No need for a show of hands here, but how many of us have heard ourselves say, “I wish I’d have done that?”
Right to the point here.
None of us are getting any younger and the older members of our families have our history between their ears. While these memories are still functioning our job is to record these recollections.
It’s our last shot at our family’s history, the story about our past to be passed on to future generations.
Now, just to let you know that I have practiced what I’m preaching here, I did this with my family but I’ll also refer to my books, Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told By The Men Who Brought The Game Relief, “ and V&Me “Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story.”
In writing those oral histories—equipped with my hand-held recorder—I interviewed several hundred people. Of those hundreds at least fifty are no longer alive.
From V&Me, well Dean Smith just passed away last week. And the week before we lost Don Shea, my old friend the WTVD TV sports reporter, who became one of V’s business partners. Yesterday it was Jerry Tarkanian, the UNLV coach.
Like the voices of Pen Men these folks’ stories (in many cases), had I not captured them, would have been gone forever. If my premise had no merit the National Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t have asked (and received) all 72 cassette tapes of the voices of Pen Men.
Oh, pardon the transition, but that said, how many of us have living memories of WWII in our family?
Better get them!
Okay, point made. Now let’s get busy.
- Purchase (should you not have one) a hand-held recorder and a number of mini-cassettes. There are some excellent digital recorders (which I use as well) but sometimes the recordings get lost in the technology and so I’d recommend the use of tapes—which you can label and keep—that’s what the Baseball Hall of Fame now has in their archives—-my cassettes labeled with each announcer, player or baseball guy’s name.
- Okay, if you’re looking for a hand-held recorder (good old Amazon), click here. If you’d rather use a hand-held video camera that can work as well but bring the recorder as a backup because some people (“Oh, how do I look? Etc.) clam up when the little red light comes on.
- Identify the oldest and most lucid members of your family, the folks who know the stories and have the history. Shake your family tree until the names of these people fall like acorns. They don’t have to be elders; any of us might have stories that have been passed along over the years.
- Make a list and add to this list when Cousin Mary says (during your interview), “Oh, you have to talk to Katherine, she has the best stories.” For the most part you’ll get and enjoy important, meaningful pieces of your family history.
Who knows, Katherine may even come up with something as fun and as trivial as this!!!!
My uncle Chub (90) told me this one last year and now Chub and I are the only ones who know the story about my Grandfather Roop who, as the town’s butcher and saint, fed the little mill town of Union Bridge, Maryland, through the Great Depression. “So, on Halloween his son Johnny (my uncle who was later killed heroically in the Pacific in WWII) hooks a manure spreader to a pickup truck, waters down his load and as he’s fertilizing main street with the town cop on his tail, Johnny slams on the brakes, the cop rear-ends something that came from, well a rear-end and tears up the front end of the police car. When the officer arrives at my Grandfather Roop’s meat market he hands Grandy a bill for $265 for damages done to the car. My grandfather calmly walks to the huge basket where he kept the town’s IOUs pulled about a dozen of the cop’s unpaid bills and counting them out says, “Here you go, Donnie, this should cover it!!
- Back on task. Place these names of potential interviews (or anything you ever heard these relatives relate at reunions, etc.) on a note pad in preparation of your interviews. For instance (me talking to my older sister here about our grandparents) “E.A. I have a vague memory of Popa and Nana’s Georgetown town house, in Washington, DC. I know the address was 2733 P Street and I remember staying there in the late 1940s—there was a little cafeteria nearby, where we walked down a flight of stairs to eat. I remember the kitchen in the town house had furniture painted a bright green and that Nana had a fox stole that we called, ‘Na Nya!’ but that’s all I recall. Oh, except that from their bedroom window we could see a red light flashing off in the distance and that it was atop the Capital. Tell me everything you remember about 2733 P Street and our visits there.”
- It’s time to turn on that hand-held recorder, and with pen in hand open a loose leaf tablet, and to sit back and listen. If the storyteller triggers another memory that you might have or even one that isn’t in your notes, make a note and then use that note as a follow-up question. “You just mentioned our trips to the Smithsonian when we visited, I don’t recall that at all. Any specific stories from our trips there?”
- If you have old family photographs (may not even know who the people are) bring then along for the interviews as they make a wonderful catalyst for conversation.
- Okay, say your great aunt Sue lives in California and you’re here in North Carolina. How do you interview her? Through a series of phone calls or e-mails arrange to carry out the interview on the phone. There are neat little ear pieces for your recorders that make this possible. I interviewed Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher, at three in the morning from his apartment in Japan where he was playing at that time. Ryan Duren, the great Yankee fastballer, the one with the thick wire rimmed glasses talked to me via the phone from a bathtub somewhere in Wisconsin.
- Oh, look for surprises. That’s one of the many joys of this process. I was talking to Mace Brown, the man who threw one of the most infamous pitches in baseball history, the one where Gabby Hartnett took a Mace fastball into the dark of the night costing the Pirates the pennant. It was called The Homer in the Gloamin’ I was prepared for this story, knew it down to the pitch count. And when Mace gave me it from his perspective he suddenly turned to his wife who was washing dishes and said, “Hon, do you remember that little movie camera I bought you that you used to film Babe Ruth’s last home run?” And then he told the story of the Babe’s last three in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and how after he’d hit the last one (Ruth was with the Boston Braves then) how the Bambino touched home plate and came right to the Pirates dugout to go down the runway to the Braves locker room. Then just as he was ready to make his exit, he suddenly plopped down on the bench next to Brown, a rookie Pirates pitcher, looked down the bench at the Bucs players and said, “Boys, that last one felt good!”Now, that’s history and thanks to Mace Brown we know what Babe Ruth said after hitting his last home run. You may not have any Babe Ruths in your family but trust me you will, through this process, record some home runs.
- When you’ve interviewed everybody and anybody (it doesn’t have to be family, it can be close friends or neighbors) there are technical ways to take the spoken word and put it in writing.
- I sit at my computer and type every word that’s said into a document, going back and forth with the recordings—rewind, type, rewind, type. This is a very tedious task but it pays dividends in the end because by the time you’ve finished—although a great deal of the conversation may be unusable—you know what was said. Trust me repetition is a tremendous teacher.
- So you have it word for word transcribed. Now, don’t be shy about this, when necessary edit the heck out of it. Don’t change it; just make it make sense conversationally. Let one story lead to another to another until you have a “chapter” called, again for instance, “My Sister E.A Remembers Our Family.”
- When the identifying, the questioning, the recording, the transcribing and the editing is done, read each piece carefully and if you see anything that might merit a follow-up question (again, sometimes a phone call will do) go for it. You want the gathering to be complete!
- The presentation of this oral history is the easy part. Any and every printer or printing store—KINKOS—can take a disc of your work and present it to you in bound copies that will look like you’ve been published by Random House.
- About those old family photographs. Drop them into the copy. It will only enhance the history.And, hey, the finished product makes a great gift but the gift we’re talking about here isn’t limited to a package being opened by your great aunt on Christmas morning—it’s the life story of your family, something to be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.
We’re living in an age where TV shows—American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, You’ve Got Talent, etc.—make one a bit jaded when it comes to the selection of their winners.
Can you say popularity contests?
Hell, my wife has a friend who speed dials Dancing with the Stars, casting her votes for cute guys who dance like Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes.
And when it comes to sports, don’t get me started.
Major League Baseball awards the home team advantage in the World Series to the team that wins its annual mid-summer All-Star game. And the All-Star position players are selected by beer swilling ballot stuffing fans.
Then there’s the most prestigious induction of major leaguers into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here members of the Baseball Writers Association of America earn a Hall of Fame vote from its organization by simply having maintained 10 consecutive years on a baseball beat.
Problem! Some of these scribes are long since retired and haven’t been to a major league game since the last time a grandchild dragged them kicking and screaming (without their freebee credentials) through the stadium’s turnstiles. Others, for instance, who may have covered the Yankees wouldn’t vote in a Red Sox player if you slipped them a Pulitzer.
Now, all that said, when I was asked to be one-of- three judges for the 2014 Annual Casey Award, the competition that selects Best Baseball Book of the Year, I was indeed flattered.
In my defense I knew the reputation of the people doing the asking. Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine has been at this business of bringing just recognition to authors and publishers of baseball’s best books since 1983. The CASEY was the first award of its kind and widely recognized as the most prestigious that a baseball book can be given, with past winners that include the icons of baseball literature—from Roger Kahn and Leigh Montville to Bill James.
So when Mike Shannon, Spitball’s editor (a man who has written more than his own share of excellent baseball books), came calling I thought for a second or two and said, “Mike, I’d be honored!”
Again, no contest, a competition with no formal submission process and no fees attached. Publishers simply send a review copy. Then Shannon and his competition staff—-based on their perception of the book’s merits—narrow the field to ten final participants. These ten tomes arrive at the three judges’ homes rapid fire during November.
This year (lucky judges) there were so many good books that Shannon and crew expanded our task from ten reads to twelve. The due date for our ranking was January 16, 2015.
Okay, Mr. Mike bring them on. Hell, I’ve been reading baseball books since John R. Tunis introduced me to The Kid from Tompkinsville in the 1950s. The fact that I’d written numerous baseball articles and published both a baseball novel and non-fiction gave me . . . well, I should know a good baseball book when I read one, don’t you think?
Shannon posted this list of the finalists on his web site (www.spitballmag.com) and as short-pantsed UPS and Fed-Ex drivers made their drops at my front door I perused this impressive gathering.
- Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson * Doug Wilson * Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
- The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession * Rick Huhn * University of Nebraska Press
- The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption * John Rosengren * Globe Pequot Press
- Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line * William C. Kashatus * University of Nebraska Press
- Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life * Dennis Snelling * McFarland
- Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion * Andy McCue * University of Nebraska Press
- A Nice Little Place on the North Side * George F. Will * Crown Archetype
- Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher * Rob Goldman * Triumph Books
- Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 * Scott Simkus * Chicago Review Press
- Pete Rose: An American Dilemma * Kostya Kennedy * Time Home Entertainment
- Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball * Roger Kahn * Rodale
- 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever * Bill Madden * Da Capo Press.
Oh, the listing came equipped with a note reminding us that The 32nd CASEY Awards Banquet would take place on Sunday March 15, 2015, at Crosley’s Sports Bar & Eatery in St. Bernard, Ohio.
Again, working independently (I don’t know the other judges), we would rank the books from “least best” to “best” in an effort to identify the book which makes “the greatest contribution to baseball literature,” literature being defined in its broadest sense. Five criteria would guide us though our task: literary quality, informational content, analytical content, originality, and artistic appeal. The amount of emphasis to place on each of this criterion was left up to us with a gentle reminder that we should not be influenced by previous books written by the nominated authors as The Casey is not a “lifetime achievement” award.
This, thank God, sounded nothing like a popularity contest at all. This was clearly a competition and the work of the objective. To facilitate the process I set up a Casey File on my computer, listing each read by title, author and publisher. Each of the five criteria would be awarded up to ten points with a (up to) five-point bonus at the end for—in my humble opinion—the contribution the book made to baseball literature.
Designating a well lamped chair in the corner of my pool room I stacked the finalists neatly on both sides of the overstuffed. A tray, within arm’s length contained reading glasses, Visine, sticky notes and a pen.
Let the fun begin.
Oops! Slight problem. Shannon’s guidelines failed to define fun! As I turned the first page of the initial finalist I was reminded that I was clearly not a speed dialing reality show voter or in fact a beer swilling drunk stuffing the MLB All-Star ballot boxes. I was a baseball writer, someone who had experienced what the production of one of these books might entail—from the often relentless pursuit of interviews, the tedium of research and editing to the exhausting task of filling the pages with words that—in the end—make good and informative reading.
I was judging (a word I hate) my fellow writers and would now have to slug through twelve baseball books—page for page—with a most responsible and experienced eye, one that in the end I would hope—for their sakes and mine—made the right call.
I can not reveal my ranking of the books but I can say this about the experience. It was trying, exhausting, tiring, rewarding, entertaining, educational, and in the end a most enjoyable project. And in the end I was quite satisfied with The CASEY’s outcome.
Although the squibs below in no way bring justice to the depth of the works or their gift to baseball literature perhaps they’ll serve as hors d’oeuvres by offering up tidbits I learned about the Grand Old Game.
- Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson—featuring one of my favorite players— among other new insights, informed me that the gold glover was also a hell of a basketball player and recruited by the University of Arkansas to play hoops.
- In The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession, I learned as much about the “objectivity” of scorekeeping as I did baseball as I followed Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie (with the prize for MLB’s batting average a fancy ride called a Chalmers) as they battled for what became an incredibly controversial batting title in 1910.
- Reading The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Rosoboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption, I was made aware of how their fight impacted their futures and how it helped them, in the end live better lives and do so as friends.
- Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line is a candid account of how and why the two men didn’t care much for each other and why—Robinson saw the race/integration issue as an opportunity to draw a line in the dirt and fight while Campy’s attitude differed in that he thought the best way to make way for other great African American players was NOT to make waves.
- Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life sheds light on a career that has been all but ignored and in many cases undervalued.
- Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion is a hefty tome wherein the author most even handedly gives us a picture of the man who not only moved the Dodgers to LA but had a side to him that could be quite moving. And may move even the most diehard Dodger fan a step closer to forgiving O’Malley.
- A Nice Little Place on the North Side not only celebrates Wrigley Field’s 100th year, it ties a ballpark to a city, its politics and populace.
- Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher will bring applause for a career that lasted a major-league record of 27 years while confirming that talent and longevity equal Hall of Fame.
- Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 not only gives the reader a tremendous un-told look-see into the teams and players that were the game’s building blocks (from 1876 to 1950), the author devises a one-of-a-kind grading system that allows us to compare and contrast major leaguers to great players—from African-Americans to overlooked minor leaguers—who weren’t (during those times) afforded the opportunity to suit up in the Bigs.
- Pete Rose: an American Dilemma addresses the paradox of Pete Rose’s persona and after weighing these pros and cons, enables us to think or rethink the Hall of Fame issue.
- Rickey & Robinson: the True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball is just that: the real story of the two men whose lives—clearly examined by a reporter who covered and knew them both—made America and its national pastime better for all.
- 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever tells the stories of these players while underlining the fact that for all Jackie Robinson did to integrate baseball a round of applause is also well overdue for the likes of Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.
Several weeks ago, on the very night I’d finished reading the final book, I staggered upstairs and plopped in front of the TV. Through weary eyes, glancing at the screen, I noted a young singer take the stage on a re-run of The Voice. Pretty soon Blake Shelton—one of the judges—was going on and on about the merits of the kid’s effort. And suddenly I heard myself say something that probably shocked my wife. It sure as hell surprised me!
“Alyce, I used to think this kind of praise was crap. But you know, that kid doesn’t just have a great voice, that was a very creative interpretation of that song. He pushed the envelope on that one . . . really pulled it off. If I were one of the judges, I’d give him an eight just for creativity, maybe a ten for artistic appeal!”
If adult readers dig deep enough into their past they’ll find a writer to whom they owe a debt of gratitude.
A bit overdue but I’m here today to say, “Thank you, John R. Tunis!”
A lousy little grade school student, I loved lunch, recess, and hated everything else, especially fifth period, which we called library.
Hey, for forty minutes a day you had to be quiet and read.
It was my habit to grab anything off the shelf that had pages, find a nice warm spot in the sun next to a window and eye-ball Jane Duncan who was outside playing right field in an older girl’s gym class.
So it wasn’t all bad. But then one day it got better. Taking a break from my fixation on Jane I happened to glance down at a book I’d randomly snared.
The Kid From Tomkinsville, by John R. Tunis.
Reading the dust jacket I learned that Roy Tucker would enter the big leagues (a place I still thought I might end up some day) and that this unsophisticated country boy (which I could also relate to) would be overwhelmed by the luxuries of professional baseball (ah, the dream!). That he’d be taken under the wing of the Dodgers’ veteran catcher Dave Leonard (I happened to be a pretty fair Little League catcher) and that Roy would soon learn that he’d be facing a great deal of hard work if he ever hoped to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Then, just as Roy began to prove himself worthy to wear the Dodgers flannels, a freak accident would threaten to dash his hopes of leading the team to a winning season.
Hold on to your library cards! Robin Cairns had become a reader.
Hey, I’m not saying that I didn’t still grab an occasional peek just to see how Jane was doing out there in her little gym suit. But that was the moment. I was in for the long haul from the first page of this book to the final page of Tunis’s very last novel.
This recent find, The Kid from Tomkinsville, just happened to be the first of Tunis’s baseball series—eight novels about the Brooklyn Dodgers. I would read them all, the Dodgers series, then on to the Iron Duke, All American and Keystone Kids.
I’ve since learned (thank you Wikipedia) that the The Kid from Tompkinsville is often cited by sportswriters and commentators as the book that inspired childhood reading. So I was one of Tunis’s little page turners, one who would grow up to write a number of baseball pieces for Sports Illustrated and SI for Kids, as well as two baseball books, including a novel called The Comeback Kids. Hmmm, interesting a novel with the word kids in the title!
Having trotted out the above creds, I do so well aware that mine are NOT Hall of Fame numbers when compared to other baseball writers who followed in Tunis’s footsteps. These minor accomplishments are—for me—just a confirmation that writers can and do influence writing and reading.
I mean how else do you explain the fact that I can still name the characters from the Tunis books, with Roy Tucker, the Tomkinsville protagonist a given (hell, the character influenced Bernard Malamud’s hero in The Natural), and that two of my favorites were the lesser known Razzle, a grizzled old pitcher, and Chiselbeak, the Dodgers clubhouse attendant.
So it was through Tunis’s books that I learned about writing—characters, character development, plotting, the setting—all about time and place. All the while these stories of his fueled my passion for sports and at this ripe old age baseball remains one of the great loves of my life.
According to our friends at Wikipedia, Tunis (December 7, 1889 —February 4, 1975) is considered by many to be the ‘inventor’ of the modern sports story. He was an American writer and broadcaster. Known for his juvenile sports novels he wrote short stories and non-fiction, including a weekly sports column for The New Yorker magazine.
After graduating from Harvard and serving in the Army during World War I, he began his writing career freelancing for American sports magazines. For the next two decades he wrote short stories and articles about sports and education for magazines including Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire.
And yet he never really considered himself a children’s writer. That said, all but one of his twenty-four books were published for juveniles and their success helped create the juvenile fiction book market in the 1940s.
Iron Duke received the New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Award for best juvenile novel and was named The Horn Book Magazine Best Book. The Child Study Association of America gave its Golden Scroll Award to Keystone Kids.
I’m positive that the awards were well deserved but more importantly (at least to me) John R. Tunis’s works—and I read them all several times—impacted my life in a way that far surpassed lunch and recess. Given my choice today I’ll take library—the homeroom of John R. Tunis and of reading, and writing.
There have been many misconceptions in my life. High school for instance, sitting there on the bench during basketball games thinking that if I could just drop about 30 pounds that our head cheerleader would come crawling to me like a lonely reptile!
Numerous others come to mind but the in-store book signing experience might just top my list.
At best it’s that 15-minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised us. At worst, well, at least it will be fun.
Not so fast my published or soon-to-be published friends!
Now, I have to be clear about this experience because it applies, in my case, to a published author whose name wouldn’t turn a head if I tossed one of my books in a passing car’s open window.
And to my friends at book stores who do a great job with book signings, this life experience isn’t necessarily directed at you—this is just a heads up to future signers. Regardless of the experiences that await them they should know that in-store signings come with the publishing territory and is something that they all should consider doing.
At least once!
So, your book comes out, if it’s a national publisher or good regional press the publicist cranks out a press release, reviews begin to straggle in and somewhere in the backwash, through the publicity, calls are made from the publisher to booksellers—from the small independents to the Barnes & Nobles— “Bless ’em all, Bless ’em all.The long and the short and the tall”.
Eventually an events person at one of these stores bites and your publicist rings you up to say that they have “… an incredible opportunity for you.”
Thank you Jesus!
It seems that the Barnes & Noble in your hometown wants you to come for a book signing. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are the big book selling window, so how does December 12 sound?”
“Well, that sounds great, I happen to have that date open (along with every other cold December night).
You learn that you may be asked to read a passage or two from the book, open the floor to a question and answer session and should expect to be signing books well into the night.
Publicist: “Does this work for you?”
And there’s more good news. The book store will not only publicize the event in their newsletter they’ll splash little signs around their store—leading up to this big hoo ha—letting the free world know that Bob Cairns will actually be in the store—from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. on December 12 (or whenever) to meet, greet and sign his new book.
Let’s make that a small w—how about “wow!”
One important comment here. No matter how many times you do this you will never, ever be quite prepared for the experience. And again, I’m not talking about authors with the million dollar advances whose names are twice the size of the book’s title on their latest cover. These writers have freakin’ groupies, boy groupies and girl groupies, readers of all ages, fans who would buy a 20 pound armload of their books just to stand and gaze into the author’s (often) myopic eyes and gush about the book reading like poetry as the author inscribes something in iambic pentameter like, “ To Doris, all the best, Bill Bestseller.”
As an NC State University PR guy, whose job from time to time was to play the role of the publicist (Jim Graham’s Farm Family Cookbook for City Folks, by Jim Graham, the revered NC Commissioner of Agriculture; and then Secrets of Success “North Carolina Value-Based Leadership,” General Henry Hugh Shelton, 14th Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) I saw how book signings can and should go—long lines of gleeful buyers, books in tow, happy to meet, greet and (to the sound of a ringing register) leave with their signed copies.
Now, I’m struggling here, trying to come up with one personal experience that might come close to mirroring the above. Well, there was this one time (long story short) where the publisher kicked in a couple of hundred bucks for Champaign and I, according to Nancy Olson, then owner of Books at Quail Corners, crowned my event as the one that, thanks to my friends who showed up in number, set a rather dubious record—more booze consumed with less books sold in the history of the store.
But, again I’m grasping for a positive here, the one thing that I took from that experience (which was my first) was the fact that after I read from my baseball novel The Comeback Kids, there was this “lady” seated up front in one of the folding chairs, who began waving her hand. When she spoke I knew she was clearly drunk, and believe me I may not know much about selling books, but I know drunk. Anyway, she just gushed about the book and announced that her husband was the world’s biggest baseball fan and that “I just had to come to their home and read a passage or two to him!”
And then it hit me. This was the woman who my wife and I had met at a party several months before. And, she, along with her also drunken husband, the fellow she thought I might like to drop by and read to sleep, had been so obnoxious and insulting that night that I had suggested (face to face) that she and her husband could both do something to themselves that would be unfortunately impossible and considerably uncomfortable. Then, my wife and I walked out the front door.
Well, she didn’t recognize me, obviously had no recollection of our meeting, so I kindly thanked her for the invite and told her that I’d get back to her on the personal reading for her husband.
That my friends, if not the highlight of my book signing experiences, is one of the more memorable.
Others come to mind.
- The flop sweats at a Chapel Hill coffee shop where the high-brow audience (while I read about baseball) traded conversational comments regarding the merits of the latte vs. the cappuccino. I recall, just as I was reading what I thought might be the funniest line in the novel, someone drowning the punch line in mocha, as in “My, you must try this mocha, it’s to die for!”
- The night I sat and sold zero books at a Research Triangle Barnes & Noble, having given up my Duke vs. NC State basketball tickets for this opportunity. Here an apologetic events person bowed and scraped, stating that they’d never (considering all the publicity they’d done) had a writer get shut out (her words) and that perhaps it was because I had written a basketball book (V&Me: “Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story”) and that I’d agreed to sign on the very night that NC State was (right down the road) playing Duke in basketball. Do ya, think?
- For yet another book store biggie “signing opportunity” I raced home from Pinehurst and the U.S. Open Golf tournament. Here I sat alone at a table, looking not unlike the You Know What in the punch bowl, while passersby refused to make eye contact (think street savvy New Yorker walking down one of Manhattan’s mean streets). It was so bad that I (a technique that I would recommend for any future ignored signers out there) actually left my “punch bowl” and began to look at books on nearby shelves, pretending to be a shopper. And then, there she was. A beautiful young girl was standing at my table looking at the pile of unsigned books. This was a June event and (so said the events lady) promised to be “. . . a natural for Father’s Day shoppers!” I left my faux shopping search, took my seat and asked, “Would you like a V&Me for your dad for Father’s Day?”“Well, no not really,” she said. “I’m an intern with PRSTREET and your friend Graham Wilson (the owner of the agency) asked me to come by tonight and get a photo of people lined up in front of your table with you signing books. He said he promised you that he’d run it in the PRSTREET newsletter. Blushingly, I recalled that I had asked Graham if he could do something like this, and so with the help of the store’s very apologetic events lady wrangled a few employees and queued them up for the photo op. That may have been the only book I signed that night and several weeks later—to add insult to injury— I received a copy of the newsletter featuring the photo from my friends at PRSTREET.
One more—and this was a classic—at the NC State book store they have an annual big percentage off Christmas sale. I was, again, Bic in hand, seated at a table by a very nice guy who had written a children’s book about an NC State Christmas Wolf (or something) and this guy was just killing me. Huge line—lambs to the slaughter—at the Christmas Wolf, almost nobody interested in V&Me.
I had promised to sit and sign until 9 p.m. and as the clock slid into that third hour with my sales at about a book an hour, I, having a two-hour drive home on a Friday night, called my wife and said, “I’m out of here!” And then he showed up. Suddenly here at my table was a man in his early 60s, just the right age to have been there when Jim Valvano and the Cardiac Pack won the National Championship in ’83.“May I ask you a question,” said the fan. “Certainly,” said I, pushing a book forward preparing to tell him what Jim Valvano was really like. “Can you tell me where the john is,” the guy said, “I’ve gotta go like a racehorse!”
I think you’re getting the idea, so I’ll close by saying this: did I ever sell any books at book signings? Certainly, and again, it is something that every author must do. But for me—the no-name author—more often than not those Andy Warhol 15-minutes ended in flames rather than fame.
So go in eyes wide open, aware that this signing deal is just that . . . a deal. And that there’s a bit of legalized prostitution at work here. You want attention for you and for your book. Booksellers, aware that traffic sells other books, aren’t just interested in selling your book. They rely heavily on you, the author, to help bring out the troops and will ask for names and e-mail addresses of friends, relatives, and workmates, anyone who they might pepper with notices of your Big Moment.
Hey, come to think of it, maybe that was it. Start with a bookseller (emphasis on seller), then toss in my friends, relatives, and workmates, give me, the no-name author a stir, and, well, I don’t wish this for you, but perhaps that’s why more often than not I found myself in full blush afloat in the proverbial book signers punchbowl.
Okay, even those whose daily reading is limited to road signs and that annoying “Crawl” that runs along the bottom of our TV screens have probably (at least) seen the DVD of the movie “You’ve Got Mail!” Hell, it starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan so thanks to these two great actors and a reasonably good (somewhat touching) script we have a nice introduction to the subject of this blog.
The small independent booksellers are getting screwed to their shelves by BIG BOX booksellers, those corporate giants who’ve all but priced (volume, volume, volume) the smaller booksellers out of the marketplace.
So, for the sake of the Tom Hanks character (Mr. Big Bookseller Pants’ viewpoint in the flick) we thought it might be helpful to readers to go to a quintessential independent seller (the Meg Ryan-like store) to remind us what (if anything) makes little “bookers” a viable—-in today’s economic environment—place to shop.
Pat Wilson (our Meg Ryan) manages the Pelican Book Store in Sunset Beach, a beautiful little beach town on the North Carolina coast.
Bob: Pat, we’ve been to your shop, it’s wedged in an upscale strip mall just off a major beach road, easy access, plenty of parking, etc. Pelican is a very attractive store with a nice book balance—from the latest bestsellers to older paperbacks.
Readers can browse the aisles of your small well-kept shop, knowing that you’re perched right there behind the counter ever on the ready to lead them to the latest good read. That’s all well and good; we love your store but tell us why we should shop the Pelicans of the marketplace as opposed to loading up with a bag of 20 percent off deals at a Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million before heading home or to the beach.
Pat: I think one of the great pluses you’ll find in the independent book store is in the shop’s staff. The person working with you is probably going to be an avid reader. All of our employees read and spend a great deal of time looking for good books to read, keeping an eye out for books for us to recommend.
When you go to one of the cookie cutter stores, a Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble, you are probably going to be waited on by youngsters who are there to draw their paychecks. That’s not the case in the independent. We are a business but we make it our business to help our customers find that special book and typically when we recommend it we’ve read it.
That’s what we do and when you go into one of the Big Boys they often can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. The odds are that they not only haven’t read it they may not even know where to find it
Bob: How about Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other booksellers on-line?
Pat: If you buy it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble on-line you can see their write-ups or reviews, but they have ulterior motives when they give a review. Then pop-ups on your computer will tell you that if you liked this book then you’ll like another book they’re selling. And that just isn’t always the case. A lot of that marketing is ridiculous. They don’t have readers, it’s all computer-based and their computers don’t read anything.
Bob: How about pricing, the independent vs. the corporate giant?
Pat: Our prices in this independent and with many independents, well, we discount our hardback bestsellers at 20%. You can’t find a better price anywhere else. That’s one of the great myths of the independents vs. the big bookstores, and here’s another fact—if you do get it cheaper at one of the big corporate stores . . . for every penny you save there you may double that savings by buying from an independent where the sellers read, care and recommend.
The savings will be in our suggestions because when you leave you haven’t bought a bad book. You can lose every penny you “save” at one of the biggies by buying a bad book! We have a book on our shelf right now that is so good and I haven’t seen it being recommended anywhere. It’s called I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes, and it is so good and we know it because we’ve all read it here. So we’re selling it and people are leaving with a book that is really, really good. I’ve had people call me back and say, “You were right, it was so good!”
Bob: And oh, we hear that the independent booksellers have an angel; according to a NY Times piece, James Patterson has donated $1,000,000 to help save the independents, saying, “I just want to get people more aware and involved in what’s going on here, which is that, with the advent of e-books, we either have a great opportunity or a great problem. Our bookstores in America are at risk. Publishing and publishers as we’ve known them are at stake. To some extent the future of American literature is at stake.”
Can the Patterson grant make a difference and did any of that cash fly to the Pelican?
Pat: No, but let me say just how much we appreciate the fact that there are so many authors who know that we are out here selling books and the fact that they care about the smaller independents. This is very important to us.
Bob: There are a lot of bad books out there, how do these duds get published?
Pat: One of the biggest problems with the publishing world right now is simply this: we don’t have the great editors anymore. And the editors we have aren’t strong enough to tell a bestselling writer that he or she needs to take a piece of the manuscript back and rewrite it.
I’ve read writers that have big names, good writers but you can see that they are writing with big contracts, maybe on a deadline, and, my guess is that they’re beginning to “mail them in!” And they aren’t being told that they need rewrites. The editors or publishers are trying to keep their stable of authors happy, ones that name alone will sell the book, writers who have produced bestsellers and so they let them get away with crap.
Bob: Ah, but there are some great books, what are you recommending these days?
Pat: There are some wonderful books, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Color of Water by James McBride. Mary Alice Monroe, who often writes about environmental issues, has produced some great beach reading—The Beach House, Beach House Memories and The Summer Girls come to mind
Bob: Like most booksellers, you have signings but you’re often co-hosting with Silver Coast, a local winery. This would appear to be a stroke of marketing genius; I mean a few glasses of wine and a good book, not a bad combination.
Pat: We started working with the Silver Coast Winery when we had a Southern author who we wanted to host, an author who we knew would bring out a big crowd. As you know, we have a small bookstore here at the beach and she was coming to read and sign in mid-season—the summer—and this island almost sinks under the weight of the tourists during the summer.
So we asked the local winery if we could have the reading and signing there and boy did it work. We had over 200 people and so we’ve been doing this ever since. I think it’s about $10 admission which includes two glasses of wine and the opportunity to hear and meet a well- known author. So yes, this isn’t something that you will see at a major chain in a big city—-a winery/reading at the beach—and it’s been quite a success.
Bob: Any other ways that a smaller bookstore reels in the writers for events like this?
Pat: Well it occurred to me that one of the reasons we couldn’t get some authors interested in what we were doing was simply the fact that authors want to get their sales numbers up, they have to if they want to get on the NY Times Bestsellers List. That’s just part of the publishing game. So I had to agree to become a contributor to the NY Times bestselling list.
Here’s how that works. We have to fill out and file a report on what books we’ve sold weekly and believe me that’s a job. I’m very lucky, one of the ladies that work for me takes care of that. We have a little scanner and that tracks every book we sell and this list goes to the NY Times, so when you see that Times list that’s real—and they, of course, are working with the smaller stores and, of course, the big chains as well, tracking the sales of books with the result being the list you read in the newspaper. They don’t make up the numbers—so we did that and got a lot of the bigger authors to come as a result.
Bob: I’ve been in your store a number of times and I’m impressed with the way you take the time to talk to your customers, sometimes it appears to be like something my mother would have called, “Old Home Week!”
Pat: We know so many of our customers—we might know that their spouse is sick or we may be chatting with a lonely widower who came in simply because they wanted to talk to someone.
We’re like the bartender without the booze—and sometimes I’m really in the middle of something and you know what I say to myself, “set it aside,” and so I’ll stop and talk. It’s what we do; we have to realize that the conversation is more important than anything else we might be doing at that time.
Bob: I’m sure that your clientele is built on word of mouth, so there must be a lot of regulars.
Pat: Let me tell you about two of my customers. I have this one customer who is handicapped and he pulls up in his Jaguar and parks in the handicapped spot. Typically, earlier that day he’s called me and said, ‘I need two books to read.’ And we tell him what we’ve got and how much it will be. When he pulls up there we take the books out to him and he hands us a check and we hand him his books. Again, he’s disabled and it’s too much trouble for him to get into the store.
And I have another fellow who lives here in North Carolina, about four or five hours away and he writes me letters. He’s often writing something doing research and so he’ll want books on subjects as diverse as clowns, comedians, or Negro baseball leagues.
I find them, order them if we don’t have them in stock, and mail them to him. He sends us a check. After the last shipment I got a letter from his wife who wrote to say, “Keep it up it’s just like Christmas when his books arrive in the mail.”
So the job can be very gratifying!
Bob: I know that marketing can be the key to keeping the cash register ringing, any other areas of sales that help keep an independent afloat?
Pat: We trade used books for used books and so if you bring in a book I will give you X amount of credit—there’s a formula—toward the purchase of another one. Now I don’t take just anything, I have to think that it’s good for a resale, but people here at the beach are looking for used books because people don’t want to take a new or a good book out on the beach—and they don’t’ want to take their e-books or readers on the beach. So this location is great for selling used books, you can’t really take an e-book out on the beach and read it in that bright sunlight, and then there’s the issue of sand, sun, water which can be harmful to a nice hardback or e-book.
Oh, we also ship for people, we’re a UPS pick up and around the second week in December it gets crazy around here. We’ll Xerox for our customers, fax, print, all ways to keep the numbers up.
Bob: As to actual product, is this just book sales at the Pelican or do you have other “impulse” items that might appeal to your clients?
Pat: Well, we sell a ton of jigsaw puzzles. Another natural tie-in item is greeting cards and we have great photo cards—from the beach. The photos are taken by a fellow who lives out here on the island and we also have some cards that are painted by a North Carolina artist and he does the poetry (inside) and they are different and unique—designed for customers who are living or visiting the beach.
And our “beachie” Christmas cards are big because if people live at the beach they want everyone to know they live at the beach. So we have to hunt for these specialty cards, there’s a little publisher/printer in Southport that I buy my Christmas cards from and they are very popular with our customers, very unique.
Bob: You are a small independent at the beach, how seasonal IS your business?
Pat: Our business here is unique in that it spikes on July 4th, that’s our crescendo. It starts in late April and builds all the way to the 4th of July and by the 4th the island if sinking from all the people that are here for the beach.
Oh, we have a bump before Christmas and I always work Christmas Eve because (laughs) that day we have all these 50-year-old “children” coming in to see their retired parents, “kids” who have forgotten to get enough gifts or any gifts. So this place is a madhouse on Christmas Eve.
Bob: Well it isn’t Christmas Eve but we know you have customers waiting so we’ll close by asking you to tell any and all potential book buyers out there just what kind of person they’ll likely be dealing with when they shop an independent like the Pelican.
Pat: Well if they’re like the Pelican and like me and my staff, they are people who love people—all kinds of people—and I tell them you aren’t my customers you are my friends, and I mean that. We love the store and I think that’s what people are attracted to. They get it, it comes across, we care for our customers and our store and we put every book in a special place, our books live in certain places. Sometimes people will say. “Well what’s the order of your books? Why is that one over there?” And I say, “Well it lives there because that’s where it’s always lived!”
I don’t have the heart to move them. Like I said, we are not Barnes & Noble, we don’t have huge sections, we put books in certain places because we think that’s where our books should live
Bob: I better go, this IS beginning to sound like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, by the way what did you think of that movie, did Hollywood get the independent vs. the big conglomerate bookstore issues right?
Pat (laughs): Well they got the story right. But I’ll close with this thought as it applies to the independent bookseller; Meg Ryan should have never given up!
* To visit Pat and the Pelican go to: http://pelicanbookstore.com/
Here’s one that comes up on day one in every creative writing class.
Student: “Ah, before we get started I was wondering, ah, how a writer like me gets a book published.”
Professor: “Well, we won’t be encouraging clichés in this class but it really is, particularly in today’s publishing world, a catch twenty-two!”
“The standard answer is that those who have been published get published. I beg to differ, which may at first blush sound like I have good news. But the fact is that the days of “over the transom” publishing miracles are passé. Back when Maxwell Perkins was sharpening his pencil and wearing a green eye-shade at Scribners, a manuscript might just come flying through that tiny window above his doorway (the transom), hit the top of his slush pile and before he could say Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Wolfe, Scribners would be rolling the presses.
Well, it’s a different day, a different time and certainly a different business. So, if you really want to get published you might as well know that the transoms are closed and the editors’ doors are locked…. unless of course you have the key—A Literary Agent!
So, write the “saleable” novel and then find that literary agent.
Now, I’ll tell you the story of my hunt for a literary agent. Back in the mid-seventies when the bagging of someone with a Manhattan address who would agree to handle your written word, help you package it, make it—through constructive criticism—more saleable, wasn’t easy. But it was a day when something of promise at least had a shot of turning the head of the group (and it isn’t just Hollywood agents) who Fred Allen characterized thusly: All the sincerity in Hollywood you could stuff in a flea’s navel and still have room left to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.”
Well when I landed my first agent—and it wasn’t easy—that wasn’t the case at all. Jane Wilson, a well respected longtime agent with JCA (John Cushman and Associates) in New York was wonderful, a lady with a big heart, one of gold. But the road that led me to Jane wasn’t a super highway or without its share of “speed” bumps.
Having purchased Writer’s Market (and you should do the same), the “how to get published” BIBLE of publishers and agents, the quest began to find that literary birddog. I fired off query letters to agencies (along with my first novel BEHIND THE EIGHTBALL) that would take me to the Land of the Published. The response was overwhelming. For several months our mailbox filled with letters of rejection.
Dear Mr. Cairns
Although we found BEHIND THE EIGHTBALL an amusing tale, in today’s market first novels are becoming increasingly hard to place. So it is with regret that we won’t be able to offer representation at this time. We wish you the best of luck. …..blah, blah, blah, etc.
Agent Form Letter
Then there was the letter from an agent from upstate New York, a gentleman whose name I do not recall. And just as I was about turn his little dismissive into a paper plane and fly it into the trash I read the final sentence: “Although I don’t think I’m the person to represent this novel I would suggest that you send it along to Jane Wilson at JCA, in the city. I think this is something that might be of interest to Jane.”
Off it went to JCA. Jane wrote a lovely note back saying that it might be a while before a decision could be made but if I was willing to wait—explaining that it had to go through a reading and approval process (1st reader, 2nd reader) within the agency–that she would indeed consider representation.
Finally the letter arrived. Jane Wilson would be my agent.
Jane was a gem. She knew my children’s names, sent them Christmas cards. And sadly, sent me publisher’s rejections for Behind the Eight Ball, always, kindly including a line or two loaded with great encouragement, reminding me that a publisher HAD taken it to “committee” which meant that they HAD seriously considered its publication.
Then came the day of infamy (which for a writer’s moment is akin to Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assignation and 9-11). I was at my desk in Watauga Hall at NC State University, my loving wife Alyce called and asked if I was sitting down. I was and heard her say, “They are going to publish your novel!”
Skyrockets in Flight. . . Afternoon Delight!
She was reading now, I’m in a fog and somewhere after the Dear Mr. Cairns and the early raves about my work, there was a pause, the rarefied air cleared and I heard her sob. Well, hell I was emotional too. And then she said, “I got so excited I didn’t finish the letter.”
‘It’s the last sentence,” they said, “They regretfully have decided to pass!”
Writer’s elevator going down!
Okay, Behind the Eight Ball currently resides in our attic packed neatly away in a one of those Tupperware tubs where you put things that some poor relative is going to have to heave out after you’ve gone on to Glory. And it has company—numerous book proposals as well as a finished children’s novel called Caught in a Kona Wind, and an adult novel, The Sand Fiddlers.
Before I published my first novel Jane Wilson retired. I guess the poor dear woman had had enough. On her way out the door I recall her saying, “There’s a nice young man in our office who has agreed to handle your work!”
And he did and I shall be forever grateful for his hard work that led to the publication of my novel The Comeback Kids and my non-fiction Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told by the Men Who Brought the Game Relief.”
The novel brought some nice reviews, Sports Illustrated calling it “… funny and profane!”
Pen Men knocked it out of the park (not in sales) with rave reviews—the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Booklist, etc.
Then came the dry spell. I was under a great deal of pressure in my new position at NC State University (where I created and wrote several books for the University) and admittedly not producing anything that New York could or would consider.
Hey I had a day job, two kids in college!
And that’s when, sadly, the agent—who I thought was a friend—just suddenly disappeared from my life (Fred Allen wasn’t kidding), refusing to return my calls, or e-mails.
Turns out it is a business! And, I might add, one that is becoming tougher by the day.
And as I close this piece I do so with the following thoughts for anyone who has a yen to become a published author:
- Buy the Writer’s Market then read it from cover to cover.
- Google How to get a literary agent, it will take you to good advice at: http://www.sfwa.org/real/
- Beware of Vanity Publishers (looking for suckers willing to pay to be published), the Internet is full of them.
- Look carefully at the agencies (in the book or on the Internet), know their interests and their guidelines and pay attention to what they are suggesting.
- Make a stop at the Writer’s Market’s HOW TO section on the writing of a query letter or Google that on the Internet and see what Publisher’s Weekly has to say: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries
- Should an agency ask for the finished product be sure that it is in fact finished in every sense of the word—-packaged to read, copy edited, etc.
- Think of this as the book version of the Westminster Dog Show. Have your pet primped and ready to parade in front of judges who will do everything from check out its teeth to grab it in the testicles.
Never forget that literary agencies are in BUSINESS for one reason—to make money and that a first reader in an agency is trained to do one thing—-look for manuscripts that are saleable and of course, writers with the potential to produce other manuscripts that might generate revenue.Be thick skinned, learn to handle rejection (it isn’t personal), be persistent, don’t give up and should you find a good agent be sure to mention my name. I have a finished novel called Animal Home, which I think of as my very best work. That’s what I think but the few agents who have taken a look have yet to agree.
Bob! Remember it isn’t personal!
Ah, guess what popped up on my computer as I was writing this blog. So—thick of skin and still willing after all these years to accept rejection—my search for representation goes on!
Dear Mr. Cairns,
Thank you for querying about Animal Home, your latest novel. We have evaluated your materials and regrettably, your project is not a right fit for our agency. We currently have a very full clientele and must be highly selective about the new projects we pursue.
Thank you again for thinking of us. Please know that we wish you much success in all of your future writing and publishing endeavors.
One of the Page Turners from the Past you’ll find here on the site is The Ballad of the Flim- Flam Man, by Guy Owen. This wonderful novel became a movie and rather than detail you to death about the flick I’ll just step back and allow Wikipedia to work its magic.
Wikipedia: “The Flim-Flam Man is a 1967 American comedy film directed by Irvin Kershner, starring George C. Scott, Michael Sarrazin and Sue Lyon, based on the novel The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man by Guy Owen. The film boasts a cast of well-known character actors in supporting roles, including Jack Albertson, Slim Pickens, Strother Martin, Harry Morgan and Albert Salmi. The movie is also noted for its jovial musical score by composer Jerry Goldsmith.”
Here’s what Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said, “The movie was shot on location, largely in Kentucky, and it gains a real feeling of authenticity. These are real crossroads stores and real wide-eyed rednecks, watching the city slicker shuffle the cards. And a lot of the episodes are hilarious. I announced some time ago, in connection with Casino Royal (1967) I think, that chase scenes had just about had it as laugh-getters in the movies. Wrong again. There is a chase scene in this one that’s a classic. The Flim-Flam man, dressed, as a minister, and his pupil, dressed as an accident victim, steal a car and lead the sheriff on a brilliantly photographed chase down the sidewalks and through the watermelon wagons of the South. There are also some nicely directed scenes in which Scott gradually overcomes the suspicions of his victims, wins their confidence, allows his straight man to win a few bucks and then, oh, so innocently asks a tobacco farmer if he’d care to speculate as to which card was the queen.”
With a tip of the cap to Paul Harvey now you’ll hear the rest of the story. Roger Ebert may have loved it but the author of the book the movie was based on hated the film. Like so many movies based on page turners, it strayed from Owen’s story.
And he was pissed.
I know because he was a great friend of mine, a mentor at NC State University and just one hell of a great guy. I was writing for the Chancellor’s office at the time and took several creative writing courses from Owen. How kind was he? Well, he edited every word of a novel I wrote called The Sand Fiddlers, which, by the way considering the number of rejections I received from numerous New York publishers, was not (even with Owen’s touch) A PAGE TURNER.
Back to the Flim-Flam Man. When George C. Scott was interviewed in the December, 1980, issue of Playboy the question was posed as to Scott’s all-time favorite part. The interviewer’s assumption being that it was, of course, Patton. Scott surprised them by saying, “No, actually it was Mordecai Jones, the Flim-Flam Man.”
So, quite pleased with myself having found this little gift to take to my friend, I walk into his office and say, “Guy, guess what? George C. Scott is quoted in the new Playboy saying that his favorite part wasn’t George Patton, it was the Flim-Flam Man.”
“That’s nice,” Owen said, “Great actor but I hated that *#@**** movie!”