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Book Peddlers: Why One Author Hits the Promotion Road

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The only people who think it's fun to do book promotion and events are the ones who haven't written a book, at least in my experience. I hear it all the time from friends and family. "How exciting!" "I wish I could do something like that."

A writer friend squirms in sympathy over our occasionally shared breakfasts when I tell her what and where my latest book gig is. "Oh, my God!" she gasps, turning as green as her eggs, a local eatery's homage to Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (or in this case, tempah.) "Better you than me."

I'm never happy about it either as I set out for yet another night of mystery, suspense, anticipation -- dread, actually. A night when Life's Big Questions loom large: will anybody buy a book? Will anybody even show up?

So why do I -- or any author -- put myself through that kind of anxiety? There are the "industry" reasons, of course. Platform. Name recognition. Networking. An eye on another book contract. The old bottom line: sales.

But are those the real reasons that get me out there, that get any author out there? Are they motivation enough for me to make contacts, set up venues (and I've done quite a variety--libraries, bookstores, panels, organizations, agencies, college classes, reading groups), walk into empty rooms, and, if I'm lucky, meet strangers?

I have no quibble with the industry's reasons. But I know me. I didn't write a book to promote it, and I didn't dream of making a lot of money from it. Fact is, I love stories -- real or made up -- and have an abiding faith in the power of story to change people's lives, so I've always written.

I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, the book that gets me out these days, came about because of the locked up kids I met during my ten years teaching at a county jail. While their lives were packed with street adventures, heartbreaking tragedies and lost opportunities, they were also filled with humor, dreams, honesty and resilience. Kids like that don't get their stories told too often, and if they are told, they're usually filled with recriminations. I wanted to give those kids the words they didn't always have to tell their tales.

Writer, storyteller -- nevertheless, I'm still a peddler on the road with goods to sell.

It happened to me just the other night. Driving through a pounding rain in a Boston traffic pile-up that would make most Manhattanites pale, I arrived late at the library where I was speaking. With apologies, I began my talk to the intrepid audience who themselves had weathered the rain. It was a good night, filled with good will but not much of the "other stuff" -- well, book sales. On the drive back, I asked myself once again, "Why do I do this?" That night I came up with a pretty good answer.

After the reading, as often happens, people came up to me with comments to share, experiences to compare. A former teacher in a Cleveland inner city school. A man who volunteered at a local prison working with inmates on an architecture program. A law student who wanted to specialize in juvenile justice. A parent. A therapist.

At the edge of the group, I could see a young woman waiting, her head down, looking like she wanted to be invisible. Slowly, as each person finished and left, she inched her way forward. Then when everybody else was gone she looked up at me. "I just wanted to thank you. If it hadn't been for teachers like you I wouldn't be standing here talking to you. I wouldn't be able to come to something like this," she almost whispered. "I just wanted you to know that in the darkness teachers like you are a point of light in some kid's life. Your stories really show that." I shook her hand with my own thanks.

Thinking about that interchange later, I realized that the young woman's hands were empty. She hadn't bought a book, but she gave me a lot more than the price of one. Her empty hands, her shy, quiet words and my own feeling of gratitude helped me see that there was another type of currency exchanged at events like these that has little to do with the marketplace.

Then I started to remember all the other gifts I had gotten over the months and months of readings and talks. The young security guard at Barnes and Noble who, like the woman tonight, waited until everyone was gone to tell me about her struggles with the streets and how she only managed to keep out of jail for the sake of her baby. The Vietnam vet who overcame his years of addictions through books. The woman who had two sons locked up in jail, "I'm so worried about them. I hear horrible things happen in prison."

That kind of currency may be spare change to some, not all, in the publishing industry, but for this writer, at least, it's what keeps me writing and in turn, gets me back on the road, ready to peddle my stories and to listen to yours.