Size Matters Not
Posted on November 12, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 83 Comments
Larry Correia has just come back from a book tour, and it appears he generally had a good time and had good crowds along the way, which is nice. Near the end of the post he wrote about the tour he notes that after his Portland stop, some Twitter commenter gave him stick about the size of his crowd (which eventually topped up at over 40 fans) and how real successful authors pull larger crowds, and so on. Larry responded as Larry does, and that’s fine for Larry, but as a general topic of interest, let me add a few additional cents.
First, an anecdote. Back in 2006, I was at the Worldcon in Anaheim and I gave a reading, and I pulled in, oh, about, 40 people to the room. A little earlier than that, I walked past a room where George RR Martin was doing a reading, and that room had maybe ten people in it, listening to George read. From these numbers, can we assume that in 2006, I was four times as popular as George?
Answer: No, don’t be stupid. The reason I had more people than George at my reading is that at the 2006 Worldcon, the rooms where the authors were holding their readings were really difficult to find — in a hotel, on a somewhat inaccessible floor, away from the main convention — and if you didn’t tell people how to get to the rooms, they may not have found them. I had a signing just before my reading and I told every single person in my signing line how to find my reading. That’s why I had as many people as I did at my reading. I don’t assume George did the same thing, so I suspect that’s why he had fewer (seriously, those rooms were hard to find. If I hadn’t have scouted the room before my reading, I’m not sure I would have found my way to my own reading).
Moral to this anecdote: It’s not a good idea to make assumptions of a writer’s popularity from a sample size of a single reading.
Indeed, speaking from some experience, it’s also not a great idea to make assumptions of a writer’s popularity — as it is expressed by overall number of books sold — by how many people show up, on average, for their book events, no matter how many of them you string together. Why? Well, because it all depends on the writer, and the book. Some writers are good at book events and pull in a crowd disproportionately large to number of books they sell in general; some aren’t and do the opposite. Sometimes the book subject doesn’t lend itself to people showing up in a bookstore. Sometimes most of the readers of a book might be in a demographic that doesn’t correlate to going out to events.
In terms of single events, sometimes your event is counterscheduled against something huge going on in town. Sometimes it’s scheduled in the middle of weather that is likely to kill people if they go out in it. Sometimes the bookstore, who is supposed to promote the event, did a bad job of it (although in my experience this is rare; bookstores are usually on it). Sometimes it’s at an odd time of day where people can’t get away to a event. Sometimes you do everything right, and people just don’t show up anyway. There are lots of reasons why people don’t go to book events, in other words, even if the books sell just fine. These reasons often have nothing to do with the author themselves.
I’ve been actively touring novels since 2007, when Tor put me on tour for The Last Colony. Since that time, across several tours, I’d say my largest tour event had several hundred people at it, and my smallest event had… three. Yes, three. I was at the time a New York Times best selling, award-winning author, and yet three people showed up to a tour event of mine. And they were lovely people! And we had a fine time of it, the three of them and I. But still: Three.
Because sometimes that happens. And it happens to every writer. Ask nearly any writer who has done an event, and they will tell you a tale of at least one of their events populated by crickets and nothing else. Yes, even the best sellers. And here’s the thing about that: Even with the best sellers, it’s an event often in the not-too-recent past. Every time you do an event, you roll the dice. Sometimes you win and get a lot of people showing up. Sometimes you lose and you spend an awkward hour talking to the embarrassed bookstore staff. Either way, you deal with it, and then it’s off to the next one.
Also, tangentially: the dude on Twitter trying to plink one off of Larry because of the size of his event crowd? Kind of a dick. For all the reasons noted above, but also because the size of the audience has nothing to do with the quality of the event. Larry and I have our various differences, but I’ve seen enough of him up close to know the dude has a work ethic and that he values his fans. If he had seven or eight or forty or however many people in attendance, I’m pretty sure he did his best to make them feel like they made the right choice by showing up. I have no doubt they had a good time.
And then those seven or eight or forty or however many people will go home feeling valued by Larry, and they’ll keep buying his books and keep recommending them to friends and others. Because that’s the point and that’s how it’s done. The value of doing a book event is not only about who is in the crowd that day. It’s the knock-on effect from there — building relationships with fans and booksellers, and benefiting when they talk you up to friends and customers and so on. I know it, publishers know it, booksellers know it. I’d be very surprised if Larry doesn’t know it. We all know it.
Which is why I’m fairly certain that however many people showed up to Larry’s event, he entertained them and they had a ball. Just like I do my best to give people who show up to my events a good time, no matter the number. Just like pretty much any writer does.
That’s what makes a successful author event: What the author puts into it and what people who showed up came away with. Not the gross number of people who show up.
As a heads up, this is not the place to discuss Larry Correia’s particular take on the event, or his response to it. He has his own comment thread over on the entry I linked to; if you like, take it up with him there.
Likewise, if we could refrain from a general rehash of the Puppy nonsense, I would be fine with that.
Terry Brooks was coming to Denver during his Phantom Menace tour and dropped me a line, so I drove into town from Boulder to see him and his wife, Judine. The book was currently #1 on the NYT. He drew maybe 20 people to the Tattered Cover, one of the biggest and best indie stores.
I did a signing with another author at the Tattered Cover on time, the two of us next to each other at a table at the top of the escalator.
It’s not about the crowd. Every single reader is important.
My fanbase is, as best I can tell, about ten thousand or so people. I do get signings with hundreds of people, sometimes.
I strongly suspect Larry’s fanbase is vastly larger than mine. So yeah, you can’t tell.
It’s always good to see a writer approach an event as a professional and do right by their fans, no matter how many are present.
Thank you for these wise comments :)
We’re holding our first Literary Festival next June (small town in South Somerset, UK), and some of the organisers are unaware of things like this. So I’m going to give it to them straight: numbers are good, but relationships are better !
PS: I think Thing One and Thing Two are the prettiest I’ve seen for a long time. Thanks for all the pics :)
anecdote to backup the size doesn’t matter…
So back in 1996 a ‘B’ list author by the name of George R.R. Martin kicked off his national signing tour for his new book Game of something… first stop was Dream Haven where my wife worked. Wife was excited to get her copy of Armageddon Rag signed, I showed up and politely got the new book, signed and all. A total of maybe 4 to 6 people showed up. (which meant we all had a pleasant chat w/ Mr. Martin, it was a nice time.)
But… the next night Mr. Martin went to the other major SF book store in town, Uncle Hugos. I heard a larger, and decent sized crowd showed up. Why? Just a difference in who shopped at which store and type of fan.
Now look at where Mr. Martin is… so yeah. Size of crowd for an author can be highly variable and as you point out not an indication of author popularity at all.
The first signing I ever did, at the Worldcon in Chicago in 2000, drew almost no one. I was signing next to the wonderful Vernor Vinge, who had a long queue of fans (I could easily have been one of them!). In between signing, Vernor told me that I should *always* be prepared to have an event that no one turned up for, no matter what, because it happened to everyone. I took the advice to heart, and I confess that I repeat that advice to myself before every event, and am thus always pleasantly surprised by the crowd, whatever its size — a few dozen or a few hundred.
To be honest, I fail to see why anybody not financially linked to an author’s success should give a shit how many people show up at their readings. Odds are that your average person has enough to worry about without thinking on something that they have no control over and which has no effect on them.
As one who attends many poetry readings, I consider any event successful if the audience outnumbers the readers.
My own informal “success” line is six people, that being the number of people who showed up to my very first fiction reading. You will recall it: You were there! It was Torcon 2003, where I read the first chapter of “The Android’s Dream.” I always say if I get over six people, I’m doing well.
But I’ll also say that the night I had three people show up, we did have a pretty good time. It’s quality, not quantity.
This is why I only judge my writing by the reviews. And the only reviewer I allow is my mother.
I went to a great reading with Brad Beaulieu about 4 years ago. We had a great time, me and that one other guy. As a result, when I found myself in a position to help give Brad’s new book some free publicity on a major retail website, I did–because we’d already made that connection and been Facebook friends for a number of years. So you never know.
Thanks for that insight, and I hope that “general rehash” makes the band names page. :-)
I think that a fair chunk of people must arrive at these things too late to actually see the author, whether because of being the type of person who arrives late to events in any case or from mistaking the the time / date the event was held.
I saw someone’s complaint to chef Michael Symon that he hadn’t been at his signing, and he said that on the contrary, it had been very well attended, so I’m guessing someone was at the wrong venue or arrived at the wrong time. It happens.
depending on the circumstances I might enjoy it more if I were one of only a handful of people who showed up…more time/attention ratio for me.
Whether it’s three or three thousand I bet there’s always something to be gained from a reading event. Imagine those three fans sitting down with a favored author. Unbelievable to have that much attention and intimacy. And for the three thousand it would be an event worth remembering due to the sheer size and interest for the author’s craft. And if no one shows up, remember the slave on the Roman general’s chariot as he celebrates his triumph, whispering, “All glory is fleeting.” Sorry, I read a lot of Roman history in college.
When you came to fo Boise Idaho, the crowd was not as large as I believed you deserve. You were so much fun, even with as tired as you must have been. Thank you, again.
Another thing to take into account is that there are people who would LOVE to attend but are unable to do so because of work, family, or other obligations happening at the same time as the author coming to town. I know, every time an author I like is in the vicinity, I’m either out of town, or at work, or doing something else.
I was very pleased with my Boise turnout, considering it was my first time in town; we had over 100 people by the official count. They had to bring in extra chairs, which is always a positive sign.
From the business side of things: I organized author events at an indie bookstore for four years and I can say that 40 attendees for a single author is a bookstore event coordinator’s dream come true. To me a really good turn out would be 25 – 30 for an in-store event. I definitely had my fair share of events where the turnout was between 0 – 3 people, even for well-known authors.
Very few bookstores regularly get the kind of authors that can bring in 500 people every time. Heck, few get the kind that can bring in 50 – 100 people. There are dozens of factors, ranging from the demographic of the store/venue to the marketing strategy to the weather/time of year to if there’s another big event that night. For example, how many SFF fans would show up to an author reading the night of the new SW movie release (that would just be poor planning really, but it happens)? Some factors you can control, some you can’t.
As a coordinator, it was always important to actually vary the size and types of events we hosted. Not everyone wants to pay to go to a 500 person event in a huge auditorium and wait in line for four hours, and honestly we couldn’t afford to do those all the time, what with the costs of a larger venue, additional staff, transportation, etc. In fact, I might argue that that isn’t what bookstore events are really about (as thrilling as meeting those big authors can be). A 40 person event is perfect logistically for a medium-sized store — doable in-store with available staff, easy access to the authors books, a warm environment, few additional costs, and no restrictions on timing, activity, refreshments, etc. If even a third of the people buy a hardcover book, everyone wins. And it epitomizes what indie bookstores do best — create community, promote up and coming authors, bring readers and writers together, and be a space for socializing about books.
Another NYT Bestselling author here. I did a signing in Boston this past February where I had 2 people show up. But I’ll repeat: Boston, this past February. I had to walk through a 5′ tall snow trench to get to the store. I can forgive anyone for deciding not to go.
So those two fans and I sat down and had an hour+ long conversation and it was lovely. I met one of them again at DragonCon and we had a good laugh over it.
I don’t know which event you are thinking of when you talk about a reading with three people, but I was at a event the Dublin branch of the Columbus library that had that many. It was a weekday afternoon, and I think maybe you had something else in town that night and that was just a one off – honestly can’t remember. Anyhoo, it was you, the library staffer, and three fans. Must have been 2008 because you were talking about Zoe’s Tale and that one chapter.
Thing is, you treated it with as much professionalism and enthusiasm as I have seen for much larger gatherings. You were generous of your time and were entertaining. As you said, I left feeling valued and I have been a day of publishing reader ever since. Thanks to you and all artists who put themselves out there like this.
Sometimes the bookstore, who is supposed to promote the event, did a bad job of it
Maybe they hired Artie Fufkin as the promoter.
I have to confess I initially read that last line as “Not the number of gross people who show up.” But that, I’m sure, would have been an entirely different post. I’ve been to an Anne Rice signing and last week drove up to Waco for a Welcome to Nightvale (Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink) signing. In both cases it was because my youngest daughter (now a college freshman) really wanted to go and I enjoy indulging her. I had a fun time at both signings and would love to make it to more of them. But, you know, there’s always work, family, and a thousand things going on. So it took family time intersecting with signing time to make them something on which I would expend the necessary hours.
I have been in a bookstore more than once when there happened to be a signing. And I frequently listened (or talked to the author if they were sitting there with nobody at their table) even if it wasn’t a type of literature I normally read. Sometimes I even decided to buy their book. I’ve always thought that book signings seemed like very unpredictable and challenging events for authors. It’s quite a thing to put yourself out there with no idea in advance what the response will be.
If I remember correctly there was some sort of state-wide “Day of Books” thing going on and I drove in for that particular event. I had a nice time there, if memory serves.
I was once at a Kurt Vonnegut talk that drew eight people. Kurt. Effing. Vonnegut.
Sometimes crazy nonsense happens.
I would like to add that having too many people at a book signing can probably become onerous for the author, as it is for the attendees. I waited in line for six hours outdoors in February in Colorado to see Neil Gaiman and I had to finally give up because I was shivering so hard I almost puked. There’s a limit, you know. Even for Neil.
I ran an L-5 (space nuts) chapter in the Eighties and one month our public meeting featured a Boeing engineer and nearly a hundred people showed up, a great crowd for us.
The next month I arranged for a local author to speak at our regular meeting about communication satellites. He brought his wife, I brought a friend and that was it. We talked for an hour and a half. He was interesting and gracious; I eventually got over my embarrassment.
Can I just say that bookstore also live in fear that no one will turn up? No matter how much you promote an event, sometimes no one turns up for whatever reason and then you feel like you’ve failed the author who made the appearance.
Also people need to think about how many books were sold. I’ve been to a signing where there were 5 of us, and 2 of those bought 10 books each. Not to mention of the store has presales, etc. The number is bodies in the chairs means very little at signings.
Right up there with “Don’t fight a land war in Asia,” I would add, “Don’t do a book signing at a university bookstore at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday in July.” Yes, I’m talking from experience. (About the book signing, anyway).
John actually appeared a few blocks from my office a while back, but I simply couldn’t go. It was a Thursday and I don’t live in the city, so my commute dictated I couldn’t go. (I mean, I COULD have gone, but the effort was unreasonable for my time expenditure, especially given my very, very early work day).
I have seen Neil Gaiman in person twice in my life. Recently at the Tower Theater with my daughter, where he was awesome. And way back in 1992 at Fat Jack’s Comicrypt during a US tour for that when Neil’s engagement was from 6-8, but he stayed until nearly 10, insisting that anyone who came out be able to get something signed and say ‘Hi’. He was pretty great, then, too.
Amusing related side note: Cory and I have mutual friends, so he’s hung out with us briefly a couple of times for Sunday brunch during a few Philcons. More recently my kids, now teens, noted Cory’s name on Little Brother and XKCD. I pointed out to them that they’d met him and they were incredulous: “that’s THE Cory Doctorow? How do we even know him? What the WHAT?” I think they were expecting him to have a cape and goggles. :)
I was at a small con in Connecticut, close to the Massachusetts border and Robert Sawyer was the writer guest of honor. I went early to a reading he was doing to get a great seat, pretty much front and center. People trickled in, and the room ended up with maybe 15 people, all grouped way back and to my right. The reading started and the GOH seemed amused–his previous con (I believe he said ComiCon) had thousands, including a spill-over room. Five minutes in, I moved closer to the rest of the people so he didn’t have to divide his attention between me and…everyone else. And, yes, it was an excellent presentation!
A coworker reported seeing Nancy Pelosi at a book signing at Costco. Nobody was coming by her table, just swarming past on the way to the chip aisle. This was in the liberal heart of California. It can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Hi, Carriev, if your reading was in February in Boston I commend YOU for coming to it! I hope everyone who was snowed in was enjoying one of your books.
Remember, too, that some readers want to be at the reading and simply can’t get there. They are homebound with sick kids, or disabled and the venue isn’t accessible enough for them, or a million other things. I love books and favorite authors come to town all the time but between chronic pain difficulties and a work schedule that skews to evenings and weekends, I seldom get to the readings. I love the books, I want to see the authors, but reality dictates otherwise.
Forty people? That’s not bad for a mid-list genre author.
Thanks for this. It’s especially reassuring as Orycon approaches. I’ve been given an author reading slot fairly early in the day on Friday, when most people won’t even have arrived or checked in yet. Plus, we’re in a new venue this year so I imagine there will be some navigation confusion there. I’ve been worried about what to do if only one person manages to make it, or even if there’s no one there. At least I’ll be able to remind myself of your blog post, and rationalize that maybe I’m not unpopular.
This just baffles me. Anyone who tries to draw a correlation between the number of people attending a given event and the success (or otherwise) of the writer doing the presentation is just plain misguided, to put it politely.
There are all sorts of things that will keep me away from a reading/signing event, no matter how much I like the writer. These include but are not limited to: event time conflicting with my work and/or personal commitments, distance of event location from my home, weather conditions, number of stairs I’d need to navigate to get to the event, my paralyzing shyness, and my estimate of how many others will be in attendance. I am one of those painfully introverted types who becomes very uncomfortable in crowds, and I actively avoid situations that are likely to feature large numbers of people
All those factors mean that I attend maybe one reading/signing event every three or four years, if that often, despite the fact that they happen quite regularly in my area. I have skipped Mr. Scalzi’s events in this community, in fact, for several of those reasons.
Do any of those factors keep me from buying books written by the authors I like? Not in the slightest. I get ’em all. And I figure in the long run, most writers will appreciate my contributions to their royalty checks far more than they’d appreciate my lumpy and unattractive self sitting in front of them for an hour or so in some random bookstore.
I’m a classical musician (I play baroque violin), and I can say that the very same things apply to audience size at a concert. As you point out, all the right things can be done and you still get a tiny audience; all you can do in that case is play your heart out for the few people who are there.
I don’t think there were much more than 40 of us there to hear you read in the heart of Dupont Circle some years ago. OMW and Android’s Dream had already been released and were successful (and in fact what you read was from what was at the time a planned piece of a AD sequel, eventually Judge Sn Goes Golfing) and this was a big city with good mass transit. Scheduling to get to these sorts of things can be hard and 40 can well-fill a typical bookstore space.
It’s not just authors — years ago, one day after work I stopped in at the Virgin Megastore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago (which is to say, not some out of the way location) to buy some videogame or another, and in the video section next to the games there was the porn star Ron Jeremy signing copies of the documentary about him, “Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy” and there were exactly zero people there to see him. I bought a copy of the DVD and got it signed because I felt kind of sorry for him.
Tiny audiences happen in all areas, often no matter how much planning you put into the event. I try to have at least one program for kids every month at the library. Sometimes it all comes together and we break triple digits, which is hair-raising but also gives you a good feeling. Sometimes, even though you think the event is a good one, you get underwhelming numbers. We’ve had programs pull as few as 2 people; it’s the luck of the draw.
I have bought books by both John and Larry. I have never been to a book signing. I don’t see myself ever going. I just don’t see what is so interesting about them. For some reason people value autographs, but they never give a reason why other than ‘its so and so’s autograph’. uh.. ok. I don’t get it.
As far as book reading.. why is this interesting? If I go, I either have read the book myself or I plan to. Why would I care if someone else reads it? If I want audio, I’ll get an audiobook. As far as ‘tidbits’ about the book. Its all on the web. If I’m interested I’ll google it. Yet, I continue to buy books. I really don’t get why people find these events interesting. Isn’t half of it waiting in line to spend 20 seconds with the author and get a signature? Now if the event is smaller and has less people it may be a minute.
Authors don’t strike me as exciting enough for me to drive all the way to an event wait, just to spend a minute with them. They sit at a desk all day long in a room by themselves. The stories they write are good, but they don’t seem to have really exciting lives. I sit at a desk all day long and write code. Doesn’t sound much different than what I do. I understand why authors want to see their fans. Its good for business. I am just not sure why fans care. I just don’t get it. If I go to a nice restaurant , I don’t ask the chef to sign my doggie bag and the meal is more expensive than a book.
This isn’t a knock on authors. I’m not that interesting either. So I can identify with you.
This Huggle Fest between John and Larry is getting old. The SF blogosphere is a much more interesting place when they are at each others throats. Both Larry and John get a lot more attention and responses in their blogs when they attack each other then when they are buddies. Brandon Sanderson is responsible for this isn’t he? Guys that nice and friendly ruin a lot of people’s fun.
Nah, the SF blogosphere flame wars get tedious pretty quickly. I prefer when people express their opinion and move on. Brad Torgersen used to be a lot more interesting. John and Larry both seem to me to have more to say than the latest potshots, which is great.
Guess, I’m with you on the autograph thing. I don’t get it. But I know a lot of people who do, people I like a lot, so that’s an easy “different strokes for different folks” call. It doesn’t bother me that they do. There are things I enjoy that my friends don’t.
I do enjoy readings, though. There’s no reason why you, Guess, should care if someone else reads it, but I, BW, find it interesting to listen to an author read her or his own work–if the author is a good reader (and sometimes when the author isn’t). This is as true of a self-published or unpublished poet as it is of an author on a book tour. It’s not about the person’s being famous. Live reading, of the person’s own work or that of another writer, is a different experience from listening to an audiobook, much the way live theater is different from a movie.
@BW: What I have always found interesting about autograph fans is that when i ask ‘why they value’ an autograph, I never get an answer. I always find it interesting when someone is passionate about something, then you ask a question 1 level deep and you don’t get an answer.
John I heard you read in Los Angeles recently, at the Last Bookstore. There wasn’t a huge crowd there but the funny thing is, it didn’t matter once you started reading – especially when you opened up the Unpublished Book and asked us not to share what we heard. I felt included in the event. My question is, how long did it take you to develop a sense of ease with these readings? And what was first one like compared to now?
I wonder how the Internet has changed the attendance at book signings. On the one hand, its easier to let people know about upcoming events. On the other hand, why bother to go to a signing when you can go to the author’s blog instead and get just as much insight into their thinking?
One of my first book signings in America was at the San Antonio Worldcon 1997, a mass author event with all of us sitting at a long table. I had two books out in the US, and I was sitting next to Kim Stanley Robinson who’d just finished his Mars Trilogy. I couldn’t even see the end of his queue. There are good days and there are bad days. Authors get to see a lot of both on tour.
Hi Guess – here’s an answer for you on the autograph thing. A good friend of mine has a huge collection of autographs, some of which he has been offered amazing amounts of money for. I asked him once why he collected these things – which he as been doing since he was a pre-teen. His response was this – when he gets an autograph he has a tangible reminder of a connection he has made. Something to look back on and say “I was there, I talked to that person.” I can see it in his face when he shows me something from his collection, I can hear it in his voice when he talks about a new signature he has obtained. Granted, this is one person, but I think his answer is a pretty good one.
Well and robustly said! And one thing I am enjoying about this thread is the number of other writers commenting :).
Just to add to the stories, I once attended a signing that was well attended by a best selling author, who had been winning awards that year, movie deals, etc. and he mentioned the previous signing had only 1 person attend. The two of them had a fun conversation, and I’m jealous of getting an hour of one on one time with an author. So no correlation at all with success and actually lower attended ones can be more fun.
So whoever originally started this on Twitter – yeah, just being an ass.
I love autographs and readings.
I like autographs because they are a memento of meeting the author for me and you get to say something to them and interact with them. It can be awesome to interact with someone who wrote a story you enjoyed. The autograph reminds me of that moment. I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen King and have him sign a book and it meant so much to me to tell him how much his work meant while he signed my book. He was lovely in response. The signature reminds me of that moment and when people ask about it I get to relive it and remember something awesome.
So, for me, it’s not about the signature. It’s about what it represents.
Readings I like because often it’s not JUST the reading. There is a Q and A a lot of times or a talk by the author about something. Those are always interesting to me if I like the work. Also, sometimes after you can interact with them too.
So, for me, it’s not about listening someone read something I am about to or have read. It’s about the other stuff and learning more about the person who write something I really enjoyed. Although, hearing an author read their work can put spins on it you didn’t know were there.
As a Portlander for 45 years, no matter what the event, it most matters where in town things are happening. Mass transit is great, but I have to drive to a place where I can get on a bus or train. Even for those events where parking isn’t an issue, time of day often is.
Then there’s my selfish attitude. What are my favorite authors (including you !) doing away from writing so that I will have more wonderful things to read!
A few years back I went to a reading/signing for a well-know writer (who will not be named here, but it wasn’t you) where I was one of three attendees. I felt terrible for the author. One of the other attendees even apologized to him. The largest r/s I’ve attended was for Neil Gaiman. While it was lovely, the venue was as difficult as the crowd, and I’ve skipped his appearances since. I doubt this hurts his crowds. As for yourself, I’ve been to three (or four, if you consider the Tacoma event two separate appearances) of your events over several years. Each audience has varied wildly in size. Since I take it the Seattle/Tacoma market is a good one for you (judging by your regular appearances, and I’m not sure I’ve even attended half the ones I’ve known about), the varied audience size suggests that you really never do know.
That’s my take on it well. It’s also the reason that just getting something that’s signed—via an auction, or by mail like John and his local bookstore generously do—isn’t so compelling to me. I’ve made exceptions a few times (if I remember correctly, only with Apollo astronauts), and if a friend wants something signed but can’t be there, I’m happy to help out. But for me, that signature is a tattoo commemorating the event. But, you know, not on my skin…
Sometimes it is fun to interact with the authors about the mysteries they have put in their books. I went to a number of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson signings just to try to phrase a question about who killed Asmodean. I imagine that many people do the same at GRRM signings about Jon Snow.
I don’t get out much due to my health. From reading many author blogs I find I’m more likely to attend a reading at a con of someone new/mid-list as I can sit at the front and hear what’s being said (I’m partially deaf).
If I happen to find myself in a bookstore and an author was doing a signing/reading and didn’t have many fans I think I’d go over and talk to them/listen/buy a book unless they are on my “avoid author at all cost” list or short on time. Seems like a decent thing to do and I might find a new author to read or a perfect gift for a family or friend.
I took a midweek flight to my hometown to go to John’s reading at the library I’d spent many hours in as a kid. My folks picked me up from the airport, then took me to a convenience store so I could buy a bottle of Coke Zero, then to the library, where I was just in time to give it to John before the reading started. It was the first reading I’d been to intentionally (I once wandered past a local SFF store which had C.J. Cherryh reading and dropped in). My dad and sister stayed through the reading and then performed some heroic measures to dig through the house for my copy of The Android’s Dream that I’d loaned to one of them and bring it back to the library just in time for me to be the last person to get a book signed before the library threw us out. (It now says “Robin! Dude! You’re my heroine!” in it.)
And yet I’ve never made it to any of John’s readings in San Francisco, just across the bay from where I live and work. It turns out that I’d rather fly 400 miles than drive into SF. But I’ve gathered from posts here that there are plenty of people who do go there, and more power to them.
John, also at that Worldcon, the reading times and rooms were also changed frequently without enough notice to the membership. They moved Connie Willis’ reading up an hour with not enough publicity, so she ended up reading to a crowd of about 10 as well (I got there just as she was finishing, which really annoyed me b/c I could have been on time, HIBK). And she was almost late to her own reading as they didn’t tell her about the room/time change either! Man, those were badly handled, although the rest of the con went well.
And then at Chicago 2012, there were signings in the dealer’s room and GRRM was one and there was a huuuuuge line. Not for him, for Gene Wolfe at the next table. George was just sitting there all by his lonesome, but not too disgruntled b/c hey, Gene Wolfe. And George had had a couple huge signing events at the con before this — it was 3-4 days into the con. So I strolled right up to GRRM’s table and got the autograph. And mentioned how much I liked “The Armageddon Rag” and “Fevre Dream”. I think he kinda liked meeting someone who wasn’t only GoT/ASoIaF focused. I had to wait a couple more years to get Gene Wolfe’s autograph.
At Reno 2011, I went past a multi-author signing and some poor newbie had been sitting next to Seanan McGuire who had a huge line and he had nothing. Seanan told him not to worry, that at her first signing, she’d been sitting next to GRRM. So she knew the feeling exactly and he was much cheered that one day, he’d have the big line.
I’ve come across a number of non-attended readings in bookstores, especially back in the shopping mall bookstore days. I always at least stopped and talked to the poor lonely author. Sometimes, just having me there would get someone else to stop. One of them wrote in a genre I could not have been less interested in, but he was a nice guy who reminded me a lot of my dad, so I chatted for a while. I ended up buying the book for Dad, who thought it was okay.
Looking at the autographs brings back these memories. Little flashbulb pictures of a piece of my life that’s well out of the ordinary day-to-day grind.
I have one little scrap of torn notebook paper that’s nothing special at all. Save for the fact that it says “Jim Henson” — signed in Kermit green.
@Carole-Ann said it very well: numbers don’t matter; relationships do.
Number of attendees really doesn’t equate to popularity, and certainly not to the quality of the art/writing. If that were true, artists and authors would be superstars instead of living modest lives at best, or at worst, ending up like, oh, Van Gogh or Gauguin, or banished exiles like, say, Voltaire. The list could go on.
i once had the chance to meet a very fine Texas author whom I had never read before and whose name I had only seen a few times at various bookstores. I was at an SF&F con for the first time in a few years. She sat there, before events were kicking off, and she looked like a sweet grandmotherly type. I got to have a very nice little talk, and admitted I didn’t know her books, but had heard of her and seen her name/books in stores. I was very lucky to have had that brief talk with such a sweet, classy lady: Ardath Mayhar. I’ve since bought a couple of her books, both SF&F and local folklore, and have them on my Towering To-Read stack. The thing is, she ranks right up there with the big names in SF&F. She took the time to be friendly and sweet to some random fan (me) who didn’t know her work, who’d only heard her name, and I was embarrassed not to have read her books. But she was happy to chat and get to know me a little. I think she was super, just a regular, down-to-earth lady. A few years later, she was gone from this world, on to wherever we go after this life. Lesson? You never know who you’ll meet at a con, and authors can be exceedingly cool people. And again, size doesn’t matter. She was going to be at a table, but not in the dealer’s room or any sort of official author’s tables. She was going to hang out with others who had little tables set up at a fairly new con. I am sure there were other fine folks there doing the same thing. Meeting her was an unexpected highlight.
Jenny Lawson will be here in Seattle tomorrow evening, just in time for the flood watches in effect through Sunday, with bonus wind advisories. I really hope I wake up tomorrow to clear skies, but I’m thinking it’s unlikely.
Several years ago my wife and I braved a Minnesota blizzard to go to a big box retail/media store to see George Winston, who was promoting a Hawaiian slack key guitar album (instead of his usual piano stuff). Winston usually fills decent size theaters but because of the storm, there may have been fifteen of us there. And regardless of the size of the crowd, George played some beautiful music while the winds howled and snow flew. I’ll never forget it. You always remember the artists that deliver no matter what the circumstances.
One reason I go to readings (at conventions) is that sometimes the writer isn’t reading from their last book, but from the one that’s coming out next year. Or from an unsold or even unfinished book, though that last is riskier, because what if they never finish writing it?
As for signings, they’re a chance to say “I liked your work.” When Dave Barry was on tour for his book about American history, I had read the book but wanted to buy a copy for my partner. I was pleased to be able to tell Barry that I had liked his straightforward description of the Monroe Doctrine.
Another, ‘nother NYT Bestselling author here. My experience on the SATURN RUN book tour was just the same as everyone else’s. You really can’t predict what’s going to happen. We hit a half-dozen different venues in a week, and only one of them came off exactly as expected in terms of numbers and composition of audience. That was the “big” event at the Roseville Barnes & Noble, north of Minneapolis. Attendance somewhere upwards of 100 (I didn’t really count), standing room only, and a good 85% of the attendees were John’s (that would be *my* John, John Sandford) fans and the remainder mine. Which pretty accurately reflects our relative popularity out in the real world. The store owner said it was pretty much the turnout she expected for an October John Sandford release, plus my addition.
That’s not unusual for (my) John, given a large enough venue. I’ve seen him almost fill the 230-seat Landmark Center auditorium in St. Paul.
On the other hand, the following day, I had three people show up for my signing at Uncle Hugos. Okay, I can explain that one–– it was only a signing and not a dog and pony show, it was just me (even though I have a pretty big following in Twin Cities), it was a lovely October day near the peak of fall color season so any sane person wouldn’t be indoors… and the rest were probably at either JOFCon or NerdCon. So, not a surprise.
But the day before Roseville, we drew maybe 10 people at the University Bookstore in Seattle, and two of them were family members. We’ve got no explanation for that one.
The other events on the tour are all deviated in some way or another from expectations. The thing is, (my) John’s got more than three dozen best-selling books and book tours under his belt, and he can’t predict what’s going to happen most of the time. And his following is consistent and big–– my guess is that he’s got a good million readers, maybe more (Saturn Run’ll probably have half that). Still, sometimes ten people show up. It is the way of the world.
I’m with you about autographs; I have a fair number of autographed books, but they’re only because the authors are friends, so they are kind of personal keepsakes. An important point that I’ll get back to in a moment.
Why would people go to these dog and pony shows? One reason is that some authors are genuinely entertaining! Our host, for example. I’ve been before an audience with him; oh yeah, he can work a crowd. I’ve never met Larry, but he seems flamboyant enough that I bet his audiences are never disappointed by the kind of show he puts on. Similarly, (my) John is very good at giving the crowd their time’s worth. He’s personable, has a lovely low-key sense of humor, and he’s happy to be frank and honest with his audience. I’m told I’m not too awful, either.
Once you’ve done this more than once and made the audience happy, word gets around. The next time you’re in town on tour, more people will be interested in seeing you. Whether they show up is a whole ‘nother matter, of course.
There’s another motivation, going back to my earlier point.
I don’t know which your social milieu is like in the real world (if you said, I missed it), but at least here, you’re used to hanging out with authors. They’re simply part of your social circle, even if it happens only to be an online social circle.
That is not true in the larger world. Authors are Others. Most people don’t have authors in their social circles (or they don’t know they have). They most definitely don’t know Big Name Authors. It’s hard to appreciate how different that culture is from the one we are used to living in. To give you an example, two of my neighbors are familiar with me as a photographic writer (where I am well known for a very small value of “well-known”). They’re awestruck. Not with me personally, but that they know and honest-to-God Real Live Published Author. I mean, someone who writes for a living?! That’s kind of like a unicorn for them.
They are not uneducated or unsophisticated people. But they aren’t living in an innately literary subculture, like thee and me. They don’t get hobnob. Not normally.
That’s the really big appeal of the book tour dog-and-pony show thing, for the outside world.
pax \ Ctein
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Man, you ought to go to one of Jenny Lawson’s book readings. It’s a MOB!!!
The lady has wrote two, count them, two AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL humor books. Both NYT best sellers, but not exactly volume, y’all.
The readings are like a riot.
It’s the fans and the experience that they want with the author.
I went to a signing once at an Eastercon in England back before Neil Gaiman was famous famous, but certainly after some of the Sandman books were out, and there was no queue whatsoever. Which was good for me because it meant he had more than enough time to doodle a Sandman onto my waistcoat that I was getting signatures on that year, and I got personal art from a couple of other authors and artists who likewise had no queue. The signing location was easy to find, the convention was large by UK standards. It happens.
Scalzi said: “Larry and I have our various differences, but I’ve seen enough of him up close to know the dude has a work ethic and that he values his fans.”
Larry niche markets. That is what the kerfuffle you call “puppy nonsense” is all about. That is what his site is about. If one is not a member of the political niche he targets, he is pretty rude with the comments and the profanity. So if someone “plinks one off Larry” for the gathering being small, well, cry me a river.
It’s 1am and tomorrow I’m hosting the first author event that I organised myself.
My first book has been out less than a week, and because it’s an interactive novel (like “Choose Your Own Adventure” books) it’s digital (otherwise it’d be millions of pages long).
Thanks to my social anxiety disorder, I have a pathological hatred of all author-ish events, even talks at conferences (I deal with this by being a speaker on the panels as much as possible. The adrenaline + the formality of my role means I feel fine). So for my book launch I’m having a party in my home, with no speeches of any kind – but there will be a chocolate fountain and a gourmet terducken roast. There are prizes for costumes and there is a room set aside just for reading, with a small library of steampunk and/or Australian books to supplement my own contribution (mine is steampunk set in Australia). My kids will be here – dressed as Supergirl and a TARDIS – and several other kids are coming with their SF-loving parents. The party is a very casual come-when-you-like affair running for a total of 11 hours (10am-9pm). I’d bet money that my husband will fall asleep at some point during proceedings (the TARDIS is teething at the moment; it’s not pretty).
I have two friends scheduled to arrive half an hour early, and others coming at specific points throughout the day so I know there’ll be someone I know around at all times to make me look popular. There are people coming that I don’t know, which is amazing to me. But my rent-a-crowd (aka family and friends) is the true source of my power – that, and being in a place I feel safe.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens if a publisher is ever optimistic enough to send me interstate to do book signings. I think I’ll just have to take a van full of friends with me if that happens. I read somewhere that the average number of people at a USA book signing is four. That means a LOT of people have none whatsoever.
But tomorrow is going to be awesome.
Felicity, that sounds like fun. Enjoy!
Scalzi’s commentary on the business side of being an author are always interesting.
Larry’s commentary on the business side of being an author are always interesting.
Both seem to be making a living being a full time author – so both Scalzi and Larry are successes. Both are able to get people to spend their money in an open, highly competitive market on their product.
Individuals who belittle either Scalzi’s or Larry’s financial success in publishing are either ignorant or jealous.
Thanks, Mr. Scalzi, for being the grownup in the room. Again.
At Balticon a couple years ago, Andrew Plotkin was giving a reading. In the course of events, it ended up getting bumped to very late–around 10 PM, as I recall. In the lead-up to the event, he tweeted that he wouldn’t be embarrassed if no one showed up, but what would be maximally embarrassing is if only one person came to the reading.
Yeah, I was that one person.
I can’t say how Plotkin felt about it, but I had a fantastic time and really enjoyed getting to talk with him one-on-one.
I worked in a suburban book store in Minnesota for a handful of years. One day a guy came in and said he was Larry Corriea and he wanted to sign his stuff. I brought it around and he signed it. Later, I looked him up on teh intarweebs. The picture didn’t even kind of match. Is there such a thing as “ghost signers” or something like that?
I remember going to a signing by Harry Turtledove somewhere in the LArea back in the early ’90s and my wife and I (she’s also a fan of his) were the only ones to show up. We had a great time getting to know him.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a signing, but they’re starting to sound like fun.
I stopped by the science fiction bookstore in Silicon Valley (name forgotten) when Robert Jordan was doing a signing. It was the peak of Jordan’s popularity. Nobody was waiting to get a book signed. Nobody. He was just sitting at a table alone, quietly reading a book.
He didn’t seem unhappy about it either. Based on this blog post and his manner, I suspect Jordan had been through no-show signings before.
And to be fair maybe the line had been around the block an hour earlier.
I went to one of Larry’s signings on the East Coast. Probably about 30 people came, but six of us hung out with Larry for 4 hours while he signed books and chatted with the group. It was so much fun, other patrons started to come by and ask people in the group about the event. Then Larry’s fans started selling books to the interested passerbys, including recommendations for other authors in Baens catalog.
At the end of the event several members of the bookstore staff came by and congratulated Larry on having a great turnout. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at a book signing.
As a bookseller, I’ve hosted signings where what seemed like a zillion kids showed up (Jeff Kinney), signings where three people showed up, and one event in the middle of the day where no one showed up until a high school teacher on her lunch break recognized the author and went back and brought her classes. As someone up-post said, anything upwards of 4 attendees is reckoned a success. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with authors who, in larger crowds, would have been inaccessible; because of that connection, I can sell the heck out of their books. Tell someone that the author is “a really nice guy” and it’s pretty much a guaranteed sale, maybe not today, but certainly tomorrow or next week.
The party went great. One of my friends did a spontaneous reading (he is a giant of a man covered in tatts, who chose to play a female character since the book is interactive and why not?), and my friend’s 3-year old suddenly ditched his clothes (followed immediately by my own 3-year old).
It was that kind of party.
It really does happen to everyone. To wit: during the early days of the Book Cellar, one of the most prominent independent book stores in Chicago, had a sparsely populated event starring, of all people, JK Rowling. Yes, even JKR, the richest and most successful living author in the world with one of the biggest and best publicity machines known to man, can have a terribly attended event.
One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed going to author readings is that you get to hear something of their intent in the way that they present it. Hearing Saladin Ahmed read “Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions” at Detcon was great that way, and after Charlie Stross read the first chapter of “Neptune’s Brood” at a Confusion a few years ago I can hear his voice when I read it. It adds something.