I should have been happy. Instead I was scared.
The bookstore had requested Tina (my co-author) and I for a book signing. Stacks of our freshly minted cookbook covered a small table just inside the door. Our names, in large type, gleamed from each shiny dust jacket. There was even a sign—three feet high—with our cover art and picture on it.
The bookstore owner handed me a Sharpie. When the door opened to admit a customer, her artsy-but-not-too-bohemian-for-Connecticut earrings swung in the breeze. “Just have fun with people,” she said. “And if you get a minute, sign the rest of the stock.” Then she walked away.
That’s when the panic set in. We were positioned in the perfect Target Rich Environment—a fancy town where people actually stepped into the independent bookstore on a frigid Saturday, their wallets brimming with cash. But as I stood literally in the window of the store, I realized that I hadn’t understood just how confrontational it would all feel. This wasn’t the love fest I’d pictured. There was no forming line of admirers.
The truth hit me like a wobbly stack of unsold books. For the next three hours, as customers ran in to grab a copy of the Times, we were expected to start conversations that would end with “You can pay at the register. Thirty dollars, cash on the barrelhead.”
I struggled with this idea as a few customers entered the store. Smelling the fear in my shaky but welcoming smile, they plastered on a “don’t talk to me” face and accelerated to a sprint.
These days, it’s de rigueur among authors to complain about the publicist you’ve been assigned—that elusive creature who books author events. The bigger your publisher is, the louder you’re expected to whine. Supposedly, publicity support for new books has declined annually since Lincoln was president, to the point where there is now exactly one publicist left in New York. And she’s 22 years old and reads “US Weekly” all day at her desk instead of taking your call.
Our own publicist had, true to form, failed to mention one crucial detail about my weekend junket. “I hope it’s okay,” she’d said breezily the day before. “I told the bookstore you’d bring samples.”
“Samples…of the book?” I asked.
“No, of the recipes. Bring something for the customers to taste…” In the background, I heard a cell phone begin squealing to strains of Girls Just Want to Have Fun. “Oops. Gotta run!”
Samples? I tried to imagine serving, among the pristine displays of a suburban bookstore, tiny cups of rapidly cooling Braised Beef with Wine, or rubbery portions of Spinach Fettuccini.
But Tina, ever the level-headed one, reasoned that a cookie from our chapter of desserts would be reasonably tidy and mobile. The cookies required only that she and I stay up until the wee hours of the morning baking, cleaning up, designing a cute little label replete with the book’s cover art, and then packaging more than a hundred adorable little portions. Now they lay waiting in their Martha-worthy basket, winking up at me from their individual cellophane wrappers.
Reader, I clutched that basket with the desperation of a Titanic passenger on flotsam. When next the bookstore doorbell jingled, I thrust it out. “Would you like a cookie?” I offered. “They’re free.”
From that moment on, starting conversations was a breeze. My publicist was clearly a genius. She taught me something important that day. Book signings are like love—you have to give a little something to get something back. And while freshly baked cookies are ideal, any small offering will do. You can give away a tiny treat, or perhaps a sticker promoting your book. If not that, then offer a joke or a fun bit of trivia from your vast accumulation of writerly research. At that moment of fear, when the idea of telling a perfect stranger that he should buy your book becomes impossible, offer something. Even a compliment will do. (“Lovely bow tie. Wherever did you find one with little tarantulas on it?”)
It is the rare author who is equally suited to spending months in isolation writing a book and to tackling passersby to make the sale. But there’s no need to be afraid. Offer something—anything—to the poor soul who appears in front of you. Even a tiny act of generosity will bridge the gap.