By: Michael C. Keith
Authors have always faced a tough path: chronic rejection, no
job security, and low pay . . . if you’re lucky.
–– Ron Charles
Shad Newburg was excited that his publisher was arranging a regional book signing for his first novel—a thriller––even though they had originally said he’d be reading all across the country. The abbreviated tour would take him to several towns and cities around New England. He would drive himself to the events, since he lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was centrally located to where most of the signings were to take place. All of his friends and members of his family were impressed with the forthcoming excursions and were certain they would be a great success. Shad hoped they were right and was keen to get started.
A week after Dark Nights published he was scheduled to read in Manchester, Connecticut. The bookstore was on the main street and wedged between two empty storefronts. Two people sat in the row of folding chairs as Shad took the podium. Since it was his first ever reading, he was nervous and somewhat relieved that there were so few attendees.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen . . . er, I mean ladies,” said Shad, noticing that no males were present. I appreciate your coming, and I want to thank the Furry Pen for having me.”
Just as Shad was about to launch into his reading, one of the women suddenly stood up and walked away, looking as if she just remembered that she had to be somewhere else. Shad was distracted by her abrupt departure and sputtered the first few words of the chapter he intended to read. Please don’t leave, he pleaded to himself, fearing the last remaining member of the audience might also make for an exit.
When he had finished his reading 20 minutes later, the sole attendee applauded vigorously and got up and quickly vanished. Only a couple of people remained in the bookstore as Shad sat behind the table that held a small stack of his books. A hand written sign invited patrons to “meet the author.”
“You really don’t have to hang around,” said the bookstore manager. “It looks like a real slow day here. Sorry, but I suspect you’d be wasting your time. Thanks for coming though. Too bad there wasn’t a better turnout.”
Shad returned home and when his friends and family asked how it went, he told them that attendance was good as were sales of his book. He was too embarrassed and disappointed to tell the truth, and the last thing he wanted was any sympathy. He’d received so much attention for getting his book published that he didn’t want people to think it was all for naught.
Just a fluke, he told himself about the less than stellar experience in Manchester. Providence will be better. It’s a bigger city, and the bookstore is much larger. Three days later he drove to that engagement feeling renewed optimism. He arrived at the store early and wandered the aisles before officially reporting in. All the while, he kept his eyes on the section of the store obviously set up for author readings.
As the time for his reading approached, several people took their seats and Shad felt an electric charge stream through his body. Okay, now this is what I mean, he mumbled happily. His joy was quickly shattered when he revealed his identity to a bookstore staffer.
“Oh, Mary Hartwell is reading from her book today. There must have been some kind of mix-up. Let me get Jean.”
When the store manager confirmed that, indeed, he was not scheduled to read from his book, Shad’s heart sunk.
“We had to adjust the line up because Hartwell could only be here today. You were rescheduled for next Wednesday. You should have received a notice about this. It was emailed to you yesterday. I realize it was short notice, but we didn’t want to miss out on Mary Hartwell, because her book has just entered the bestseller list. We were certain you’d get the notice about the change. Really sorry that you didn’t.”
Shad was upset, but he concealed his displeasure and resisted challenging the bookstore manager about the email, although he was certain he had not received it.
“Look why don’t you stay for the reading and the wine reception that follows,” offered the manager of The Thumbed Page, but Shad was too disheartened to stick around.
On his return trip home, he tried to buoy his slumping spirits before he faced his family. Schedules get screwed up all the time. No biggie . . . right? It wasn’t cancelled, and the crowd was huge. Could be huge for mine, too,’ Shad told himself, but his gloom’s heavy grip could not be loosened. She’s a bestselling author, you idiot. That’s why all those people were there. You’ll be lucky if three people show up for yours.
Shad was almost right. Again, just two people sat before him as he read from his debut novel. He was thankful that both remained seated until he finished but felt disheartened when only one individual purchased a copy of Dark Nights. He remained at the small author’s table for the better part of two hours. During that time, the scant number of customers in the store paid him little attention.
“Glad you were able to come back,” said the store manager. “Again, I’m sorry about the schedule mix up. By the way, I really like the cover of your book. Too bad you didn’t have more people at your reading. Been a slow day for some reason. You never know when people will show up, although, Hartwell drew a lot of people last week. She was really wonderful.”
“Right,” said Shad, as he collected himself to leave. “Her book is on the bestseller list. This is only my first novel.”
“It takes time before readers know who you are. All writers start out this way. I’ve even had a couple better know authors here that only attracted a couple of people like you did. Don’t get discouraged.”
Shad took solace in the bookstore manager’s words, and clung to them on his drive home. Once again, he painted a positive picture of his reading, telling everyone that it was fun . . . and profitable as well.
“I bet you’ll end up on Oprah,” said his best friend, and Shad snickered. “Well, why not? People like your book, and it’s really good. Who knows?”
“It’s not that easy, Clark. You have to sell a million copies before that happens.”
“Well, you’re on your way.”
“Yeah, sold one lousy . . . er, I mean a few dozen copies. Long way from a million.”
“Dark Nights will be a bestseller. It just came out a couple weeks ago, right? You wait and see. I know it will.”
“Thanks for your encouragement, man. But I’m not holding my breath.”
“Don’t do that. Doctors say it’s not good for you,” chuckled Clark. “Hey, are you writing another?”
“Yeah, I mentioned I was writing something new a few months back.”
“Did you? Well, you’ve kept it kind of quiet. Cool.”
“Just have to get it to my publisher. They have first turn down.”
“What . . .?”
“My contract says they get to look at my next novel before I send it any place else.”
“Oh, they’ll dig it. You said they loved Dark Nights.”
“We’ll see. I do think the new one is good.”
“Hell, yes, it’s good. You da man. Don’t forget your old buddy when you’re famous.”
* * *
Springfield, Massachusetts, was the next stop on Shad’s reading schedule, and it was there he had his largest turn out. All of six people were sitting in the metal folding chairs scattered willy-nilly about the rear of the bookstore. As he took his place at the lectern after a brief introduction by a store employee, he noticed that two members of the audience were fiddling with their smart phones while another was paging through a copy of Vanity Fair.
Overall, Shad was pleased with his reading and was about to move to the signing table when the person who’d been reading the magazine raised her hand and posed a question.
“Are you going to write a sequel?”
“I already have,” answered Shad, pleased with the inquiry.
“You should. People like sequels.”
“Thank you,” replied Shad, waiting for other questions until it was obvious there would be none.
When he headed to the signing table, no one followed, and only a few shoppers glanced his way during the next hour.
Guess it’s been another slow day? he mumbled cynically, as the bookstore staffer came up to him.
“If you want to sign a couple copies of your book, we’ll keep them in the store, but we’ll have to send the rest back to your publisher.”
After responding to the staffer’s request, Shad returned home reporting that all had gone well at The Last Chapter. He was tempted to reveal the truth to his mother, but her never waning enthusiasm for whatever he accomplished discouraged his doing so. His next reading was at The Word Wabbit in Keene, New Hampshire. By now, Shad had little hope that it would be anything but another disappointment. However, he continued to hold out hope that things would take a turn for the better.
On the day he was to set out for New Hampshire, The Worcester Free Paper ran a short but positive review of his book. It lifted his mood considerably and made the 70-mile drive northwest far more enjoyable than it would have been. Unfortunately, the low turnout for his reading, and the subsequent lack of sales, made the trip home a dreary one. Why should I even do these things? A waste of time and freaking embarrassing. Don’t bother any more, Shad, he told himself but knew he’d fulfill the last of the dates his publisher had scheduled.
His next signing was in Maine at The Howling Shelf––over five hours away. It was set for 1 PM on Sunday, so he planned to leave his house around 7 AM, which would give him time to grab some lunch before arriving. It had occurred to Shad to get a hotel room for the night rather than drive all the way home after his appearance, but he was running low on money and was reluctant to ask his publisher to pick up the tab, since they had already indicated a lack of funds for his travels. “We can cover your mileage, but that’s about it,” they had said at the outset.
Due to roadwork, Shad arrived at the bookstore just minutes before the reading was scheduled to start. He was immediately greeted by a chirpy, middle-age woman, who reminded him of his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hodges. Shad had always thought very kindly of her, because she treated him with exceptional patience and understanding as he dealt with his slight stutter. Despite the fact that he’d worked with a speech therapist for two years, he attributed his overcoming the mild but embarrassing impediment directly to the extra time she’d devoted to him.
“Well, hello. Mr. Newburg. Welcome to The Howling Shelf. It’s so good to have you here. I’m Dolly Cummings, the proprietor. Your audience awaits you, as you can see. Why don’t we get right to it, okay?”
After a very warm introduction by Cummings, Shad thanked the audience––he counted eight attendees in all––for coming and then launched into his reading, giving it all the enthusiasm he could muster. As he started reading, he noticed someone sitting behind a display table with a pyramid of travel books. All he could see were legs and hands, and he wondered why anyone would bother coming to an author’s event and then hide himself during it.
To his disappointment, no questions were asked when his reading was over, but the round of applause that followed it pleased him.
“Thank you very much. If anyone would like to purchase a book, I’d be happy to sign it.”
Shad sat at the author’s table and waited for customers. Only one person came up to him, and in a near whisper she asked if he was related to the Sam Newburgh who owned the town’s hardware store. When he politely told her he was not, she shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Here we go again. No buyers . . . never any buyers. That’s it. This is my last signing, not that I’ve been signing anything. Ridiculous, Shad grumbled to himself.
Just as he was about to gather himself together for his long drive back home, the person who had been sitting behind the book display toward the back of the event area, emerged and moved toward him. A buyer . . . could be, he thought, mildly optimistically.
“I liked what you read. Some nice writing there. Keep at it,” said the lean, bearded man, who then shook Shad’s hand and slipped from the bookstore.
Okay, if you liked it so much, why didn’t you buy a copy? thought Shad, more than mildly exasperated.
“Mr. Newburgh!” said Dolly Cummings excitedly, as she approached him. “Do you know who that was?”
“No, but he didn’t buy a book,” replied Shad, attempting to put a lighthearted spin on his words but failing dismally.
“That was Stephen King. I saw him speaking with you.”
“Stephen King? No kidding, really?” Jeez, he did look familiar . . . The Stephen King? You sure?”
“Absolutely. He lives here in Bangor and comes in from time to time. But I never saw him speak with a guest author before. What did he tell you?”
After a thoughtful pause, Shad answered. “Exactly what I needed to hear.”
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes short stories. http://www.michaelckeith.com