The Anatomy of a Book Signing
Last week when Susan Orlean hosted a Q&A for her new book “Rin Tin Tin,” I thought I’d stumbled upon the perfect event. After all, the crass yet hilarious David Carr of The New York Times was moderating the panel — and the book was the story of the famous German shepherd-turned-movie-star.
But what seemed like the perfect combination of a fun, interesting topic, a fascinating author, and a great venue (the Paley Center’s facilities are fantastic), not to mention the fact that a dog was stationed in the lobby to greet incoming attendees, soon turned into the exact opposite of what I had expected.
Although it billed itself as a Q&A, there was no audience participation to speak of. Carr, who had been asked to moderate the question and answer session, took on a mostly secondary role, only piping in occasionally while Orlean described her experiences writing “Rin Tin Tin.”
While guests had seemed fairly energized as they arrived and were ushered downstairs into the Paley Center’s luxurious Bennack, about 20 minutes later I discovered that people on both ends of my aisle had fallen asleep.
After the disappointment of this experience, I couldn’t help but wonder why people went to readings at all. Was it merely for the material reward of having a beloved book signed, or did they go to learn more about the author?
At a Jeffrey Eugenides book reaing a few days later, I found a much more enthusiastic crowd. By comparison, Eugenides wasted hardly any time introducing himself before delivering a 30 minute reading of his new book “The Marriage Plot” and then fielding questions from the audience.
Patricia Flowers, a fan of Eugenides and an author herself, described book readings as a unique dynamic between authors and readers. “I noticed that [Eugenides] was very chatty, and I think that’s because you’re dying to talk to people, and to talk to the people you’re writing for.”
But perhaps in contrast to what was missing at Orlean’s Q&A, Flowers said that she hoped for a sense of shared intimacy out of book readings. “I always find book signings on this level not to be as intimate as I want, but it’s nice to see the authors and have them read,” said Flowers.
Flowers got me thinking. Although Susan Orlean had television clips, a celebrity moderator, and a dog at her disposal, her event had ultimately failed because what she didn’t have was any interaction with the audience. That’s what everyone came for. If an event like Orlean’s replaces basic necessities — like letting fans ask their favorite author a question — in favor of a fancy venue and swanky panelists, it becomes more about selling books than the joy of reading. That may be the point of the whole event, but an author as widely admired as Orlean should do more to please such a devoted audience.