A few weeks back, I tabled for the first time at a book festival. Upon getting out of my car, I stopped and rested my elbow on the trunk, watching as one of my fellow tablers pulled a train of seven children’s wagons, strapped together at the handle and each laden with boxes of promotional items, life-sized displays of book characters, action figures, and assorted other swag.
I was in over my head. And not just a little bit.
A week prior, I’d given a reading at the InKY series in Louisville. The series is a longstanding and well-respected one with a decade-and-a-half of history behind it. I’d first encountered the event about five years ago, and it quickly became one of a small list of places I deeply aspired to read if I ever managed to publish a book. A couple of the event organizers marveled at—and even photographed—my display, which was elaborate for a literary fiction person: a foam board-backed 11X17 poster with book prices, a little bit of hipster bling from my good friends at Think Twice Buttons, a grey tablecloth, and a sticker-coated suitcase to carry it all. So there I was, the pinnacle of promotion for an event I esteemed. I’d have no problem, rolling into Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Center for Books on the Banks. My foam board and 1-inch buttons would be perfect…
And then, the wagon train.
Inside, authors were in costume. They brought adorable children and puppies. each of which attracted reader attention in its own awwww-inducing way. But I had some buttons. (Really cool buttons, by the way). NPR had a wheel of prizes. Darth Vader rolled in for a photo op. And there I sat, with a stack of books and not much else, a differential exacerbated by my location at the far edge of what was unfortunately tabbed the “adult fiction” section. Unsuspecting book buyers who took too quick a turn from the young adult table rolled into my space with questions like, “Is this a boys’ book or a girls’ book?”
That’s a jarring diversion, we’ll say, from most literary life, where writers take to conferences and Twitter to debate fine points of how we examine social, philosophical, and gender-connected issues fairly or thoughtfully within a text. But then the walk up figure the book is for girls, since it’s pink. It was informative to get outside the writer bubble. It was jarring, too, to have folks ask, as at least three prospective readers did, whether the book was conservative or liberal.
“It’s just a dozen stories about people—all kinds of them,” I said, all three times. All three times, the shopper set down the copy, clearly unsatisfied. And that’s okay, I guess, if a little sad. As complex and thoughtful and inclusive as we try to be while composing, the reality is that there’s still a big part of the public pining for the binary: right or left, girl or boy, good or bad. I get it—it’s easier that way. But less rich and, I think, less hopeful.
My hopeful little book ultimately did okay that day. Digging back to my undergraduate marketing class, I tried to distinguish my little stack of realistic Rust Belt stories amongst all the human-sized wizard cut-outs. I disheveled the stack a little, made sure the side-by-side piles stayed uneven. I turned one book over, so folks could read the back without having to work at it—even though event staffers flipped it three times. I took to drawing little factories on the cover page, a small, unique housing for my signature. It had nothing on the graphic novelist to my right, but it didn’t need to.
My favorite part of the day was watching an enormous group of people interact with books. And for all the false binaries, there was some hope, particularly on the short story front. A solid half the folks who ended up buying the book started off with some version of, “I don’t normally read short stories, but…” And yet, they tried it anyway, and for that, I’m grateful. Those were moments that can buoy a day that largely consists of smiling and talking to people who want to know all about you and your book but really have no intentions of buying one—or maybe any books at all. There were the vultures, too, the folks who came in at the end of the day hoping for discounts, though, since a local bookstore handled sales, none of us had the ability to plunge prices, the way, say, folks do at a conference like AWP, where avoiding the baggage surcharge to bring home boxes of books incentives presses to practically give work away by the end of the day.
There were good conversations, not just with readers, but with fellow writers—not to mention a fantastic panel discussion about the PBS Great American Read series. Nearby writers lusted over my twin cups of Deeper Roots Coffee, snagged pre-festival from 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab, while they nursed their own lukewarm Starbucks.
It all felt good. And frankly, at day’s end, it felt even better as I tossed my sticker-covered suitcase in the back seat and zipped out of the parking garage while my contemporaries wrestled their wagon trains back to their cargo vans.
Sometimes the Joneses are best left to their own device.