Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The 20 percent rule

A decade ago, when I'd just published my first book and done my first ever reading, a bookstore events manager told me a secret. "Don't feel bad about only selling eight books," she'd told me. "You had about 25 people at the reading so that was great. We consider a reading a success if we sell to 20 percent of the audience."

Now, I don't know if that's still true – or if she was just humoring me then - but that "20 percent rule" has become my byword for readings. I thought of it last night, when I did an event at my local indie, the Brookline Booksmith, for my new book, Shades of Grey. I should explain that Shades of Grey is a hardcover mystery – a hard sell by any standards – and it is published by a British press (Severn House), so it's a few dollars more expensive than most US hardcovers. But still... as I drove over to the Booksmith, I was thinking... "20 percent, 20 percent, 20 percent..." I would make sure to count heads before we started to talk and jot the number down on my notepad. Then, after, I would keep count of how many books I signed to attendees. Simple math. Easy.

But then I got there, and saw my friends Betsy and Michelle. They'd never met, so I introduced them, and we started talking about whether Betsy (a therapist and the wife of a rabbi) might know anybody appropriate for a single friend who would be showing up later. Then the great events person, Genie, introduced herself and we went downstairs and started setting up the wine and cheese I'd brought to make this first reading into a party. Genie was apologizing for the tablecloth (no need, the two overlapping covers were pretty and festive) and Michelle offered to bartend. And an old work colleague showed up, who I haven't seen in ages, and we started to catch up, but another lovely local mystery writer (Sarah Smith) came in with her cousin, Don, who was charming and chatty, and a few other friends and a load of strangers. And then my husband and my event colleague, Hank Phillippi Ryan, were suddenly there, too, and we kissed and greeted and asked after each other's family before a quick confab about who would go first and what we'd planned to do. "Talk a little, read a little, questions?" I asked. "Keep it about 40 minutes, then questions?" she concluded. Yup, yup, all sounded good - and we took our places. A bit of discussion - did we want to use the podium or sit? Mike or no mike. "Mike!" someone shouted from the back, and we were off.

Now, as anyone who read my post from last Tuesday knows, this has been a crazy week for me. It's not that I've spent that much time talking to my mother's caregivers or visiting her in rehab - no more than a few hours a day anyway - but the stress of watching her decline, of knowing she might not be able to get back to the assisted living residence she now considers home - has exhausted me. I've been walking around like a zombie, like all the oxygen has been removed from the room. But I'd taken some time over the previous two days to figure out a bit of a talk. As a little intro to Shades of Grey, I'd start with the how hard it is to lose a pet, how natural it is for even the most rational among us to think we "see" our deceased pet. And from there, I'd go into Dulcie's dilemma - the super-rational grad student who thinks she sees her dead cat's ghost. Then I'd work in a bit about Gothic literature (Dulcie's area of study) and (at the request of a friend) a bit about this new series as compared to my last one. I'm not sure if it all made sense, but I got a few laughs at the funny bits and saw a few nods at the sad bits. Then I read from the opening of the book – and remembered to read slowly and breathe – and, oh my god, people APPLAUDED! They applauded! I was overjoyed.

Hank went next and I was able to watch her and listen (and think, man, I've got to remember how she does that - she breathes as if she never considered holding her breath throughout her entire presentation). And then we took some really good questions ("Do you ever scare yourself?" "Do you read aloud while you're writing?"). And then we signed books for people and signed stock, drank wine, and answered private questions (no, I never buried Cyrus's ashes. They're on my mantelpiece. Yes, you can send me your poetry.) And then... it was over. Shades of Grey was launched. Another book of mine has been introduced to the world. With the fatigue starting to hit, I realized I was famished. A few friends and my husband and I went out for sushi.

And I realized I'd never down a head count of the crowd or even kept track of how many books I sold. So much for the 20 percent rule!


  1. Sounds like it was a wonderful event regardless of how many books were sold. Congratulations! Thanks for the detailed description - I learn so much from attending book events and would have loved to have come to yours, so this was the next best thing!

  2. Thanks, Ingrid! I was hoping to convey the sort of mad rush of the thing - it's so nerve-wracking and yet so much fun. Glad it felt real to you!