Harsh words, yes? No. Trying to sell one’s writing is an act of prostitution, the same as any other kind of solicitation. I’ve been working the strip, as it were, trying to get my work out there, and friends, newbies who have that Great American Novel fantasy, veterans, writers of the world, hear me: it is prostitution, plain and simple.
For example, I went to the fabulous Books by the Bay last summer, which was well publicized in an insert/booklet in the SF Chron, supposedly sent all over the Bay Area. My bio is in there, coincidentally in an upper left corner, the first one on that page, so if a person was flipping through and read that page, mine would be the one they’d see first. I saw an advance copy because our press did the print job. I’m in there twice, in the schedule and my bio, about two inches long. I am very glad about it, great placement and great distribution. Every little bit counts.
A certain bookstore owner (who thinks my name is Julie Parks, regardless of how many times I nicely say “Julia Park” right after she introduces me to people as such) asked me to sit in her bookstore booth. But if you sit, people ignore you, so I stood there for an hour and passed out my new shiny postcards to passersby like some sidewalk solicitor. Some people took the cards and went, “Ooh, ahh, sounds juicy!” Others took them, looked and handed them back. I sold one book thataway in an hour. Yes, we’re racking them up, I say racking!
I was scheduled to sign in the authors’ tent at 1:30 and went and sat, and they gave me a stack of books to sign (books, I must clarify, that I donated for the literacy of the masses). I signed all 25 of them, and they took the books away. One author across from us had a small crowd – Diane Johnson of Le Divorce/Le Marriage fame. The rest of us just chatted amongst ourselves because no one was coming in to get their books signed or even to talk to us. We tried to be philosophical.
Then I spied The Golden Ring. I mean the guy who used to be the book editor at the SF Chron and who used to give me books to review, who still has lots of clout. I have met him in person a few times but it had been at least two years since last I saw him. I pondered for about 30 seconds what to do: go talk to him, um, no, yes, wait, he’s leaving! I grabbed the handy copy of my novel that I’d brought, hoping to see him, and walked up, catching his eye. I said, “I don’t know if you remember me but I used to write book reviews for you.” He said, “Yes! Julia Park Rodrigues!” Yesss! I told him about my book and said I had one for him and told him to read just the first three pages, and if he liked it, to go on.
I can’t even express here how hard it is to foist your book on someone who clearly does not want it. It makes you feel like such a prostitute, but I’m hoping by just asking him to read a few pages, maybe it works better than anonymously sending it to him. Who knows what the best plan is? Anyway, he said, “I usually read the whole thing,” and he was very pleasant and suggested I give another copy to the current book editor (he’s moved on to be critic now). I was rather pleased that he remembered me, and he was really interested — or faked it well.
That made the entire day worthwhile — catching the Golden Ring. But as I was packing up, I realized that I had my huge nametag on my shirt. Uh, yeah, he sure did remember my name just like that. And he had my book and god knows if he even read it because no review ever appeared in the Chron and what am I gonna do, call him and make him tell me it sucked?
Is it saying anything about the nature of this business that I got more compliments and comments on my shoes than I did about my book? They were pretty fabulous shoes. I am thinking of offering a free pair of shoes now with every book.
I once spent three hours in a Christian bookstore for a book-signing event when some of my semi-spiritual prose/poems appeared in an anthology, going slowly out of my mind. I mean, I’m a Christian, a person with a deep spirituality, and some days I have faith strong enough to move mountains. Sometimes not. But the kind of Christians who run bookstores and are just so earnest, who pepper their conversation with “Praise God,” and “Thank you, Jesus,” well, Jesus, they give me the willies!
I’m an edgy Christian if anything, fairly irreverent, usually thinking something sarcastic about the choir or the fat lady in front of me, maybe even something off-color as the priest blesses the Communion wafer. I’m the kind of Christian who says “fuck” all the fricking time. I believe in honest sexuality, social justice, equal rights for everyone and saying what one thinks, and frankly, there are so many religious people out in the world who would rather quash those altogether, who want women and every other troublemaker (you know who you are) unseen, unheard, heads covered, eyes downcast, mouths shut. So many Christians are such right-wing fanatics, such unthinking drones who do whatever the Reverend Bob on Channel 27 says without thinking, like bombing abortion clinics or pelting unwed mothers with pig’s blood, quoting Scripture like some ticker tape, “Leviticus this,” “Ephesians that.” I call them KKKristians, with a K-K-K, if you see my point.
There’s a guy who used to live up the street from me; he and his wife are both KKKristians in that very sense. She told him she didn’t need a car, that she would rather do the shopping on her bicycle, that she didn’t want the temptation of going outside the home so easily. She always wears little frumpy dresses and aprons and earthy sandals, and she never cuts her long graying hair, and she homeschools their little daughter who is just going to grow up to be the biggest freak on the planet. One day the wife invited me for a cup of tea, and I accepted like an idiot, and damned if she didn’t start haranguing me about why I was in grad school, why I was neglecting my children and not harkening to God’s word. Damned if her praying for me didn’t feel like her preying on me instead.
It’s an interesting line that I’m walking – how to be a feminist with a spiritual side, how to write sincerely on matters of faith and still keep my edge. That Saturday, I sat in the Christian bookstore and signed my books, and tried not to be oppressed by the sugar-sweetness of all the Precious Moments statuettes that say “Jesus Wuvs You” and all the little bracelets and tchotchkes saying, “What Would Jesus Do?” and wondered, “Yeah, what would Jesus do?” He’d probably spin on his heel and walk out (a copy of my book under his arm), disgusted with the hypocrisy and intolerance and bigotry that permeates the air these days. What should one expect to find in a religious bookstore? I don’t know. It gives one pause, that’s all I can say.
The deal with book signings is that you have to kick ass on the pre-publicity, get out the word everywhere and bribe people to show up with music, free food, strip teases, circus sideshows, etc. And you still won’t have people lined up out the door unless all your friends come en masse. You also have to sit up straight, dress well, buy cookies, provide freebies, make eye contact with everyone who passes, and make conversation with all of them. Including the one guy with a Navy Seals T-shirt on who starts out talking about your book and ends up ranting against abortionists, homosexuals, and those devils in Washington who want to take away our guns and make more laws that restrict our freedom. Hey, I talked with him and he bought a book, but if there was ever a moment when I felt like a whore, it was that one.
Advice to aspiring writers: Get used to it.