I am currently in an armored, tinted kind of SUV, the type they use in Iraq to protect VIPs. I don’t think I am being protected, however. I think the SUV is being used to keep me from leaping out into traffic to escape my Corporate Masters, who have forcibly tucked me into a wrinkled, disreputable suit and are now conveying me to the reading in Brooklyn tonight at Rocky Sullivans.
I know not everyone can make it into Brooklyn tonight to throw roses at my feet and scream like it’s the friggin’ Beatles—though that would be fantastic, kthx—so I thought I’d give you a taste of what my readings are like by reprinting this essay I published in my Zine The Inner Swine a few years ago, when I organized a little DIY book tour for my last novel Lifers. Here it is from Volume 8, Issue 3 of TIS:
READINGS IS FUNDAMENTAL
The Day I Read to No One
by Jeff Somers
AH, the book tour. There is nothing worse than trying to promote yourself. If you disagree with that statement then I feel very very sorry for you, because you are a soulless monster eating humans to survive. Though I suppose that if you’re a soulless monster eating humans to survive then pity is really wasted on you so I take it back, you soulless monster. Promoting yourself is just embarrassing, even when it goes well, but at the beginning of 2002 I took a long hard look at my royalty statements from my publisher and realized that if I didn’t get off my ass and try to sell some copies of my novel (hell, even standing on a soapbox on the corner of 8th and 42nd would be better than nothing) it was going to very quickly be remaindered. SO I decided to launch a “book tour’ of sorts.
I don’t have a press agent, I don’t even have an agent. I have few resources. But with the wonder of the Internet I started looking up stores in various cities and emailing them, asking if I could come and do a reading. Somehow, I set up four readings in Chicago, Philadelphia, new York, and Washington, D.C. within about three weeks. Then I slacked off and forgot to set up any others. Still, I figured there was plenty of time, and four cities felt like a good start, because I had no idea what to expect and figured if it totally sucked, well, four might be one too many.
It really is that easy to set up readings. Pick a city, any city. Go to the web and search on the word “bookstore’ and that city’s name. You might need to be a little creative in the keywords, but as a last resort go to the yellow pages for that city and see what you can dig up. Go to web pages, look for a link to EVENTS or READINGS, and see if there’s a contact name – sometimes it’s that simple. If not, I look for any email address that seems vaguely on-target. Send the good people an email. Send an email to 50 stores if you can find that many email addresses. Send them a nice letter explaining who you are, attach some biographical info and some links to any press you might have, and then wait. Out of 50, 10 might get back to you. Out of those 10, at least one will more than likely shoot you a date and book you.
You see, stores love having writers come in, especially if you’re vaguely local, because a) you’re free – it costs them nothing aside from the advertising (if they do any) to have you in and b) they’re hoping you’ll bring in, if no one else, a few friends and family, who will then buy some books. It doesn’t have to be your book. Just a book, get me? So they’re usually pretty happy to set you up. All you gotta do is ask.
The first three went very well. In Chicago, Quimby’s Bookstore was friendly, supportive, and we had a good crowd. In Robins Bookstore we had a similar experience, and managed to get a book review out of the Philadelphia Inquirer. At Rocky Sullivans we had a large, boisterous crowd and got extremely drunk – a win/win. Flush with all these successes, I bundled The Inner Swine Inner Circle (TISIC) into a car and headed south for Washington D.C. and Olssons Bookstore, expecting, if not the rave successes we’d been having, at least a modest success.
Sadly, this was not to be. Settle back and let me tell you the sad but true story of The Day I Read to No One.
THE DAY I READ TO NO ONE
I don’t know anyone from the Washington, D.C. but why should that stop me? I am internationally famous zine publisher Jeff Somers, known around the world. So confident was I that I forgot to send out any press packets (in which I beg abjectly for interviews, reviews, or any other kind of publicity) until a week before the reading -far too late for any self-respecting organization to run a story on me. Or perhaps it wasn’t confidence but rather incompetence. Or perhaps it was neither and simply the fact that my hangover from Rocky Sullivans on May 22 lasted three weeks, leaving me frail, shivering, and gastrointestinally unreliable. I did manage to send out one or two pathetic emails begging the two people I knew who knew people in the area to beg their friends and acquaintances to attend.
Somehow, I thought it would all work out in the end. I was encouraged in this by my success up to that point on the little tour. Somehow we’d found crowds at all five previous readings, and I’d even gotten some press, without ever feeling like I knew what the fuck I was doing. I figured if I just kept moving doggedly forward, the Good People of the world would come to my aid and somehow the whole thing would work out. I was also buoyed by the sudden announcement by Misty Quinn, Jeof Vita, and my sainted mother that they would attend. This seemed like a sign: instead of crawling into a strange city with no hopes or prospects, I’d have friends and family barging in with me.
We drove down to D.C., which took about three and a half hours. No traffic, no problems, and upon arriving in the city I magically found the hotel with my Rain Man powers, which instantly made me think the Gods were with me, that maybe all sorts of wonderful things were going to happen. After a quick rest period (we were there about 3 hours early) we went out to get dinner and to find the bookstore. The first sign that things were not going my way was the Gay Pride parade going on about block from the store, which is not meant to convey any negative feelings towards homosexuals, but rather the sinking feeling I had that my slim publicity-drawing skills had been engulfed by a larger, better-promoted, and, by all signs, better-dressed event. The second sign that things weren’t going my way was the complete absence of any kind of poster in the store.
We skulked around for a while, spying out the place. In every other store I’d read in, even when there was no real space for a reading, there was a display up long before the reading as advertising. This usually had lots of books out, with a poster announcing the date and time. It’s a small thing, but that way the store at least alerts the foot traffic that there’ll be an event in the store. The fact that no one bothered to set something like this up stabbed a cold dagger of fear into my heart. Jesus Christ, I thought, fewer people than usual are going to be aware of this.
We did find some posters up near the entrance, along with 500 posters for other things. I began to really worry. We skulked back to the hotel to get my bag and contemplate the coming humiliation, which, I had to admit, I was beginning to taste in the back of my throat, familiar and bitter. We got back to Olssons about five minutes after the time advertised, and they had put up a little card table with a bunch of books displayed, along with some wine and cheese and crackers. The store manager greeted me, and was very nice, but my sense of horror increased exponentially as the following conversation took place:
Manager: Hi! Thanks for coming.
Me: Sure. Where will I be reading?
Manager: Uh, well, we don’t have any space for that, so I thought you’d just stand up on those stairs.
Me: Excuse me…
[I wander off a few feet and just stand still as a wave of terror passes through me]
Me: I’m back.
Manager: You okay? You were shivering.
Me: Actually, it was vibrating. I’ll be fine. How many people do you usually get for these readings?
Manager: We never have readings at this store. All the readings are at our other locations.
Me: So the answer, I guess, is zero?
Manager: Guess so. Some wine? It’s free.
Me: Leave the bottle.
I don’t blame the manager, or the store. I could have done more to promote myself, certainly. The store, on the other hand, could have a) done more to promote the reading and b) either booked me into the usual spot where people actually expected to see readings, or just politely told me that it wouldn’t work and saved everyone some trouble. I wandered the store, bottle of wine permanently wedged in my mouth, and watched the place empty out. People were streaming for the doors, as if fleeing my appearance. I wanted to instruct Security Chief Ken West to block the doors with trash cans or something, but Ken hadn’t come along this time. I only had effete artiste Jeof Vita and his girlishly long hair, his fiance Misty Quinn who didn’t seem inclined to break a sweat, my sainted mother who is 68 years old, and Legal Counsel The Duchess, who was standing far away from me lest the stench of failure attach itself to her. So I was powerless.
After a few minutes, the manager decided the torture had gone on long enough and hopped up on the stairs to announce me…to nobody. My friends and family gathered around, and I stumbled up there with a copy of my book. The three or four employees of Olssons took up positions too, possibly prompted by the kindly manager to give me some semblance of an audience. It helped; I always love my friends, but man, if I’d been there by myself I would have swallowed my tongue. At least with seven or eight people acting interested, I was able to start – reading fast to just get it over with. As I read, a few browsing customers wandered by and paused to listen, which gave me more incentive, so I managed to do the whole chapter without too much horror. Jeof took lots of pictures, trying to angle about and catch people in poses that looked like they were paying attention, for future propaganda. When I finished, at least there was some applause.
The manager seemed genuinely impressed, and kept a few copies of Freaks on hand despite the fact that no one came, which was nice. Plus, an acquaintance who’d helped me book the reading but who hadn’t been able to attend bought a copy of Lifers to be nice, so I felt a bit better about it. I was reminded of Matt Dillon in Singles: “All this negative energy just makes me stronger.”
In fact, all that negative energy just made me thirsty. We thanked everyone and I tried to look dignified as I ran the fuck out of there as fast as I could, but not before getting directions to the nearest tavern from the manager. At The Big Hunt a dejected TISIC ordered drinks, but our depression, as always, didn’t last long. In the familiar tavern darkness, with drinks sweating on the table, and with our convivial company filling up the empty spaces, our spirits rose. By the second round, we were completely recovered, and I was already happily re-inventing the event, turning it into a rousing success. I knew that after a few months I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the real memory and the happy fake memory, leaving me free to discard the real memory and have nothing but happy recollections. It had been a successful strategy for thirty years.
In the end, what did I learn? Nothing, as usual. A wiser man, however, might have learned the following three rules of life: 1. Never admit you’re there until you’re sure it’s going to work out (if I’d skulked a bit longer and overheard them cackling about no one coming, I could have slinked away with my dignity); 2. Never assume that the publicity gods will help you – just when you need them, they will abandon you; 3. The sound of my voice is mesmerizing – by the time I was done I was entranced.
So remember, folks, next time you see an ad for a reading of mine, out of simple human pity, show up.