My book tour started six months ago with me being slapped around by Barbara Walters on The View.
It ended last weekend with me shivering in the cold, hand selling my memoir (The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town that Raised Them) from a card table set up in a field as a small crowd of hardy souls watched and waited for two prize Jersey cows to lay down a steaming pile of cow plop during a strange, surreal game called "cow bingo."
Book tours always start somewhere. There's an event, usually set up by the publisher in a heady swell of can-do optimism. Everyone is falling in love on that first day -- it's the blind date that is going surprisingly well where you find yourself thinking that there might actually be some sex is in your future. You are the author, your book is the prize Jersey cow, and you are going to play bingo until someone plops.
The Barbara Walters thing was both better and worse than expected. I was seated on the couch and wearing an awesome vintage dress that Whoopi asked me about, but which I had to admit I had bought at an outdoor flea market. Questions started flying. Challenges were thrown down and batted around. There was some laughter and gesticulating. Whoopi said, "Yeah, girl -- you know it!" Sherri held up my book. "Cute!" she said.
But then Barbara Walters did it. "You know, I was a dear friend of Ann Landers," she said. As the author of the "Ask Amy" advice column chosen by the Chicago Tribune's syndicate to replace Ann Landers' column after her death in 2002, I like to think I'm sensitive to Ann Landers' legacy, which is untouchable and guarded by loyalists.
Barbara Walters didn't need to supply the second part of her statement, which is, "...and you are no Ann Landers," because her body language said it all. She leaned forward, looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, rolled her eyes and sighed.
I knew none of this. I missed Barbara's body language because I was looking to my left, trying mightily to be a good girlfriend to Joy Behar, who I had identified in advance as my best chance at achieving couch camaraderie. But it's all there on the tape, which unfortunately my mother chose to watch more times than is probably healthy. My mother performed some motherly forensics on the encounter and then rendered her verdict: "Wow, she really didn't like you," she said, stoically.
All the same, I sold some books. Then I flew to Dayton, Ohio, where among other appearances I was scheduled to be on a public access book show filmed at a local high school. I arrived at the school and found myself face to face with five 15-year-old boys with bad skin who I knew instantly were the AV club. "Ummmm," one of them offered, blankly. "You're cancelled."
I was shown the door.
I stood outside in the parking lot in the snow and called my mother. "I'm not sure, but I think I just got dumped by the high school AV club," I said.
"Again?" she replied. My mother knows I have been dumped by the AV club before - first in high school, and then (figuratively if not actually) off and on ever since.
All the same, I sold some more books, and I was still standing in that chilly high school parking lot in Dayton, Ohio, when my agent called to tell me that my little memoir had landed on the New York Times bestseller list for the following week.
It's great to be a bestselling author. I can truthfully call myself that for the rest of my life. But the thing about hitting a bestseller list is that then you have to stay on it. As someone who has always deliberately kept the stakes low, I realized immediately that I had wandered into another territory altogether.
It was somewhere on the road between Cincinnati and Fort Worth, Texas, when I realized that I'm in sales. Like most writers, I'm most comfortable in my jammies, noodling on my lofty thoughts in between episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but what I learned during my book tour is that I was dying to have people actually read my book, and if they were going to read it, I was first going to have to sell it to them.
All through the winter and spring, as the economy tanked, publishers went out of business, and booksellers shuttered their doors, I pounded the pavement with the support of a publisher that, like me, believed in the book and simply would not give up -- putting books in hands, posing for photos, listening to stories, laughing with people, and promising to schedule an appearance at their church social, YWCA fundraiser or PTO meeting. I did this for two months without stopping, reading at book stores with hundreds of people and book stores where I read for the staff alone and signed copies of stock, while the janitor mopped up.
At Dulles airport, waiting for a delayed flight back to my hometown, I went to the terminal book store and was happy to see a short stack of my books in the "Books We Love" section. A woman had parked her wheelie bag and was perusing the section. She idly picked up a Suze Orman book and was scanning the cover.
I sidled up to her. "Suze Orman? Really? Don't you think she's a little played out?" I asked. "Tell you what. You look like a woman who might really like to read the true and heartwarming story of a group of women much like yourself who have led ordinary lives of great consequence," I said, quoting my own jacket copy.
"Um, I don't know," she said.
I picked up my book. "This -- this is the book for you. I know because I wrote it. And I'll tell you what -- I'll inscribe it for you right here and give you my phone number and if you don't love it, you can call me and I'll send you a refund."
"Done," she said.
I walked her to the cash register. I saw her hand reach out to touch "Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World" which, like my book, is a charming story with small town appeal. "Don't you dare touch that cat book," I said. By now I think I was starting to scare her.
"So you really wrote this?" she asked, deftly trying to divert me as she handed over her credit card.
After she had signed the receipt, I took the pen and inscribed the book.
"Well, I used to be a writer, but now I'm in sales," I told her, and returned to my gate. Our flight was further delayed, so I sold four more copies to the waiting passengers, and I flew home, satisfied in the knowledge that in at least one venue, I was completely sold out.