I gave a book reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables the other day. Before I got to the reading itself, I spoke to the audience. Here is part of what I said:
When someone learns that I, an unknown author, wrote a novel, I get two types of reactions.
The first comes from those whom I call ‘the Skeptics’. They say “Oh, really. That’s nice…” while they think, “Even my dimwit cousin has written a book. Really, how hard can it be?” They smile and move away as quickly as possible. If a skeptic should know me personally, then the skeptic looks a little anxious. He or she is thinking, “You’re going to ask me to read your book, aren’t you?” They smile and start working on a graceful exit just in case.
Then there’s the positive reaction of the other half. They greet the news with enthusiasm, “Oh really? Fantastic!” They say. “Let’s see it.” So, I take out a hardcover copy of Eye of the Moon. It’s a bigger book than they expect.
Once again, the reactions bifurcate. One-half looks at me with renewed respect, while the other looks aghast and thinks to themselves, just like the skeptics, “For God’s sake don’t ask me to read that thing. It’s huge.”
Now, I’ve sold my share of books at book fairs. I know how to counter that particular objection. I say, “Well, it may be long, but no one wants a good book to end. It’s the bad ones that we all wish were smaller.”
The hearer chuckles, but indirectly, I’ve hit upon the question they all want to ask but haven’t the nerve to do so. They want to know, “Is your book one of the good ones?”
It’s a fair question because finding a captivating book is a treat. Great ones can take you into worlds you wished you could step into forever. They can change your life; however, finding a good one is like winning the lottery. It’s a rare moment. Still readers never give up. They scan reviews, look at covers, talk to each other, and search here and there. All in all, they are a discriminating bunch, and well they should be. A good book is such a joy to read; a bad one–such a waste of time.
At this point in the conversation, a potential reader will often look at me more closely to see if it’s possible I could have written a good one, based on my appearance. When I see that happening, I smile and look charming. Sometimes that even works.
As I mentioned, most potential readers will never ask me point blank if my book is one of those rare finds. Firstly, most people are too polite, particularly when they know they’re talking to the author. Secondly, they expect the answer to be yes. If the author doesn’t think it’s any good, why go any further?
Occasionally they add “Nice cover”, but underneath each of them is asking the same thing: will I be captivated? Of course, the question never comes out that way, they ask instead, “What’s it about?”
They want to get an inkling of what’s between the covers without investing a great deal of time, money, or effort.
With this question now hanging, the author is on the spot. How does anyone condense 160,000 words into a few sentences? I have thought about that at length, and my answer is “Not well.” The fact is the compression algorithm necessary to do that simply doesn’t exist.
Let me put it another way. Imagine going up to Herman Melville and saying, “Pleasure to meet you, Herman, what’s your book about?”
“A whale.” He answers.
“A whale?” You say. “Hmmm. Really? That’s nice.”
I think this has been a problem for authors since writing began. It was true then, and it is certainly true now.
Not only must an author write well, an author must be a genius at promotion and summation, and when weighed one against the other, writing is the easier.