A taste of Stories About Storytellers, this time from the epilogue . . .
In my role as publisher, first at Macmillan of Canada, then at McClelland & Stewart (a period spanning almost precisely twentyfive years) I used to supply this document — headed “awful warnings” — to new authors.
I was pleased to note that the initial reaction was invariably an amused one. About six months later, however, a much more thoughtful letter tended to follow. I should stress that the conditions described here are not restricted to Canada. These warnings were picked up and republished in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. I like to think that the rest of the world is free of the imperfections mentioned here.
Interestingly, the document fell into the hands of the editors of Saturday Night magazine, who published it. This factual working document was published there as “Humour,” and was nominated for a National Magazine Award in that category. Fortunately a very witty article in French won the prize, saving me the embarrassment of explaining to the world that this was a realistic piece of advice, not humour.
Now that I have crossed No Man’s Land and become an author myself, I hope that what follows will not apply to me, and that my book will prove to be, er, exceptional.
On the day your book is published, the world will roll merrily along, totally oblivious to the new book’s existence and totally unaffected by it. This “business as usual” attitude may anger and depress you. Over the next few months, however, you are in for a series of even greater irritations and disappointments. I have listed them for you here, in their main categories: forewarned is forearmed.
Do not expect to see your book in a bookstore window. This will never happen. Other people will tell you that they have seen it in such-and-such a window, but when you go there you will find the window devoted to a display of skis or tennis rackets, looming over a selection of the appropriate how-to books — or a display of large books on Oriental art that are now on sale. If by some fluke you do find a copy of your book in a window display, it will have toppled over and will be sun-bleached, warped, and topped by dead flies.
You will never find your books in any bookstore. Even stores checked by the publisher’s representative earlier that day will mysteriously lose all their copies between his departure and your arrival. Mountains of copies prominently displayed will mysteriously melt away. They will, of course, reappear as soon as you leave. Stock-taking, transferral of stock around the store by the clerks, or large-scale shoplifting by thieves with a conscience — all of these
will be used to explain this phenomenon. Such explanations are farfetched; in fact, it is a physical law of the universe that no bookstore can contain both an author and stock of her books — positives repel.
Never pose as a member of the public asking for a copy of your book in the bookstore. You will be told, first, that you have the title wrong, or the author’s name wrong. You will then be told that the book is (a) out of stock; (b) not yet published; (c) long out of print; or (d) disgusting, and not the sort of thing that the store would have on its shelves. If you are unwise enough to ask the clerk how the book is selling, you will be told that there is no demand for it because it is overpriced, in the wrong format, and/or badly written; a rival book on the same subject will then be warmly recommended.
If you ask a bookseller why the book is not in stock, or not selling well, he will blame the publisher.
As soon as the book is published, you will find yourself expected to supply a free copy to everyone in the country whom you know by name. This includes everyone in your neighbourhood, every relative with whom you are still on speaking terms, the nice couple you met on holiday three years ago, and the plumber who fixed your sink last winter. You will suffer from the common belief that an author receives at least one thousand free copies of her book, to keep in cartons in her basement or garage or under her bed until she can give them away to all of her deserving friends.
When approached by one of these deserving friends and asked, slyly or openly, for a free copy, angrily blame your tight-fisted publisher for the fact that you have no more free copies to give. (Please feel free to use my name if personal vilification will make your performance more impressive.) Then announce that you happen, by good fortune, to be passing by a bookstore, and offer to lead your friend there so that you can autograph his copy with a message of warm wishes. He will remember a previous appointment, but in time he may be shamed into buying a copy — although only an optimist would regard this as likely.
Your friends will assume that there will be a massive and lavish party to launch the book, to which they will be invited. Blame your publisher for being too stingy to pay for such a party, and assure all of your friends that they would indeed have been invited.
Friends will call you up at 11 p.m. on a Saturday to report that their local store has no stock of your book, and that the clerk at the cash register had never even heard of it. Blame your publisher for this state of affairs, hang up, and console yourself with the thought that a weaker version of the law regarding authors and their books in bookstores applies to authors’ friends: an author’s friend will almost never find a copy of the author’s book in any bookstore.
Friends will eagerly supply you with a list of misprints in the book. Accept the list, however questionable, with thanks, and blame the publisher.
Some friends will try to cheer you by announcing that even though the book may not be selling in the bookstores, there is a long waiting list for it at their library. If they blame this waiting list for the fact that they themselves have not yet been able to read your book, refrain from forcing the appropriate number of dollars into their hands and suggesting that they will now be able to buy a copy. This is unprofessional behaviour.
Friends will remember reading, or seeing, or hearing bad reviews of your books. They will be able to recreate these reviews in excruciating detail. Good reviews will, however, be remembered only vaguely, and you will be assured only that the reviewer seemed to like the book all right, for the most part.
All reviews of your book will appear either too early or too late. If challenged, the publication in question will blame this state of affairs on your publisher.
Do not, ever, expect to read a review of your book that will strike you as constructive and helpful to you in perfecting your craft as a writer. These reviews do not exist — nor do saintly authors.
You will find that in the print media, reviews fall into six categories:
good reviews that consist of the cover copy, slightly rewritten, and that summarize the book fairly accurately and make it sound interesting and worth buying; these reviews are rare.
good reviews that are not based on the cover copy but that summarize the book fairly accurately and make it sound interesting and worth buying; these reviews are very rare.
good reviews that misrepresent the book totally, praising its delicious constant irony when you have carefully kept a serious tone throughout, and so on; such reviews are not as rare as they should be.
balanced reviews that find much to praise in the book but work inevitably up to a “however” near the end of the review, designed (in approved Canadian style) to keep the author humble; these reviews make the reviewer feel very judicious, and are the most common of all.
bad reviews that make it clear that the reviewer could write a much better book himself; if the reviewer is a reporter on the paper concerned, the review will almost certainly be of this type.
bad reviews written by the man known to be your worst enemy in the world; he has been given your book to review because the book editor would like a little blood and guts in his page. The blood and the guts are yours. Here, as in all dealings with reviews and reviewers, neither you nor your mother should become involved in any correspondence without consulting your publisher.
If you are interviewed about your books for a magazine or newspaper article, do not be surprised if the article concentrates on your interest in growing tomatoes, or on the happy warmth that pervades your household, while completely ignoring your book and your writing; these interviews are intended to add colour to the dull fogies that we all know authors to be.
If you are interviewed on radio or tv, assume that your interviewer has not read your book. Many interviewers in these fields take a perverse pride in having done as little preparation as possible for the interview; a ten-second glance at the book jacket before the interview begins is apparently regarded as sufficient in a field where the badge of true professionalism is the ability to gabble cheerfully and apparently intelligently about subjects of which one is totally ignorant. In these circumstances, your role is to direct the interview. You know what the book is about, the interviewer does not, so you should steer his questions around to what they should be. His only concern is to avoid dead air, so he will have no objections, provided you refrain from showing the audience the alarming depth of his ignorance.
If you are foolish enough to ask (off camera, of course) why the interviewer has not read your book, he will blame the publisher for not sending him a copy. The accusation will be untrue; book publishers, like the weather, exist largely to provide a topic of conversation on which people of all sorts can comfortably agree.
Autographing events in bookstores take place only because bookstore managers are incurable optimists. All past experience shows that only people who are famous for not writing books (e.g., sports stars, movie stars, tv stars, axe murderers, former prime ministers, or these people’s estranged lovers) attract satisfactory crowds into a bookstore. Yet the chances are that you will be invited to come along to an autographing session at some point in the life of your book.
Always accept such invitations. As you sit there flanked by towers of unsold copies of your book and backed by a blown-up photograph of yourself taken fifteen years ago, you will have a wonderful opportunity to get to know a bookstore manager. He and his staff will look at their watches a lot and mention, by name, several of the customers who had expressed eagerness to come in and meet you, but who obviously have been prevented from doing so because it is so cold/hot/icy/wet/windy/good for gardening after the wet/windy spell. The day of the week will also be blamed, and the time of day (it is extremely impolite for you to ask who decided on the timing of the event) and, above all, the fact that the publisher failed to pull his weight in advertising the event properly. Deflect the conversation from this congenial topic and ask questions that will cast light on the bookstore staff’s love and knowledge of books. This may prove to be illuminating. It may also leave the staff with the impression that you are an interested, caring person; to assuage their guilt they will then push your book.
When your time is up, console yourself with the thought that nobody who is not an axe murderer, etc., is ever besieged by lines of smiling book-buyers eager to get the author’s signature on their new purchase. In judging autographing sessions, remember Gibson’s Golden Rule: selling one book in a half-hour autographing session is average, selling more is a success, selling fewer is a disappointment.
Two further points. Never buy any books in the store in the course of your visit; it may seem a tempting way to pass the empty minutes, but is highly unprofessional. And never agree to participate in a joint autographing session with another author. The phrase “healthy competition” does not apply to such an event.
For similar reasons, beware of giving any public readings in tandem with authors who are practised public performers, old troupers who know how to milk a laugh, have the audience eating out of the palm of their hand, and so on. In these circumstances your only sensible course is to keep your reading brief and audible, and to mention the name of your book loudly at the beginning and end. A dangerous but effective tactic if you have to follow the old trouper is to affect a stutter, bravely overcome. But on no account listen to or compare the applause that greets your reading and his.
Unfortunately, giving a reading on your own is even worse. Here precisely the same factors apply as those affecting bookstore autographing. The chairman of the event will gaze worriedly around the empty hall, naming some of the many people who were eager to come, but prevented by the weather being so hot/cold/icy/windy, etc. After waiting an extra twenty minutes, he will introduce you, getting either the book title or your name wrong (rarely both), then slump into an apparent coma while you read. He will awaken only to thank you briefly, and to explain why he won’t be able to give you a ride back as originally planned.
Another Golden Rule: any reading where the audience exceeds the total of the chairman, the publisher’s local representative, and the man who has to close the hall plus one can be considered a success. Thus all readings, like all autographings, should be gladly accepted as a means of spreading your name around.
Unfortunately, while autographings tend to suffer from an oversupply of copies of your book, copies will rarely be available for sale at your readings, and never at your well-attended readings. Arrangements will have been made for their sale on the spot by a local bookseller, but they will have fallen through. Blame your publisher.
Learn all of the above rules by heart. Please remember that every author always goes through a period of believing that the world is in a conspiracy to prevent her book being talked about and bought. If you remember this, you may save yourself a little heartbreak, but not much. If the agony becomes too much to bear, blame your publisher. The agony will slowly dissolve, and in time you may think about writing another book.