three copies.
At Store #3, the manager doesn’t want me to sign ANY copies. She wants to be able to “return them all” if necessary. Then she looks in the computer and stares. “Wow,” she says. “We have a lot of your books in stock. I guess you must sell really well here.” Only then does she allow me to sign three copies of VANISH. I ask her if she has many authors come through her store.
“You’re the only one,” she says. (Do other authors know something that I don’t?)
By the time I reach Ala Moana Shopping Center, I am so demoralized, I am ready to crawl on my knees to beg the Emperor-Manager for the privilege of allowing my grubby author hands to touch his stash of VANISH. I approach one of the clerks, give her a pitiful look and explain the reason for my visit.
She says: “Wait right here.”
A moment later, another clerk with a sweet smile emerges shyly to say she loves my books. Then the manager comes out to shake my hand and encourages me to sign everything they have. I am so blown away by this sudden hospitality that I want to move into this store and set up housekeeping. These booksellers have HEARD of me!
Then they break the bad news. Their store is closing in a month.
I slog back to the car with my bookmarks and “Signed by Author” stickers, thinking that it’s time to just go back to my hotel and order a stiff drink. But I manage to drag myself to a little store out in Mililani, where the manager (who’s never heard of me) is nice enough to let me sign books anyway.
I hope his store isn’t the next to close.
That’s how it is for authors on the road. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re already a NYT bestselling writer, any delusions of grandeur you may harbor will quickly be squashed by a few sobering bookstore visits. Some people imagine that the happiest time in a writer’s life is when he first sees his book in the stores.
That’s not true.
The happiest time in an author’s life is during the weeks BEFORE the book goes on sale. Those are the weeks when all good things are still possible, when we’re allowed to entertain our most deeply held dreams. Before the nasty reviews appear, before the disappointing sales figures. Before we’re reminded, yet again, just how insignificant we are.
Then, on a dime, it can change.
I get back to my hotel and get an amazing bolt of good news. The German translation of THE APPRENTICE has just hit #1 on the German bestseller list.
I’m getting whiplash from this roller coaster ride.
* * *
Dear readers, if any of you happen to drop into a bookstore in the next few weeks, I’d love to hear whether you had any problems locating copies of VANISH. Whether it was in stock, and where in the store it was displayed. Let me know what city you were in. And if you also email me your mailing address, I’ll send you some bookmarks for your kindness!