Book signing angst

100_2063In the entire world there are only 19 writers of creative non-fiction whose primary income is royalties from sales of their books, and I am not one of them.

Book signing angst

Book signings tie me up in knots.

Not the event itself. Every one of my book signings has been pleasant and cheerful, a couple hours of uplifting and energized socializing with readers. (It’s doubtful that I am the source of that positive ambience because “pleasant” and “cheerful” are not the words most people would use to describe my character.)

Invariably, these book signings are enjoyable times. A writer friend who has done dozens of them once told me, “A book signing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” Not exactly true, and I do not insist that guests keep their clothes on at my book signings, but I get the gist of his statement.

I have done signings and readings in book stores, coffee shops, seminar classrooms, and college book shops, places that have a genial and tolerant clientele, so I have been well-received for the most part. I received a crank e-mail message before one that was a vague threat that an animal rights group would show up to protest against my “blood sports” writing (it turned out to be a gag). When one of my Over the Hill Gang cronies learned of this, he said a protest, with fisticuffs and arrests, could be the big break that boosts my writing fame and career. He predicted I would be invited to do book signings in sports bars all across the country. My own feeling is that my books, like handguns, should not be bandied about in bars.

No, there has never been a rude person or an untoward incident at any of my book signings. I always have a good time, and the guests seem to have a good time, too. But the hours leading up to the book signing, those are agony. It’s a time to reflect, with fear and dread, on all the things that might go wrong.

Writers know that the universal plot element in every story is putting the protagonist in situations where things go wrong. Drastically wrong. A tale of life-changing adversities and mishaps, if the book is any good at all. Mayhem, anguish, distress, heartbreak, misery – we’re good at recognizing human suffering and lathering it into our stories.

So recognizing the potential for catastrophes in our own lives is no great leap. Writers, I have come to realize, are both amazed and exceedingly happy when things go well because we always expect the worst. I have no trouble imagining the dozens of disasters looming over a Friday evening book signing.

First, and most terrifying, is the very real possibility that no one will come. Friday is a busy night, after all, with several competing events in town, and who would choose to go to my pathetic book reading rather than attend the yarn selection workshop of the Norwegian knitters’ guild?

How many books do we put on display? If there are 50 books on the tables and nine people attend, it will look ridiculous. If we put 20 books on display and 30 people want to buy one, it will be worse.

Also, there is the issue of my illegible signature. I’ve more or less solved that problem by both printing my name under the scribbled dedication and then adding my signature at the bottom of the title page, but people still look askance at the scrawl that is purportedly my name and wonder if I am in fact functionally literate. My only solace is that my third grade teacher who did her best to instruct me in the basics of cursive penmanship is deceased and will never see this evidence of her failure.

Which essays to read? The anxiety of selecting two or three stories from the 30-some published in the book is torture. To begin with, I am a writer, not an orator. Reading these pieces aloud, I sound like a poorly cast extra in a high school production of a George Bernard Shaw play. Not that it matters, because the writing is terrible, clearly the dregs of my genre.

“Not a single one of these essays is any good,” I tell my wife, Patti. “They’re all horrible. Junk. Garbage. Crap!”

“How about the one that had two thousand views on your blog?” she asks. “Is that one crap?”

“I think English professors are assigning that one for students to read as a bad example of expository prose.”

What it comes down to is that people attend book signings to hobnob with a successful writer. If the author is a bit eccentric or a local character of cranky reputation, it adds to the charm of the evening, but the central fact is that readers must have some regard for the work of the featured writer. And preparing for a book signing event I am nakedly aware of this brutal truth: In the entire world there are only 19 writers of creative non-fiction whose primary income is royalties from sales of their books, and I am not one of them.

Okay, maybe there are twenty, but I’m still not in that elite rank.

So I sit and I stew as I brace myself for the book signing event that the local book store has scheduled for my latest collection of essays, Coot Stews. How fitting.

Just as I am about to call in sick and plead for cancellation of the event, the phone rings and an old friend, and writer, has called to tell me she will be attending. I feel a flood of relief.

“More to the point,” she says, “can we go to the bar for a beer right after?”

Well, I’m definitely going, and anyone who wants to tag along is more than welcome. If you’re buying the beer, I’ll even read another essay.


More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.



About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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