Facing the Empty Seats

by Keir Graff

Last week at Exile in Bookville, the bookstore downstairs from my writing studio, I interviewed bestselling author T. J. Newman as she toured to promote her latest bestseller, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421. Every author dreams of a night like this: the chairs were filled with her fans and friends, most of whom bought multiple copies, and T. J. graciously took her time with everyone in the signing line.

It reminded me to share an essay I’d written a few months ago, about events that don't go quite as well.

Late last year, debut author Chelsea Banning tweeted that, although thirty-seven people had RSVP'd to say they were coming to her book signing, only two of them actually showed up. "Kind of upset, honestly, and a little embarrassed," she wrote. 

Not too embarrassed to share it, obviously, but her confession paid big dividends. First, Neil Gaiman tweeted that he and Terry Pratchett did a signing where no one showed up at all. (Take that, Chelsea!) Then Margaret Atwood added, "Join the club." Jodi Picoult said she had been alone at a signing table "many times." Stephen King said he saw a single customer at the 'Salem's Lot signing—who was looking for a different book. Many other authors joined in to reassure her as the tweet went viral.

Which is awesome! Twitter loves a feel-good story. (Not as much as a public shaming, but let’s leave that for another day.)

A while later, another author tweeted a photo of the empty chairs at her signing. Twitter was generally supportive, but Neil Gaiman didn’t answer this time. Similar posts trended for weeks, until someone tweeted, "The 'no one showed up at my book signing' trend is just a marketing ploy at this point, right?"

Twitter’s therapeutic limits are clear.

I sympathize with all these authors, and I've been there myself. I don’t believe I've ever had zero attendees for an in-person event—I'm no Neil Gaiman—but I distinctly remember the reading at a big Chicago area bookstore where the only three people in attendance were my friends. (And I'm still grateful to Bill, Ilene, and Harvey for showing up.)

There's nothing wrong with cheering up authors when they need a boost. But it's more helpful to them if we audit the reasons for the empty seats. So indulge me while I put on my green eyeshade, narrow my gimlet eyes, and blow the dust off my ledgers . . .

Counting Empty Seats

As authors with new books, of course we want do to bookstore events. Read the rest of the article.

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