Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Gareth Crocker

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What’s worse than nobody coming to your event?

The reality of being a South African author is really quite interesting.

On a recent publicity trip to promote my current novel, Never Let Go, I found myself standing in the lobby of a fancy hotel, preparing to sign for my room. Feeling a little bored, I decided to have a bit of fun. When the lady behind the desk asked for my name, I answered, ‘Gareth Crocker … you know, like the internationally-renowned, world-bestselling author.’ When she issued me with the blank stare that I both deserved and knew was coming, I shot her an incredulous look as if to suggest that it was utterly impossible that she had never heard the name before. ‘He wrote Finding Jack, Journey from Darkness,’ I pleaded, stopping just short of thumping my fist on the desk. ‘Never Let Go! Look, I have a copy of it right here!’

‘Sorry,’ she replied, scanning the jacket. ‘Never heard of him. Are you related?’

I glanced at my publicist just in time to see her drop her head into her hands. Her patience, like her sense of humour, stretches only so far. I test both on a regular basis.

An hour later, I was on my way to a fairly standard book store event. This typically takes the form of a sort of ‘coffee morning’ at a nearby restaurant where a group of readers or a book club come together for a cappuccino, a slice of cake and to hear about the book store’s latest releases. If you’re invited as an author, the host (almost always the book store manager) will eventually introduce you and your book and then the floor is yours. You have around ten minutes to tell the assembled readers a little more about yourself and to discuss your latest offering in some detail. Invariably, you’re standing in front of a table stacked high with your novels and, once you’re finished punting your work, your host invites readers to come up to the table to buy your book.

‘And Gareth will even … sign it for you,’ your host says, often in the sort of conspiratorial whisper that suggests she dare not speak too loudly for fear that passers-by might hear her and immediately trample everyone to death in an attempt to get to the front of the queue.

After this build up try to imagine, if you can, what it feels like to sit down at the lonely little table and stare out into a sea of faces – none of whom, you soon realise, have even the vaguest interest in buying your novel, let alone having it signed. What follows is the most uncomfortable five minutes of your life while you wait, by yourself, like a human cactus, while absolutely nobody buys your book. You smile, of course, as if you couldn’t be bothered either way, but inside you’re praying for a bomb to go off under your chair. You would practically offer up your right arm for some sort of almighty calamity that would bring an end to your suffering. You even consider faking your own death.

Of course, this is real life and there is no rescue from embarrassment. Instead, you sit at the head of the world’s quietest coffee shop exchanging awkward looks with the crowd who, by now, are starting to take pity on you. Eventually, some kind-natured soul stands up and comes over to you.

‘Uh … I’ll take one of your books,’ the voice says.

‘Oh okay,’ you reply in a casual tone, but your trembling bottom lip betrays your apparent coolness. ‘Who should I sign it to?’

‘Er … rather don’t sign it. You can’t return novels to the bookstore if they have any writing in them.’

Ah, right.

After she takes her seat, you wait another three minutes or so – age twelve years in the process – and then you peel yourself off your sweat-soaked chair, thank your host, and beat a hasty retreat. As you leave, you steal one last glance over your shoulder at the forlorn stack of books and try not to burst into tears. That’s what parking lots are for.

Leaving the venue, you try to shake it off, but that’s a little like asking someone who’s suffering from the most apocalyptic case of diarrhoea if they can, quote, ‘hold it together until the next rest stop’.

To add insult to injury, you are about to head off to another event where, quite possibly, precisely the same misery awaits.

To be fair, this obviously doesn’t always happen – sometimes there is tremendous interest in your novel and your pile of books simply evaporates and, for the merest of moments, you feel every inch the successful author. But these events are not the ones you remember. They barely resonate. It’s the ones where you make an absolute arse of yourself that remain with you. After all, and as any author will know, ten positive book reviews are always sunk by one bad one.

I am pleased to report, however, that I am not alone when it comes to attending disastrous book events. I recently did a few events with the international best-selling author, Stuart MacBride, who told me that he was once invited to an event with the worst possible turnout.

‘What? Nobody pitched?’ I said, shocked that someone like Stuart would have to face an empty room.

‘Oh no,’ he shot back, in his thick Scottish brogue. ‘It was much worse than that.’

I looked at him and shrugged. ‘What’s worse than nobody pitching?’

‘One person pitching,’ he replied somberly. ‘And not only did he expect me to give my whole 45-minute talk, but he refused my offer of doing it face-to-face in the pub across the road. For reasons unknown, he absolutely insisted that we do it in the venue. And so I spoke to eighty empty chairs and one rather oddball guest for over an hour. And do you know what the funniest thing was?’

I shook my head.

‘He had driven almost a hundred kilometers to attend the event. He owned every one of my previous novels, but refused to buy the hardcover that was on sale at the venue. He told me that he could save two quid if he waited for the paperback.’

The truth about being an author with a new novel to promote is that some days you present to a room bursting with keen and enthusiastic people – some have even read your previous work and, at a stretch, you could even label them as … gulp … fans. Other days the room’s half empty and nobody really cares. But some days, if the weather’s right, it can just be you and one weird die-hard reader who may, or may not be, someone who likes to make lamp shades out of human skin.

On a final note, I was recently invited to speak at the Franschhoek Literary Festival which, I must say, is a brilliant event held in one of the most spectacular little towns on earth. The people are great and the food is heavenly.

The big star at this year’s event was the wonderful and charming, Alexander McCall Smith – and I can comment on the man with some authority having enjoyed a two-hour long chat with him over dinner recently. Anyway, his attendance at the event would ultimately spell disaster for me.

I was part of a three-member author panel who happened to be speaking at precisely the same time as Alexander was scheduled to talk at the adjacent venue.

As I stared out across the room, I counted twenty souls amongst all the empty chairs. Twenty folk who, bless them, had chosen to come and listen to us as opposed to the wonderfully engaging and all-round amazing gentleman that is Alexander McCall Smith (hell, even I wanted to be in the room across the road).

But then I noticed that seven people in the audience were, in fact, from my own publishing team. Ah, okay. So that leaves thirteen people who are genuinely interested in us. And then the two authors sitting beside me waved to their respective publishing teams. Twelve people winked, nodded and gave their authors the thumbs up. That left one last person in the room who didn’t work for a publisher.

Well, I thought, at least one member of the reading public is keen to hear from us.

And then the author to my left waved to the lone guest. ‘Hi mom, thanks for coming.’

‘My pleasure, darling. Wouldn’t miss it,’ she replied with a bright smile. ‘By the way, do you know when Alexander McCall Smith is speaking? I really don’t want to miss him.’


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    August 29th, 2013 @20:41 #

    Really enjoyed this.


Please register or log in to comment

» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat