PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Notes from the Road to Bestsellerdom

Another true confession: I hate book signings. But lest my publishers gasp, let me clarify: I do them, with a smile. Still, it always feels like holding up the walls at a junior high school dance.

So I was truly wowed by the great tour Alaskan author Michael Engelhard put together for his new anthology, Wild Moments. Here, Michael’s thoughts from the road.

I had planned the promo tour for my collection of northern wildlife stories like a field marshal plans a campaign. A four-day Book Blitz South would target eight locations in the Anchorage and Mat-Su area: independent and chain bookstores, a café, a museum, a luncheon for professional communicators, and a nature center up in the mountains. In preparation, flyers had been printed and hung, emails and press kits sent, and the events listed in several papers as well as online. Reservations had been made at a cozy but pricey downtown B & B—at my, not the publisher’s expense. The publicist had worked overtime, constructing a collapsible poster stand from struts, spars, screws, and an old lamp foot; the book’s cover printed on cloth—in San Francisco, no less—could be hoisted on this contraption like a square sail on a mast.

I realize that words alone rarely draw crowds any more. Authors on book tours are encouraged to play Indian flutes, tap-dance, wear clown suits, juggle their books blindfolded, or at least to behave inappropriately. I enlisted support troops, inviting writers who had contributed pieces to the anthology. Owls and falcons were to deliver the coup de grace. The presence of live raptors—and their handlers from two rehabilitation facilities—was no mere publicity stunt. A failed raven rescue here in Fairbanks inspired the story collection, and one of the essays described the visit of an education bird (a great gray owl crippled in an accident) to the writer’s eco-literature class. I admired these volunteers and their wards, and piggybacking their act with mine was supposed to benefit everybody. My girlfriend, who also happens to be the book’s designer, acted as liaison, trip photographer, finance officer, driver (I haven’t driven since 1980), quartermaster, and motivational coach all in one.

As we rolled into town, thousands of animal lovers thronged the streets. Alas, they had come to see . . . dogs.

In my ignorance of Alaska pastimes, I had overlooked that the Book Blitz weekend coincided with the Iditarod, the world’s most prestigious sled dog race. At the B & B, all the other guests turned out to be volunteer dog handlers, one a British police officer visiting from Hong Kong. Another, a Connecticut retiree, had attended the race start eight years in a row. None quite struck me as the literary type. Still, the outdoors theme and commercial vibe were encouraging, and we spotted some wildlife fans in the crowd:

I was hoping a trickle-down from the human surge would reach bookstores between the ceremonial (“fake” according to hardcore mushing aficionados) race start and the time around which bars would get busy.

The luncheon at a posh hotel seemed an auspicious beginning. My choice of reading — an essay rejected by Gourmet, about a friend who feeds his family on road kill — elicited gasps, eye-rolling and even chuckles, but might have curbed book sales somewhat. The audience was grey-haired and looked as if they knew their coq au vin from their bouillabaisse.

The campus bookstore looked deserted, as most students had already left for spring break. The museum was being renovated, and foot traffic through the bare lobby, behind the owl’s back, made the bird nervous and incontinent. A guy on crutches parked himself in front of my table. “Glad they didn’t put you upstairs.” He commenced telling me his lengthy medical history, then walked away without buying a book. Each signing appears to attract one of these attention hogs, and I’m convinced they are taking turns.

The chain store manager put me in a prime spot, at a table facing the entrance, where I could make eye contact with customers as they entered. Light from the low-angle sun made me squint like a shortsighted bookworm (not look sharp-eyed as a wilderness guide and auteur should) or, when I tried to remedy that, like a sun-glassed Mafioso. With each gust from the sliding doors, my poster swiveled on its stand, causing the printed grizzly to scan the room as if in search of prey. The store policy did not allow a raptor to be brought in, for liability reasons.

The large independent downtown store had advertised a panel discussion of the book. Unfortunately only one of my authors showed up — and didn’t reveal her presence until after my improvised reading. Her friends made up the bulk of the audience, literally, as fishermen and – women are put together impressively. The performance took place in the kids’ books section, where I wrestled with a defective microphone. Trying to maintain eye contact while keeping close to the too-low mike, I felt like a hunchback talking out of the side of his mouth. Book clerks shook their heads as squeals of electronic feedback filled the place. The birds, as always, drew scores of youngsters and their cash-carrying guardians.

At the café, with my voice beginning to sound like a raven’s, I worked hard to be heard over the hissing espresso machine and coffee grinder. The next day, the action and masses moved on to the real race start at Willow, and we followed suit. The Eagle River Nature Center was a retreat from urban mayhem, a Zen oasis for birdwatchers. The turnout was good. When I opened the floor for questions, a kid in the first row who had endured my reading, piped up, “When do we get to touch the owl?” The owl, though, was not in a petting mood. Halfway through the presentation, it had noticed a stuffed eagle with fully spread wings, mounted below the log ceiling; it went into a hooting frenzy and kept diving off the handlers glove, flapping upside down because it was leashed and had to be put back in its cage.

At our final venue, a bookstore-cum-café north of Anchorage, the manager had expected a signing, not a reading. There were no chairs for an audience, and I found myself separated from the handlers and their birds by a shelf full of gadgets. (Has anyone else noticed how these increasingly augment book sales?) In a last-ditch, desperate bid for customer attention, I rearranged some books on a shelf, placing my brainchild between two bestsellers, hoping to profit by proximity:

After two hours of signing, or rather non-signing, I had sold five books total—four of those to the bird handlers. Because each bed within a two hundred-mile radius had been claimed for the night and we had no reservations, my girlfriend and I hit the road around sundown, trying to make Fairbanks that night. Near Denali State Park, snowflakes illuminated by our headlights and rushing toward the windscreen began to resemble galaxies seen at warp speed. Black ice on the road glared like a disgruntled publisher. We pulled out near some trailhead and fretted for a few hours, cramped in the back of the Subaru, amidst boxes of unsold books, waiting for dawn to come.

Descending the last hill into Fairbanks, I let the trip pass in review. Perhaps I did compete with myself, pitting wild animals against words about wild animals, a contest I can’t ever and possibly shouldn’t win. The timing could have been better, the audience more receptive, the arrangements with store managers and – owners – bomb-proofed beforehand . . .

But there had been encounters that made the whole trip worthwhile:

The gap-toothed teenager from Anaktuvuk, telling of the wolf that bit his granddad.
The grandmother, mother, and daughter trio — diligent birdwatchers all.
The bird handler-airplane mechanic, who cleans cages and shows birds after work and talked about going back to school to become a raptor biologist.
The reader complimenting us on the book’s cover and typography.
The naturalist-volunteer at the nature center, revealing a copy of Walden — prefaced and signed by Ed Abbey — as if it were an icon.

And, just as impressive:
The merlin that had helped its presenter overcoming her fear of public speaking.
The great horned mesmerizing kids with its yellow gaze.
The northern saw-whet, blind in one eye, and barely outweighing its mouse prey.
The red-tail that, after suffering gunshot wounds, learned to trust humans.

Regardless of how many, or few, books were sold this time around — I can hope that the stories will circulate, touching a life here and there.

4 thoughts on “PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Notes from the Road to Bestsellerdom”

  1. Great post, Michael, and interesting leg of your tour! I did an outdoor reading once at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming a long time ago, read an excerpt a story of mine called “Porcupine Dusk” – about a minute into it, a porcupine crawled out on the limb of a ponderosa directly over my head and dropped pine needles on me for the next 10 minutes. Couldn’t tell if he was throwing peanuts, or pennies. Wild life. I envy you the critters that crossed your recent book-signing path!

  2. Well, who says that promo tours only take time away from new projects? They can also yield grist for the writer’s mill.

    Good to see you at this blog, Page.

  3. Thanks, Michael, for this post, and for all your work in promoting the book. And so sorry, as a contributor, I wasn’t around to attend/assist. I try to see book promotion as a rippling effect – not so much how many show up, how many you sell at any particular event, but the few people you do reach, and just getting the book’s name out there, how it all ripples outward, beyond what you can see. Or so I hope 🙂

  4. Yes — what they call the butterfly effect. Unfortunately, we cannot always observe these ripples, and a good deal of optimism (or “obsession”) is required to ever put pen to paper.

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