Do the Legwork, THEN Cry Me a Frickin’ River

Michelle Richmond asks, “Where’s the love for Trance?” Trance is Christopher Sorrentino’s new novel. And from where I’m sitting, there seems to be some love making the rounds. I’ve had a few positive emails about the book this week.

Publishers Weekly editor Michael Scharf has been following Sorrentino on his book tour. So far, Scharf has two reports available online. But Michelle quotes from the latest installment (which isn’t yet available):

The store has done its legwork: ads for series have gone in every major weekly. They’ve even printed up little baseball-card like promos featuring the author photo on front, and a little synopsis of the book on back, with in-store visit date at the bottom. The cards are available weeks before the reading, and are kept on a rack front of store. There are cards for Jonathan Ames, who was here last week reading before an audience of about 50. Francesca Lia Block and Aimee Bender (like in L.A.) are due next month…

The question that I pose in Michelle’s comments thread is this: In the year 2005, do newspaper advertisements translate into book signing attendance? I suspect that one of the reasons that so many people attended the Ames signing is that Ames himself maintains an e-mailing list, reminding people every so often about what he’s doing. I have yet to receive a single email from Mr. Sorrentino and would have been happy to have noted the event (and possibly attended it), had someone bothered to remind me about it. (Even though the Booksmith is my neighborhood bookstore, this doesn’t mean that I commit every known reading to memory. I am, like most souls, all too forgetful.)

Further, I don’t feel it’s a fair criticism to complain about low attendance (and if you think ten people is low, you haven’t been to nearly as many book readings as you should go to) when there is no in existence and when Farrar, Straus and Giroux‘s only apparent page for Sorrentino is a listing of his book tour dates. This page tells me (or any other prospective reader) absolutely nothing about Trance except a JavaScript catalog summary. And it offers neither author information nor an excerpt from Trance that encourages me to read the book or catch the guy in person. If I didn’t know who Sorrentino was, with such sketchy information provided, I’d think he was a performance artist prepared to set his penis on fire who just happens to show up at bookstores.

With such a saturated publishing environment, it is the responsibility of the author and the publisher to provide more than just “Booksmith, 7:00 PM” in their information page. We need details, folks. What will happen at the reading? Will there be a band? Will there be canapes? Will each person who buys the book get a personalized hug from Mr. Sorrentino? (And, hell, maybe a penile conflagration might be in order just to liven things ups.) I’m not suggesting that every author feed into the cult of personality, but I am suggesting that they accommodate the reading public instead of expecting them to feverishly scour the weeklies for the latest tours. Readers may be passionate when it comes to books, but they do have outside lives and they are not wolves.

Authors need to reach out to the literati by directing them with non-intrusive emails like Ames’ updates (which are often framed in a polite and non-intrusive personal story) rather than assuming that people will jump out of their seats to attend. In short, they need to do the legwork. And that means taking their heads out of the sand and understanding that the literary culture is solidifying: online and in other places. They just need to be realistic about where the hot pockets lie. I’ve got a few answers to this query, but if these folks are ten years behind the curve, then they really need to sweat it out a little.

[UPDATE: Sorrentino’s San Francisco stretch can be found here.]


  1. I think most of us authors (aside from the biggies whose names are a built-in publicity machine) know that the responsibility for getting the word out about readings is our own. I found the PW piece interesting in that it proves that even well-hyped books don’t mean a crowded house. I remember taking my undergraduate creative writing students to a Francine Prose reading at A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and being shocked to see that there were no more than 20 people in the house, half of whom were my students–this at ACWLP, which does an absolutely amazing job of drawing crowds for little-known writers (I’ve done two readings there, both of which had incredible turnouts). I’m guessing FP does so many readings she didn’t hold up her side of the bargain with the bookstore: an author should always send a focused invitation out to a select mailing list, promote the reading on her website, etc.

    I’ve been to more readings than I care to count and have given numerous readings of my own. The smallest crowd I ever had was two–one of whom read a magazine during the entire reading (she told me afterward that her hearing aid hadn’t been working, so she couldn’t hear me but didn’t want to be impolite and get up in the middle of my reading), and the other of whom said to me afterwards, “You read a whole story. That was kind of long” (I’d read for fifteen minutes tops). The largest crowd was a group of high school students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, with a packed auditorium. There have been many in-betweens.

    Authors familiar with the bookstore reading circuit know that, no matter how small the crowd, a reading is never a bust if you are able to meet the people who work at the bookstore, the ones who will have the opportunity to get your book into the hands of their readers.

  2. How many well known authors aren’t famous for their personalities (“I’m not suggesting that every author feed into the cult of personality . . . .”)? Dickens mincing around like (the current) Johnny Depp, Wilde with his flower, Harper Lee and Salinger infamous for being so little known about, Lionel Shriver’s unexpected gender, urbane Ishiguro, ascerbic Atwood, uncountable authors consciously and unconsciously branding themselves, giving their readers something extra to hold onto. Cause God help these authors if they don’t. Brand themselves, that is. For Dave Eggers will smite them gently.

  3. Eddie,

    Did you consult with Martha or Ty on the new colors?

    I’m not sure what’s at issue here. It’s funny though that I have never heard from Sorerentino about his own work but he was diligent in touting Sam Lypsyte’s Homeland to me.

    Trance has been reviewed in the NYT and WApost and one day( soon) the SF Chrinicle may publish my own review

  4. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Sorrentino is more diligent in promoting other folks’ books than his own. Modesty used to be a virtue. And you can only invite your friends and acquaintances to so many readings before you get accused of spamming.

  5. When I still worked at the library in Bethel, CT, I hosted a reading for Darin Strauss who came in from Brooklyn for the event. My friend Rob came. Did I mention that my friend Rob came? It was the first perfect Sunday in April, 81 degrees and zero humidity. Darin could have been Dan Brown or JK Rowling and, believe me, no one would have come out besides me and my friend Rob. I also attended a reading by the marvelous Margaret George several years ago in NY state and outside of myself and another mutual writing acquaintance, that was pretty much it. And, as documented over at Conversational Reading, I have had my own one-person readings. But I just figure this kind of stuff builds character. Hey, if there were always 120 people in the room and the chicken didn’t taste like wood, I’d get too spoiled.

    Ed, I’m still trying to cope with the changes. Change is very hard for me.

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