If you’re a writer, your imagination is fixed on certain markers. Having an agent is a marker. If you have an agent, then you have someone who, from a purely business standpoint, believes in your work. And if a real agent, for business reasons, believes in your work, it stands to reason that you must be a real writer, doesn’t it?
The next marker, of course, is to be published, by a real publisher — again, for purely business reasons. If a publisher, whose business it is to make money from the sale of books, wants to give you (a little) money for the right to publish your book, how are you different from, say, Stephen King?
And after that? Well, it’s hard to beat walking into your hometown bookstore and seeing your book among the James Pattersons and Janet Evanoviches and Carl Hiaasens. Or… anywhere, really.
But — and I say this so that writers don’t become discouraged — each marker requires hard work. Securing an agent does not assure your achievement of all your markers. It just makes it possible. Getting into my local bookstore required hard work on the part of my agent, and help from my dear bride, a world-class nudger.
It also required work on my part: specifically, a book-signing to kick off the arrival of Capital City at the Waldorf Books-a-Million, which I did on January 28. Lee was at a funeral; I would be on my own.
I blew into the store — as big as a supermarket, and with its own coffee shop — at about 1.30 in the afternoon. Lorraine was with me, to clear up things in case I got confused. Allison Maskaleris, a young woman with an almost preternatural gift for multi-tasking, was the day’s head honcho. She showed us to a small table, tastefully draped in red cloth, with eight copies of Capital City and a bunch of pens.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked.
I think she meant something like coffee, which I knew I would immediately sideswipe, soaking the eight books and perhaps spoiling the nearby selection of freshly-minted Trump biographies. I politely declined.
Sam Brown, a scholarly-looking guy whose primary function at the store is to help ‘people select books, dropped by. “I knew I’d like the book from the very first sentence,” he said. “I knew the characters would have depth; it wouldn’t just be a cartoon.” But he hadn’t had a chance to read the whole book.
(The first sentence, by the way, is “Sean O’Brien, who used to be a good man but now was a happy one instead, meditated on his sins.” I know it by heart.)
Lee and I worked on Capital City for over a year, and went through more than ten drafts. Dammit, the characters did have depth, and it wasn’t a cartoon. I resolved to give Sam a copy, so he could read the rest of the sentences.
They helped me set up a copy of this swell article from the Maryland Independent. Once they were sure that I wasn’t about to dissolve into a puddle of neediness, they returned to their other responsibilities.
The other day I read that a writer named April Ryan had sold 250 books at a book-signing in Detroit, which is not her home town. She regularly appears on TV, on Chris Matthews’ Hardball. But I had just been in the newspaper, too. I wondered whether I should pick up some salve to ward off writer’s cramp for all the signing I would do.
I made eye contact with everyone who entered the store. Or tried to; there were some people who obviously equated eye contact with a irrevocable commitment to buy my book. To others, though, I smiled and nodded. They smiled and nodded back, and took off in a different direction.
At about a quarter after two a well-dressed woman of late middle years made a beeline to where I was sitting. “Do you know where the books on organic cooking are?” she asked.
Well, goldurn it, I should have known, since I’ve been eating organic food for years. In fact, the last inorganic thing I ate was in college, on a bet, after a great deal of beer. But I didn’t know where they were, and I pointed her in the general direction of Sam.
At 2.30, I sold my first book. Well, OK, it was to my brother, but his money is as good as anybody else’s. He had come down from a couple of towns over to give me moral support; I don’t know as he anticipated that I would prod him to buy the book.
“It’ll start a stampede,” I assured him, incorrectly. He went to the front, shelled out his seventeen bucks, and dutifully brought it to me to sign.
I did. “You spelled our name wrong,” he said when I gave it back. He wanted to see my face go white.
A guy I used to do community theater with about ten years ago wandered into the store. We chit-chatted. He’s making sets at Arena Stages, one of the big DC theaters, now. We caught up about old friends. I don’t think he bought a book, though.
Another customer came by and read the Independent article. She looked at the back cover, which had some useful information. “I don’t think I’d like this,” she opined at length. “But maybe my husband would.”
“Go buy a copy and I’ll autograph it for him,” I invited.
She thought some more. “Maybe I’ll get it on Kindle,” she said.
By ten to three I began to do some calculations. One copy, at $16.99, with our royalties at 10%, split two ways with a well-earned 15% to our agent — I was working for seventy-two cents an hour. Plus, Lorraine had bought the new Wally Lamb novel for thirteen bucks, so I was considerably in the hole.
But then a dignified-looking man came by with his grandson. “What’s this book about?” he asked.
“Imagine — I know this is hard, but work with me here — a corrupt mayor of Washington, D.C. He is in his office doing a very, very bad thing. But unbeknownst to him, he has a visitor, who has snuck in to steal a bid. She witnesses the crime and sprints out of the office. The Mayor sends his minion after her, to kill her. But then nothing happens like it’s supposed to happen. The minion is a hopeless romantic, who falls in love with his prey. The prey is no victim, but a shrewd, manipulative woman who intends to get all she can out of this situation. When the mayor realizes the situation, he sends for a professional hit man. Unfortunately for him, the hit man is a stone lunatic, obsessed with Michael Dukakis.” Which is actually pretty much what the story is.
“We’ll get a copy” — they were selling them at the front; my copies were display copies — “and be back.”
They were, too, about ten minutes later. “How should I sign this?” I asked.
“To Charles and Ethan,” the older man said, gesturing to his grandson — a burly youngster, who looked at me with intelligent eyes.
“How old are you, young man?” I asked. It’s generally rude to ask, but at a certain age people like it.
“Six,” he said. He was going to grow up to be Trent Williams, or maybe Vladimir Klitschko.
“I was thinking maybe ten,” I muttered as I signed the book.
“E-t-h-a-n,” he said, in order to make sure my mind was on my task.
And then, eventually, more came: the soldier who wanted a copy for his mentor, who was a linguist and a scholar; the man who had read the article in the Independent, who came to the store for the sole purpose of buying a copy of the book; the fellow who wanted to hear about my experiences in DC Government (Lee’s bailiwick); a woman from the local writer’s guild, who bought a book and invited me to join. Eventually I sold ten books, and Allison asked me to sign ten more, which meant that they expected to be able to sell them all.
“I think it’s time to wrap up here,” Lorraine nudged. She had smelled the Peruvian chicken cooking in the restaurant next door.
Fellow scriveners, put aside your dreams of imperial glory. The glory days for you will come, as they are coming for me, when you can sit in a good bookstore, and sell copies of your baby, one book at a time. And then have Peruvian chicken.