More Reflections on the Writing Life
So Your Book Has Just Been Published…Does Anyone Really Care?
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2002
Or are they just being polite when they smile and say congratulations? To find out, try the "spine cracking test," but more about that later.
There is a natural tendency on the part of writers who have published a first or second book that the new volume will elevate them to celebrity status, if not in the eyes of the mass reading public, at least within in their own intimate circle of family, colleagues and friends. With breathless excitement, you un-wrap the first box of books sent to your home from the publisher's warehouse via U.P.S. You are proud and feel a sense of tremendous accomplishment. At a time when modesty, humility and self-restraint is most needed, your ego runs riot and there is nothing that can bring you back down to earth.
You position yourself on an imaginary throne of your own making, amigo. I know. I've been there, done that and have the scars to prove it.
The publisher's marketing intern offers the helpful suggestion that you toss a book party for 100 of your closest friends who will naturally want to buy said book, and the intern will move things along nicely by shipping 100 copies to your home which you will pay for at a 40% discount. You are made to understand that no money for food and beverage will be forthcoming from the publisher however, so you run to the liquor store to stock up on Korbel and party favors. Next you call on the caterer. It is an expensive foray into the world of self-promotion (self delusion!), but a necessary mission none of the less, or so you are deceived into believing.
Next, you find a restaurant or a local book store with a side room to rent, print up your invitations or simply choose to send everyone you know an e-mail blast. Fifty people are actually invited, but only 30 of them bother to show up. Twenty buy books, 10 others feast on the appetizers but do not leave with copies in hand. Despite that first flush of disappointment, everyone else agrees the night was a success. Good turnout, amiable company. But you have your doubts.
I say this, because those nagging doubts never went away. I've hosted maybe three or four book "parties" of this type over the years, but never, never again. Sadly but truthfully, your friends and family and co-workers and other assorted acquaintances are only there because they form your support group and know they must be on hand, and if they get around to reading your book at all, consider yourself twice blessed.
If your friends are genuinely interested in the subject matter of your tome and what you have to say, they will want to engage you in table discussion; pepper you with questions and express honest praise or criticism but beware of their silence. It is the first tip-off that your book has not been opened, let alone read. Likely it has been tucked away on the shelf in the den to collect dust or tossed into a box of discarded books that no one has the heart to throw away. People feel guilty about throwing books into the trash you see, so if they don't peddle them to second hand book stores, they will accumulate quite a collection in the basement; boxes and boxes of books with the pages turning yellow, unread and unappreciated.
But there is another way to apply the litmus test to gauge the apathy or interest amongst folks you think you know best. It's what I call the "spine cracking test," and let me tell you what I mean by this.
My lawyer, with whom I have socialized for many a year, was always on the book signing invite list when I hosted my parties. I've helped him out, and he's capably assisted me. I've spent many New Year's Eves with him as well, but that is another story. Although he never purchased any of my books that I know of, I've always provided him with a complimentary copy as a gesture of good will. (Word of advice: it's a losing proposition to hand out your books free of charge to anyone who asks. Most times they are being polite and have no real intention of reading the volume. But they will ask for a comp copy, because as a relative or friend, they feel a sense of entitlement).
So one day I'm in his office on some business matter, and I spy Chicago Ragtime on the book shelf wedged between an assortment of miscellaneous volumes by authors whose names I can't remember. While I was waiting for my attorney friend to return from the washroom, I pried Ragtime loose from its mooring, and opened the cover. It had been several years since I inscribed the book to him, which was enough time for the glue on the spine to harden and dry out. Thus, as I opened my book, I heard the unmistakable crackle of the dried out glue in the spine of an unread book that had never once been opened after it was personalized.
The dust jacket was pristine and the edges of the pages were sharp no "dog eared" corners to indicate that a reader had ever marked his or her place. I replaced the book on the shelf and melted back into my chair. I said nothing. Why embarrass him?
It was at that moment that I comprehended a bitter truth about the book writing business apart from the larger heartache of rejections, publisher indifference and the struggles to compose it was the realization that no one in my immediate circle gave a damn and that was the hardest knock of all.
A sense of shame and mortification set in. "My God, what have I done?" I asked myself. What a stupid and vain thing for me to do; arrange a book party and force people I know to shuck out their hard-earned dough for a story they will never read, but feel obligated to buy nevertheless.
I've applied the "spine cracking" test in other situations; once to an earlier volume resting on the shelf in the home of an old high school chum and his wife who had feigned interest, but the result of the "test" was much the same. The spine had cracked. Ditto for the books given to my out-of-state in-laws. Most painful of all, my late step-mother Marie Lindberg (my father's fourth wife from Bloomington, IN), a woman I shall always remember as the "Alabaster Icicle" for her steely indifference, cold-hearted logic, and condescending "Hoosier" attitudes, summarily disposed of Chicago Ragtime to the grandson of her lady friend upon my father's death in 1986.
It turned out that this young man later went to work as a producer at Channel 11, the PBS affiliate in Chicago, and by strange coincidence, I was invited to appear as a guest on the "Chicago Tonight" program which he helped produce. The young man, a likable and otherwise pleasant person, showed me his copy of Chicago Ragtime, given to him by my stepmother! I was crimson with loathing and self-pity
Inside the inscription read: "To Dad and Marie with sincere best wishes." This was the very first copy I had received upon publication, and I remembered the day so well, when I presented it to them both. Silly me! I supposed that Marie would have wanted to keep the book as a remembrance and keepsake of my father, Oscar Lindberg, but if that were not so, why hadn't she shown the courtesy of returning it to me instead of passing it on to strangers? But so be it.
In hindsight my old man didn't much give a damn about my writing career either. The night I presented him with a copy of my first book, the ill-fated 1978 paperback Stuck on the Sox, he gazed at the cover for a second, tossed on the end table and asked: "So Richard, when are you going to write a book about me?" Meaning him of course. "How much are they going to pay you?" That was his only other expression of interest from the old Swede before the matter was quietly dropped.
That should have been my first wake-up call that I was essentially on my own with this book writing business, but it wasn't. It took many more years to realize that there is no percentage in trying to win the praise, acclamation, encouragement and support from your family and friends if they are indifferent. It is a futile exercise. When a niece or a nephew reports an "A" on a school composition and that is a much bigger deal to your spouse than the contract you just signed with a publisher, brother, it's time to give it up and work within yourself.
My strongest advice: keep it under your hat. Writing is after all a solitary experience. Don't volunteer information, don't talk about any of your projects unless they ask questions that demand answers; don't give away free copies until you are sure the person is genuinely sincere in wanting to read the book (I usually wait until they ask me a second time), and skip the vanity book party. You leave yourself open for a whole lot of hurt.
Stephen King once said that we write because we must. The moral of the story is to find the strength and encouragement to go on with this by reaching into your soul for the motivation not through the polite indifference of others.
Write because you must. There is no other reason to do so.