Paranoia and pity

That’s what I felt as I walked the aisles of Book Expo America last weekend in New York City. Well okay, maybe I shouldn’t use such extreme words — maybe what I actually felt was anxiety and sympathy, seeing the hundreds of publishers and the thousands and thousands of books on display. So much competition, so many titles vying for attention, and there was my upcoming book, VANISH, up against the many books being hawked. Attending a huge trade convention like BEA is a stark reminder to any author that publishing is a seriously competitive business, and that any author is lucky just to make a living at a job that everyone and his cousin seems to want to be doing, the wonderful job of, as my hero Lawrence Block puts it, “telling lies for fun and profit.” That’s what I do, folks. I tell lies. And I get paid for it.

Is there any better job in the world?

The trouble is, everyone else wants to do it, too.

For those who are interested in what authors do at an event like BEA, here’s the honest truth: We’re there to beg for attention. We hawk our wares. We sit at booths signing our books for anyone interested enough to want to snag a free copy. (Did I mention these copies are FREE? That attendees could get a copy WITHOUT PAYING A CENT?) Despite that most tempting offer, there were many forlorn authors sitting ignored at booths with piles of their books in front of them, unwanted by anyone. (FREE books!)

Here’s where the emotion “pity” comes in.

I was cruising by the author signing booths and saw huge lines of fans wanting books from the big names like Lisa Scottoline and Douglas Preston — and my heart bled for the authors with no lines. The authors whose books no one wanted. Even though the copies were free. If it weren’t for the fact my suitcase was already full and I couldn’t possibly fit in another book, I would have stepped up to their booths, just to make them feel less forlorn. Because I know what they’re feeling; I’ve been there, felt that.

That’s the advantage of having worked my way up from the bottom in the publishing world. I didn’t start off from day one as a successful author. I’m one of those 10-year overnight successes, having first hit the New York Times bestseller list not with my first book, but with my tenth. I know what it’s like to desperately want recognition, to want someone, anyone, to read one of my books.

So to all you authors who are just starting out, to all you authors who couldn’t even GIVE AWAY your books at BEA: Hang in there. My heart’s with you.

Years ago, I attended a bookseller’s trade show in northern California. Now, any of you who’ve been to San Francisco know that it is a seriously literary town. A town where authors of popular fiction are sometimes made to feel like… well, the visiting whore. So there I was, with copies of my suspense novel, and none of the local booksellers even gave me a second glance. They all rushed for the booth where the latest Hot New Author was selling his Hot New Literary Novel. You probably know what I’m talking about — the book with the sepia cover and the great Kirkus quote. Booksellers lined up for half a mile to get a copy of his book.

I think I gave away (with a lot cajoling) about twelve of mine.

Fast forward to six years later. That Hot New Author has since vanished from the face of the earth. That Hot New Literary Masterpiece was his one and only novel.

Meanwhile, the reliable old workhorse author (me) is still turning out books. Starting to sell pretty well. And every year I see another crop of Hot New Authors with long lines of booksellers anxious to pick up the latest Hot-New-Sepia-Book-With-Great-Kirkus-Quotes.

Some things never change.

I’ve been in this business long enough to understand that what really matters in publishing success is longevity and consistency. That real writers, the true professionals, are the ones who write book after book, year after year. The buzz isn’t ever about the old reliables. The buzz is always about the new kid on the block.

The rest of us just, well, do our jobs and write.

But back to BEA — so what else does an author do there?

If we’re lucky, and we behave ourselves, and we clean up well, they let us out to talk to the media. The most fun I had was being interviewed for “Book Look TV” by actor James Michael Tyler (who — hurray for him! — had actually read VANISH and knew what he was talking about!) I think I might have freaked him out a little with my true stories of corpses waking up from the dead, but he handled his disgust with the aplomb of a true professional.

What else did we do? Well, we’re WRITERS! We know how to toss down a few drinks and party.

One of the BEA highlights was attending the launch cocktail party of a brand new organization, International Thriller Writers, which was held at the Algonquin Hotel on Saturday night. The place was so packed with luminaries you could hardly move. I had my photo taken with Kathy Reichs and Heather Graham. I hung out with old pals Gary Braver and Michael Palmer and Gregg Hurwitz and Gayle Lynds. I made new pals like David Morrell, JA Konrath and MJ Rose. All of them are successful authors.

Yet I wonder how many of them felt the same thing I did, walking through the vast BEA exhibit hall: MY GOD LOOK AT ALL THESE OTHER AUTHORS’ BOOKS! I’M AN INSIGNIFICANT ANT!