Thursday, March 30, 2006

Writer appreciation

Writing is a solitary activity. Hours are spent in front of a computer screen, putting words up, without any assurance that anyone will be interested in reading them. For many who toil at the writing craft, they tell of being driven and almost willed to write, as if not setting their thoughts down might invoke some psychic harm.

Occasionally and depending on what kind of writer you are, you are given the opportunity to speak about your book and to meet those who’ve read your book and future readers, who are interested in purchasing a copy of your work.

For the wildly popular writers who make up the best sellers lists, they are sent out on lengthy book tours by their publisher and travel to major cities and book chains around the country. The second tier writers, those who tend to write subject-driven non-fiction, do book tours, but are more apt to get sent to smaller cities. From what I’ve read, both types of tours can be grueling. For elite writers, such as Stephen King, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling, their book signings are true events. These consist of long lines of fans, sho are willing to wait hours to catch a glimpse of their literary hero and have the chance to speak a few brief words and have their book officially signed by these mega-stars. These exemplify the best case scenario for authors.

The less popular writers often sit behind a table and have people wander up and they too, sign copies of their book, but usually in much smaller quantities. According to industry statistics, the average number of books sold at a book signing is five. I used to find that incredible, but having been subjected to the book signing of the second type, I now know that selling five books (or fewer) can be a reality, especially when you’re not a household name, or a visitor to Oprah’s book club.

As a writer of subject-driven non-fiction, which also happens to be of a regional orientation, I might inhabit a third tier of the writing pantheon. Out of necessity, writers like me self-schedule a haphazard book promotion tour, but without a major publisher behind the book, we do fewer stores and they tend to be concentrated around our base of operations. Occasionally, book signings become mini-events, such as my initial book launch signing in Auburn, last September, which resulted in a healthy turnout and solid sales. More often than not, however, you end up sitting behind your table, praying that book browsers will wander by and speak with you, so you don’t have to endure the awkward isolation of being ignored.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Portland High School librarian, Susie Wright, I was invited to the school for an author’s visit. An obvious fan of local literature and appreciative of the role of Maine-based regional writers, Wright organized a Baumer on Baseball Reading Promotion. Recognizing the imminence of the coming baseball season and utilizing the subject matter of When Towns Had Teams, Wright coordinated a school wide program of trivia and writing contests, culminating with my visit.

Some of the student essays, in particular the winning one, were very well-written. The winning student work, Baseball Dreams, was an evocative ode to a father, a long-time Yankees fan, growing up playing sandlot baseball and about his first chance to attend a game in person, at Yankee Stadium.

After presenting four talks on my book and town team and semi-pro baseball in Maine, a luncheon was held, with yours truly being the guest of honor. This was all very humbling, as writers like me are not used to receiving this kind of “star” treatment. At the same time, it felt great to have worked so hard on a unique book, one that captures a time and place from Maine’s past that has criminally been neglected.

Several teachers expressed their appreciation, including one of the school’s history teachers, who said that her class will be studying the period of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning next week. Apparently my presentations gave her some helpful material that she plans to tie in to her own materials. Another teacher, who teaches at one of the city's middle schools, drove across town, during her lunch break, to pick up copies of the book, because she found out I had mentioned her dad, a former town team player in Dixmont. She had his old uniform, from the late 1950s, or 1960s, which she brought along to show me. This was a real thrill for me, seeing an actual artifact from the time period I wrote about.

All-in-all yesterday was a special day in the life of this author. Regardless of what genre a writer works in and irrespective of their subject, all of us long to be appreciated for what we turn out. If the book is one that has a niche orientation, these days are few and far between and should be savored and treasured.

Portland High School is very fortunate to have a librarian like Susie Wright. Her creativity, passion for local books and her understanding of their importance in the educational environment has renewed in me some optimism about our education system. Rather than just biding her time in her position, as some educators do, she seized an opportunity and as a result, some high school kids in Maine got to hear about something local, from the past, with an application for the present, supplied by yours truly. I was also encouraged by other teachers, who obviously have a passion for local subject matter, like Toni Skillings. I had heard good things about Portland High School and I am thrilled to have been able to have experienced the type of educational setting that I wish was the norm in our schools.

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