My opinion of this Onion article’s shifted a little bit, from where it just annoyed me to where I could see it’s (probably unintentional) value.
So here it is – Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It’s Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People.
It’s exactly what you might think. (Remember, the Onion, unlike Fox News, is fake. 1) An author shows up to small groups of people at readings, but yet “gives it her all”. It’s a common experience. Readings are (for many of us) sparsely attended and numbering in the single digits, or maybe in the teens. You usually have to be able to draw people, unlike sitting at a booth at a convention where you can chat with whoever stops by. For that reason, a book tour (unless you’re a Name) involving travel is rarely worth the money.2
At first, I thought this was an attempt making fun of the author pathetically putting a brave face on a sad situation. Anton Strout had posted a link to his Facebook page, and I saw several other folks saying that the article actually depressed them.
By that point, I’d already realized that if anyone should be insulted, it would be readers. The viewpoint of the Onion bit is that readers are only worthwhile as book-buying machines. If you’re not going to get enough traffic, why bother? It won’t drive sales. There is something to that (as I note in footnote two), but this takes it to the asshat extreme. The “comedy” of the Onion article would be driven by the assumption that the prudent thing to do would be to just skip the reading, or “phone it in” if it was sparsely attended.
And that attitude pisses me off.
So I spent part of the morning thinking about how I’d talk about the above. And then I remembered ONN – the Onion News Network. What’s great about those videos is that they’re not just presenting a funny topic, but that they’re lampooning the whole damn system. The intonation, the dramatic pauses, all of it takes it beyond “funny news” and into multiple levels of satire. 3
I realized the Onion article was lampooning the profit-driven mindset. It mocked the people who think that networking is all about what you can do for them, the mindset that views humans (and only values them) as nothing other than consumption machines.
Because I can tell you about the practical advantages of doing a reading with only a few people. I can tell you about the odds of them becoming a True Fan, and how much that’s worth. I can rationalize a sparsely attended session as a net, long-term gain on a balance sheet.
But that misses the point.
I think back on cons and writer’s workshops from when I first decided to make writing more than a hobby – from when I decided to take it seriously. I remember the content from many of the panels. But the moments I remember are conversations. When I attended a “Pick My Brain” session with Kelly Swails and nobody else was there. When Beth Vaughan talked to me for a good half-hour after I missed part of a class. When Lawrence Connolly remembered me after one of his readings. A three minute conversation with Pat Rothfuss inbetween buildings at GenCon as he ran from one panel to another. Don Bingle one afternoon in the hotel lobby. Kerrie Hughes after a panel. Alethea Kontis getting directions and at the Apex table when nobody else was around dealer’s room. Toby Buckell while he was autographing. John Helfers encouraging me to submit more stories. Jim Hines for a hell of a lot of mentoring (whether he realized he was doing it or not – don’t blame him, he meant well). Dozens more moments across years – and they were all small moments. Moments when it was just two or three people, just talking.
That’s something you can do when you have nine, five, or even one person at your reading or event. You can’t do it with fifty or a hundred. They’re nice – but it’s ego-boosting. It’s not the real connection you can only get at something small.
And that’s what the asshats who think signings and readings are all about numbers miss. They’re so focused on numbers and profit that they miss out on life.
When I realized that – the narratorial voice, the profit-driven assumptions – was the real target of the comedy, then it suddenly became funny again.
And if you were laughing at the sad, sad author “giving it her all”… well, asshat, the joke’s on you.
1 Wanna know why I said that? Tune in later today.
2 Conventions are a different story – you can draw people with panel topics, then wow them with your awesomeness. “I wrote a zombie love story,” I told people after every panel last year. “Wanna see how I made it work? Come to my reading at…”
3 Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit. I don’t know for sure.
I can provide an example of the dangers of "phoning it in." During the mid-90s, I was a fan of Tori Amos (insert homophobic joke here). When she gave a concert in our town of Normal, IL, I was thrilled. I actually arrived at the box office hours before it opened to make sure I got a good seat.
Well, the day of the concert (and a sold-out audience) arrived, and Tori came onstage… completely hungover. Badly. At one point, a stagehand ran up and put some aspirin and a glass of water on her piano, which she took between songs. Her performance was lackluster, and some her high notes were off-key. I left feeling a little pissed off and cheated of my money.
Honestly, I sort of lost interest in Tori Amos after that, and never bought another CD. Frankly, I found her behavior arrogant and insulting. Sure, we were a bunch of yokels out in a cornfield, and we may have paid less for our tickets than folk in New York or LA… but does that mean we "deserved" a sub-par performance? We were still loyal fans, after all.
So if you find yourself doing a reading before an audience you can count on your fingers, DON'T short-change them. Not only will you fail to make new fans, you may unwittingly alienate your existing fans.
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