Thursday, June 14, 2012

Judging a Book by its Author

Over the past seven years or so, I’ve attended a number of pop-culture conventions. While most of them are comic or gaming conventions, I tend to seek out the indie author tables. My intention is to buy a book from each author in support of fellow indies (even though I’m only recently published, I’ve been an aspiring potential unpublished author since birth). At these conventions, the books normally fall within one of my preferred YA/fantasy/dragon/magic/dystopian fiction genres and I’m usually excited to get home and start reading. But I don’t always leave the convention with a book, even if there are a half dozen authors spread up and down artist’s alley.

The reason has to do with the authors. I’m not one to readily embrace any form of social interaction, but when I approach an author’s booth with a keen interest in his/her book, I do expect, at the very least, a friendly hello. Unfortunately, many authors are so used to solitude, they forget that in public they are literary icons. More importantly, they are sales people. Say hello, answer questions, hand out flyers. Do something!

Five years ago, I stumbled upon a great find. A man and a woman were standing in the middle of the aisle dressed in Celtic/fantasy attire. They were greeting everyone, handing out bookmarks and magnets and, if a lurker lurked about too long, they launched into a pitch about their book. It turns out, these people were co-authors of an independently published book series called Rowan of the Wood (Christine and Ethan Rose). They were totally into it, cosplaying the characters, inviting people to join in on the fun of their world. The book itself looked great. Nothing about it was unprofessional, unattractive, or half-assed. The cover art was beautiful, the interior book design was perfect, and the story looked great. In fact, it really was great. I bought one right away and finished it before I even got home. There were wizards and magic and baddies and a past/present theme. Christine and Ethan clearly put a lot of passion and talent into it. As I read, I thought about their enthusiasm. The whole experience impressed me. This is how you sell an indie.

Four years ago, I came across another author. While this one was very personable and approachable, he was somewhat of a nutcase. I did enjoy visiting with him. He was funny. But he also had no talent, and he knew it. In fact, his lack of talent was exactly what he was pitching. He was standing there, waving people down, telling them, “I wrote a book. It totally sucks, but buy it anyway because I need the money…”  I actually did buy his book, mostly to show support and to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought I could overlook the fact that the book was horrible, because the author was so friendly and funny. But it was truly bad. The cover was pure black with white pencil scratchings and a few stick figures. He was courteous enough to write “Not a Writer” on the front, just in case you had any delusions that you were about to read something professionally written. Inside, there was no copyright statement, no publisher information, and not even a title page. The content of the book consisted of two parts profanity and one part humor that only the author understood. He broke all the rules of writing and probably could have won an award for the anti-manual of style. I bought two of his books, but after the first one, I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t even go near the second. I wasn’t laughing with the book. I was laughing at it. I’ve got to give the guy credit for trying. But seriously, he’s the poster child for the bad rap indies get. I am not posting his name because my intention is to make a point, not to slam another author.

That same year, at another convention, I discovered another gem. This woman (again, I won’t mention her name) had a fantasy book that was right up my alley. Dragons and magical education and faraway lands. And while the cover art was quite bland, the story sounded intriguing. But as I stepped up to the table and read the back of the book, the author sat there like a dead fish. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look at me. She didn’t offer a synopsis of her book. She just sat there and scowled. I decided to go ahead and give the book a try. Again, the benefit of the doubt. Only when I told her that I’d like to buy a copy did she even move. She got up from her metal folding chair and slugged over to me, signed the book, took the money and dropped the book in a bag. No “thank you,” no “enjoy it.” Nothing. When I got home, I tried to read this book. I wanted to like it. But as I read, I kept recalling the dead fish lady slumped in a chair. From that memory, I developed a prejudice against the book. After a few attempts to get through the first chapter, I decided to put it away and try again later. Maybe I was just tired from the convention. Three months later, I tried again, and again six months after that. I could not get through it. I’m not entirely sure whether it was just boring or if the author herself ruined it for me. I suspect the latter.

I encountered hits and misses like these over the next few years. There was a time when I passed an author’s booth twenty times, because I liked the synopsis of his book, but it was too expensive and didn’t know if I could justify the expense. The author made no attempt to connect with me, even though I circled around his booth for hours. I didn’t buy his book.

The point I am trying to get across – for both myself and my readers – is that an author’s job is not done at the publishing of the book. Someone has to walk it and feed it, and that someone is the author. I’m not exactly Miss Marketing, but I do know that I represent my own books. If I take a stack of books to a convention or a signing or a book fair, my personality should reflect enthusiasm toward my books. I have to show professionalism so that visitors know the book was written by a professional. I have to show interest to show that the book is interesting. Christine and Ethan Rose had the right idea. They didn’t just sit there like a lump. They got involved, acted the part. They grabbed people from the aisles and convinced them that they couldn’t live without Rowan of the Wood. Kudos to them for scoring points for the indies.

Next year, if I can manage to publish my next two books by then, I may set up a booth at A-Kon in Dallas. My experiences above have taught me that I cannot simply throw some books on a table and wait for sales. I have to draw in interest. I need to be cultural and persuasive and fun. As a clinical sociaphobe, I might end up curled in the fetal position afterward, rocking back and forth and muttering to myself. But I consider it a small price to pay for doing this thing that I love. Writing.

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