If They Can't Take a Joke
By Tom “Optimistic” Waters
August 1 , 2005
Admittedly, the whirlwind of manic promotion and the sheer amount of readings, signings and all around public whoring got my reputation further out there in five months than most of my Buffalonion contemporaries have in years. My contemporaries being homeless men with napkin scribblings ranting on street corners down town.
This fall, I'll be going out to promote my fourth book, "First Person, Last Straw." Technically, I've toured and promoted three books before this one. I say technically because the first one was self-published. I also say technically because the tour's radius was the size and circumference of Buffalo, NY. So the tour covered one town, whereas most tours eclipse at least a handful of major cities. I also employ the word technically because they weren't really books, per se, but collections of my humorous essays and other flights of fancy. And before I forget, when I say that "I' toured, I actually mean a tofu composite sculpted into my likeness with a tape recorder embedded in it's back and propped behind a podium.
I'd like to say that I've learned from my mistakes, but I probably haven't. With each extended junket, I've lost money. On the up side, I've lost less money with each additional book. This is due in some small part to the Spinal Tap-esque (ish?) run of bad luck I've enjoyed over the years promoting each collection. Some of the bumps in the road are interesting and amusing enough to share, though, so I thought I'd pass them along.
"Soup To Nuts: A Decade Of Satire" by Thomas Waters was a financial disaster of epic proportions. Admittedly, the whirlwind of manic promotion and the sheer amount of readings, signings and all around public whoring got my reputation further out there in five months than most of my Buffalonion contemporaries have in years. My contemporaries being homeless men with napkin scribblings ranting on street corners down town. It was my first book and I paid for the publishing, production, printing, advertising and travel expenses. The business model was slightly flawed, as I made about two dollars on every forty dollar copy of the book. It was 700 pages, Xeroxed from the local Kinko's and bound at a mom and pop binding company.
The title was unfortunate. It was an obscure reference to a turn of phrase that people wouldn't get unless they grew up in the "40s and "50s. Most people thought that Soup To Nuts was a cook book. Just to clarify, it wasn't. I read excerpts in comedy clubs, open literary readings, coffee houses, on college radio and even a karaoke bar that misprinted their open mic night. It was karaoke night. I also read at an open mic in a lesbian bar. That was fun because I could complain about women and they sympathized. 700 pages is a lot for people to bite off on the first chew. Especially when they've never heard of you and the book weighs fifteen pounds. I would have given away a dolly with every purchase of the book for the intent of wheeling the book back home but I would have lost more money.
One of the more notable readings was on Valentine's Day at a coffee house. Nobody showed up. There was a pleasant blurb in The Buffalo News about the appearance because the gossip columnist noticed one of the five million flyers I'd posted all around town. She didn't attend. Hardly anybody attended. That's the way that one went.
I read at a comic book store and their demographic was not my demographic. Both audiences have short attention spans but people walking in to buy comics don't necessarily want to see a young man behind the counter screaming about talk shows. My mistake. That was a Halloween reading, and I was noticeably upset, so I accosted the majority of the loyal clientele that patronized the shop.
I had a featured spot leading up a reading sponsored by the local literary center, or what passes for one. It paid fifty bucks, and Borders even put my name in their monthly brochure, which felt like a big deal. I was so nervous about the impending reading that I relieved my stress across the street at the bar. My friend and I had a few very large glasses of beer and a shot to calm the nerves. The bar closed early on a Sunday as they were having a company cookout, so we went downstairs at the mall and had a mug of beer that looks like the barrels that St.Bernards carry around with them on the slopes.
By the time we showed up to the bookstore, I was crocked. I was planning on reading a ten page opus about singles dating in the club world. I was expecting to go after the other featured reader. She showed up first and declared that she wanted to close out the reading, which put me in the pole position in no position to do the reading at that point. It was a full house. Every folding chair in front of the podium was occupied. Still a bundle of nerves, I stammered, staggered and stuttered my way through the piece. One of the rules of club dating was that "people who slur are not nearly as attractive as they perceive themselves to be'. I slurred that sentence, and many others.
I read at a coffee shop in the suburbs in the middle of Clarence Center on a Friday night. The entire goddamned restaurant was full of soccer moms blowing off steam and kicking off the weekend with a tall beaker of Merlot. Not my crowd. I had no PA system, no microphone, and no chair. I've got a big psychological issue about not having a microphone. Having a microphone gives you power and volume over the people you're reading to. I sat on a stool. With a microphone, you don't have to yell. I didn't have a microphone, so I yelled at tables full of housewives trying to have a quiet evening. They pissed me off, so I read a few 'crowd killers' intended to offend and agitate. Mission accomplished. If they can't take a joke, fuck "em. Or is it fuck 'em if they can't take a joke? Who cares. At any rate, fuck 'em.
I drank quite heavily during the first book promotion. I'm not a comfortable public speaker, and that was my solution. One of the benefits of "getting out there' was getting freelance work with some of the local papers. Geoff Kelly (the editor for ArtVoice at the time) caved in after months of nagging on my part and agreed to interview me for the paper. So we did a lot of test interviews. I'd go down to the offices on a week day and we'd go out to the bar and talk. We drank, too, by the way. We traded stories, scoop and gossip about other local writers, papers, and scandals.
One afternoon, we polished off a few pints (Blue for me and Guiness for the true Irishman) and I decided to call my girlfriend. Tempers were high. We fought over the phone, I gave her the what for, and hung up. We went back to the offices of ArtVoice where the staff had a brainstorming session for the next issue. By way of contribution, I passed out on a nearby chair until after five o'clock. The interview was half of a page. We recorded over two hours of conversation. It doesn't take a mathemagician to figure out that a lot was left on the cutting room floor.
I also used the tour as a means of meeting girls. I slept with two poets from the literary circle. One was younger, one was older, and both were more than enough trouble for one lifetime. For future reference, don't shit where you eat. It's bad for business. The last thing anybody needs in their place of business (or a facsimile thereof) is an ex-girlfriend skulking around plotting your demise. The first girl was a radio personality who left her boyfriend for me and subsequently went back to him after a month of my high octane lifestyle. The second was a red-headed kick boxer who worked in collections. Neither are the type that you'd bring home to mom, and both ended with a large degree of fanfare and public fireworks. As a young writer, at least I was causing a few spectacles.
A year and a half later, after I'd recovered financially and psychologically from the fiduciary embarassment generated by Soup To Nuts, I gave it another go with Born Pissed. Born Pissed was thankfully shorter at 230 pages. It was also a print on demand book, so I made three dollars a book and it only cost twenty. It was a lot angrier in terms of subject matter, and the title itself led me to be really angry during this tour. I purchased four poster boards from Kinkos with an author's photo and a listing of appearance dates and placed them in key locations in the city. The locations weren't as key as I'd hoped.
I read at a coffee shop in Lockport to a prickly crowd. There was some crazy homeless black woman who frequented the shop. After reading two essays from the stage, she shouted out "Let me read for a change!' Never one to give a heckler the upper hand, I shot back with "I wrote this book! I'm reading it! When you write one, you can read!' I got some laughs. She shuffled out during a quiet moment between articles. Since then, the coffee house has closed it's doors forever.
In my infinite wisdom, I booked a reading at a twelve screen movie theater in Niagara Falls. They put up some flyers and I showed up on a Friday night during the busiest round of shows. They set me up next to the ticket taker and I still had no PA system. I've been wrestling for years over whether or not it's financially justifiable to buy a PA system and furthermore, if I actually enjoy exposing myself and my innermost thoughts to total strangers in public. So for a crowd of a few hundred people walking in to see a movie on a Friday night I screamed my head off. Understandably, they didn't know what the hell I was doing.
I went to another literary reading and I was all nerves. Other writers scare me. If they're half as critical and judgemental as I am of them, then I assume that they're thinking horrible and competitive thoughts and get paranoid. So I told the MC that I had to finish my beer, and went back to the car to pound down an oil can of Molson. The reading went pretty well. There was a podium, which I don't care for because it severs the bond between you and the audience, but I sat on top of a chair behind the podium and read. There was a wall of college students in the back and they all chuckled and snickered at a literary lampoon I wrote about the supposed death of originality in art, literature and theater.
I wrote a column of bar and club reviews for Night Life, another local paper, during the time that I was promoting Born Pissed. Because of this, I got to meet radio personalities Opie and Anthony during the height of their fame on public airwaves. It was the summer of 2002. I swindled my way into the VIP section and gave them a copy of the book. They printed the review I wrote about their show in Buffalo on their web site, which got thousands of hits online. Two weeks afterwards, they were fired and their radio show was cancelled. Another big opportunity down the toilet. If I didn't have bad luck I'd have no luck at all.
I didn't go into financial ruin over "Born Pissed" but I didn't make a king's ransom, either. A year later, I released "Zany Hijinx," which was a scaled down, edited version of Soup To Nuts with an international standard book number. Seventy five people bought Soup To Nuts, so that still left the other 70 million people in the country to sell Zany Hijinx to. Another print-on-demand edition, "Zany Hijinx" was a little over five hundred pages and sold for thirty dollars a crack.
Now one thing I've never gotten right is having enough copies of my book on hand to sell during the readings. It's the best time to hit people up for money as they don't have the time to go home and change their minds. I've got a bad habit of ordering a handful of books and selling them all to random strangers running on pure charisma before the readings and showing up empty handed. And at thirty dollars a throw, even I couldn't afford to buy many copies of the book.
I rented out an entire room at a pizzeria where I used to work that featured an entertainment lounge. It was seventy five dollars for the room with food included. They handed my fliers out and kept them at the counter. I did a reading at my old high school for a number of English classes where the teacher informed them that I'd be there in the evening. My mother and two of her friends showed up. The two friends who drove with me showed up. I took a lot of pizza home that day. Thankfully, the owners each bought a copy and took it off of the tab.
I set up a monthly reading at a coffee house on Elmwood Avenue, which is a posh district down the street from a major college. I have a bad habit of setting up monthly readings and then getting bored with them and not going anymore after the first sign of adversity. For the first reading, it was a full house. A really good crowd full of friends, fans and well wishers. At the peak of the reading Mike Desanto, my old arch nemesis on the road showed up, looked around and walked out. He's a jackass if ever there was one who passed for a musician in the same circles that I read out at. It felt good to see him come in and assume that I stole his crowd away from across the street where he did a weekly show. Since then, I stopped doing the readings. Months later, the owner of the coffee house burned it down for the insurance money. I'm glad I didn't keep doing the readings because I don't own any fire proof clothes.
I paid for another hall in the back of a trendy bookstore on Allen Street. Signs, fliers, posters, etc. Eight people showed up. We had a good time, took a lot of smoke breaks, and hit the bar afterwards. I did the majority of my readings for Zany Hijinx sober, and didn't look back. I read a lot better when I had my faculties about me, and my timing had improved. We hit the bar afterwards and two or three books were sold. A good time was had by those who attended.
The two or three things I've done right in the last six years. I have a semi-recurring newsletter with new articles that goes out over the web, Big Words I Know By Heart. They get to read everything before it hits publication in print or in the books, and they give me valuable feedback once in a blue moon. I don't know where you're reading this, but you can subscribe by emailing me at TD444@aol.com. I always start writing for the local papers and a few national web sites, magazines and literary trades. I've kept the contacts in book stores, newspapers and restaurants. One major positive is that once you open a door in publicity, it rarely (if ever) shuts. After writer's blocks and self imposed exiles, almost everybody is willing to take me back with open arms.
My fourth book, "First Person, Last Straw" will be out from AuthorHouse this fall. They're another print on demand company with higher royalty rates and a lower paperback price. I've got a good feeling about this one. I get a good feeling about every one, but let's hope it's legit this time. I'd like to do less appearances with more impact. A professional web site with links, audio clips and other distractions. I've been learning a lot about marketing from work, where I've been promoted as something of a Marketing Liason. We'll see what happens. If I'm lucky, I may have to sew the holes in my pockets for the big pay day. I'll buy a cigarette boat and a smoking jacket. Not bloody likely.