Scenes from a Mall and a Parking Lot
In the song “Hello” (off Ice Cube’s album War and Peace Vol. 2) Dr. Dre raps, “We came a long way from not giving a fuck, selling tapes out of a trunk to moving this far up.”
The first book signing tour I ever did was for 4X4—a book I co-wrote with authors Geoff Cooper, Mike Oliveri, and Michael T. Huyck. It was published in hardcover and paperback, is long out of print, and goes for quite a bit of money on the secondary market these days. The 4X4 tour consisted of two bookstore appearances—Dark Delicacies in Burbank and Borderlands Books in San Francisco—as well as a local cable television appearance. The four of us flew to San Francisco, were joined by artist Gak and author Gene O’Neill, and then drove to the other signing in Los Angeles.
At a rest stop along the way, I managed to sell passerby copies of the book out of the back of our rental car.
That was in 2001.
* * *
Last Friday and Saturday, I took part in the first Rural Pennsylvania Authors Expo, which was held inside a shopping mall in Dubois, Pennsylvania. It was organized by Vicki Haid, the manager of Bradley’s Book Outlet. Other authors who participated included Mary SanGiovanni, Stephen Kozeniewski, Megan Hart, Sara Humphreys, Rob E. Boley, Krissie Gasbarre, Diana Farley, Jason Pokopec, and many more.
Here’s a little secret for you beginning authors: Do you know who the most important person in your career is? It’s not your editor. As Warren Ellis once said, editors are like appendixes. Ignore them until they bother you and then remove them with knives. It’s not your publisher. Sooner or later, publishers are just another ex in your long string of soured relationships. It’s not reviewers. In 2016, thanks to the internet, every halfwit with a keyboard can call themselves a book reviewer and there is zero quality control or room for critical insight. It’s not even your readers. Oh, readers are important, sure, but they’re not the most important person.
Nope. That role is reserved for booksellers and librarians. A good relationship with booksellers and librarians can make your career. A bad relationship with them can end it. They are your advocates. They are the people BUYING your book. They are the people SELLING it to readers. And when you find an exceptional, passionate, enthusiastic bookseller or librarian, hold on to that person for life.
Vicki Haid is such a bookseller, and she organized a phenomenal event. I don’t know that I’ve ever attended a first year event like this one that was so well organized, or where the authors were made to feel so vital and welcome. She did an outstanding, commendable job, and I will do whatever I can to attend and support her future events. I’ll support her because she supports authors. If the other managers in the Bradley’s Book Outlet chain are even half as creative and enthusiastic as she is, then that’s a chain I want to do more business with.
That being said, I’m still not sure how the townspeople of DuBois itself feel about writers. The hotel staff were very excited to have us there, and Vicki’s employees and the staff of the mall’s other stores were all delighted and enthusiastic, but many of the mall’s patrons seemed unsure of what a book was, let alone inclined to purchase one. Now, not all of them, of course. I want to stress that before some pinhead links to this column and says something like “Brian Keene says everyone in DuBois is illiterate! See? I told you he was an asshole!” I’m not saying that at all. But I am saying that I noticed we sold more books to people from out of town than we did to people for whom going to that particular mall is a regular Saturday occurrence.
The easiest way for me to illustrate my point is to simply reproduce the notes I made during the signing.
Friday night, we had a Meet and Greet. Megan had a fan show up. Sara had a fan show up. And I had a fan show up. I can’t speak for Megan and Sara’s fans, but mine was Ron Davis, a guy who has been reading my books for years, and whom I know through previous interactions. He’s never had a chance to meet me or have his books signed, because I’ve never done an appearance near his home before. DuBois, it should be noted, is not Ron’s home. He drove approximately two hours to meet me and get his books signed. We took care of that and I spent a few hours chatting with him, and made sure he had an awesome experience, because as I told you in our very first column, THAT’S WHAT THIS TOUR IS ABOUT. So, it doesn’t matter to me if it was just Ron, or if there were fifty people. The only thing that matters to me is that Ron and I got to spend some time together—because we may not ever get a chance to do so again.
So, we came back to the mall on Saturday to sign books. Mary, Stephen and I were at a table which had been placed directly in front of the kiddie rides. You know those things in the middle of every shopping mall in America—coin-operated cars with characters like Elmo and Spider-Man that kids can ride on? The one behind us was the Flintstones, and every five minutes, it played the Flintstones theme song, regardless of whether or not a child was riding it.
Here are those notes I mentioned. Let us see what we can determine from them.
11:00 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:15 a.m. – DuBois resident looks at every book that Mary, Stephen, and myself have on the table. She tells us that she doesn’t like horror but she loves vampires. I try to sell her a copy of Seize the Night, an anthology of vampire fiction edited by Christopher Golden and containing a story by me. I explain that it was the editor’s intent to give vampires back their teeth, and make them scary again. She informs me that she only likes vampires that glitter. She passes on the book.
11:20 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:23 a.m. – An elderly woman approaches the table, clasps Mary’s hand, and says, with no introduction or preamble, quote: “When I was a girl, I was told that Jesus gives you babies, so I didn’t know it was through intercourse, and nobody told us about condoms. I have eighteen grandchildren. Did I ever tell you this before?” End quote. Mary assures the woman that she has not, in fact, ever told her this before, as this is their first meeting. The woman nods, and thanks Mary, and wanders away. Mary, being a much nicer person than I am, doesn’t try to sell her a book.
11:30 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:35 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:40 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:45 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
11:50 a.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
Noon – Rob E. Boley stops by our table to tell us about an elderly woman who told him that Jesus is apparently a stork, flying around and giving babies at random to people. Mary and Rob trade books, as they’ve been wanting to read each other. Rob heads back to his table.
12:15 p.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
12:20 p.m. – “Flintstones, meet the motherfucking Flintstones…”
12:23 p.m. – A young man stops by and asks Mary what we are doing. She explains that we are authors and we are signing books. He then picks up a copy of her novel The Triumvirate and asks her if it is a book. He then does the same with the rest of her books. I am not exaggerating. “Is this a book? Is this a book? And how about this one? Is this a book?” Mary, who again, is much nicer than me, patiently fields these questions. Then, when the guy has exhausted all possible queries, he turns toward me. I pretend to suddenly have a call, and put my cell phone to my ear, at which point the young man zeroes in on Stephen Kozeniewski instead. He picks up a copy of Stephen’s The Ghoul Archipelago and asks, “Is this a book?” I get up from the table, still pretending to be on the phone. As I’m walking away, I hear Stephen trying to convince the young man that it is, in fact, not a book, but some cleverly disguised magic beans.
12:42 p.m. – The young man has wandered off, heading toward Megan Hart. I make my way back to the table and listen to the dulcet tones of The Flintstones theme.
12:45 p.m. – “Fucking Flintstones, meet the goddamn, shit-eating, motherfucking Flintstones…”
12:46 p.m. – I unplug the Flintstones ride.
12:50 p.m. – A lost child approaches the table and tells Mary that she came to the mall with her cousins, but the police said her cousins aren’t allowed in the mall, so they left and she doesn’t know how to get home. Mary finds a security guard for her. The security guard’s name is Scotty and he has the most epic mullet I have ever seen. Seriously. I am still in awe of it, seven days later. Scotty assists the little girl.
1:00 p.m. – A woman named Kim asks me to sign her books. I am delighted to do so, because I haven’t yet had a chance to sign anything today. I ask Kim where she’s from. She tells me she is from Bermuda. She has a sister who lives in the next town over, and she saw I was going to be signing in DuBois, so she flew eight hundred miles from Bermuda to Pennsylvania to visit her sister and meet me. I am so delighted by this that I don’t even care about The Flintstones. Kim has made my day, and—much like Ron the night before—I hope that I have made her day, as well.
1:15 p.m. – I sadly say goodbye to Kim, who has to leave.
1:16 p.m. – A local man approaches the table. I greet him and offer to sign a book. He scowls, informing me that he is the custodian and he wants to know who unplugged The Flintstones ride. The only time it is supposed to be unplugged is if it is OUT OF SERVICE.
1:20 p.m. – “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
1:25 p.m. – A local woman whose name I never caught, buys a copy of Terminal and has me sign it.
1:30 p.m. – If you guessed Flintstones, you guessed correctly.
1:32 p.m. – A passerby asks Stephen for directions to the restroom.
1:40 p.m. – I borrow a piece of paper and a magic marker, make an OUT OF SERVICE sign, hang it on Fred fucking Flintstones fat fucking face, and unplug the ride again.
3:07 p.m. – Kenny arrives. He and his partner have driven all the way from Michigan. I want to hug them both. Kenny has brought the original painting for the Deadite Press cover of A Gathering of Crows. Kenny has brought along a copy of every single book I have ever written. I sign everything he brought into the mall, and then I accompany them out to their car to sign the rest.
3:30 p.m. – Mary and Stephen both text me to make sure Kenny hasn’t bonked me over the head and stuffed me in his trunk. I assure them that he is fine, and we are happy, because we are. Again, as I told you in our very first column, THAT’S WHAT THIS TOUR IS ABOUT. It’s about Ron and Kim from Bermuda and now Kenny. We spend some time together—because we may not ever get a chance to do so again.
4:15 p.m. – On my way back to the table, I pass the elderly lady, who is telling Scotty the Security Guard and the lost child all about how Jesus gives you babies.
4:32 p.m. – On my way to the restroom, I pass by Rob and see a local picking a book up off his table. I overhear the local ask Rob if it is a DVD.
4:47 p.m. – We give some books to Vicki’s staff, because they are awesome.
5:00 p.m. – Megan, Rob, Jason, Stephen, Mary and myself do a horror panel. The ratio of attendees to panelists is exactly even. The panel lasts ninety minutes, and is a lot of fun.
6:30 p.m. – I sign books for Aaron. Aaron and his wife were at the grocery store in Rochester, New York when he happened to see a Tweet about the signing in DuBois. They left the grocery store and DROVE FIVE HOURS to get their books signed. I spend a half hour with them.
7:00 p.m. – The signing is over. I pack up my books and sign the store’s stock. On my way out, I plug the Flintstones ride back in and remove the sign. I am incredibly grateful to Vicki and her staff for being so generous and kind, and equally grateful to Ron, Kim, Kenny, and Aaron, all of whom came from out of town, and to the local lady who also bought a book. As I explain to Mary and Stephen over dinner at Ponderosa Steak House, readers like Ron, Kim, Kenny, and Aaron, and booksellers like Vicki are why I’m doing this for the next nine months.
9:00 p.m. – Stephen and I meet up with Kenny and his partner, and share some bourbon and some laughs.
11:00 p.m. – I fall asleep happy, but dream about Fred Flintstone giving babies to old people.
* * *
On Sunday, I tried something new—a “pop-up” signing. I got the idea from Kanye West. I am fascinated by Kanye West because he is, in my opinion, the biggest douchebag working in entertainment today, and I find him a source of endless amusement. I was intrigued by how he could Tweet that he’d be appearing at a certain location in two hours, and two hundred people would show up. I decided to try something similar. I reasoned that if Kanye West could get two hundred people to show up at a surprise appearance, then I could get three or four people.
I spread the word via Twitter and Facebook that I’d be signing in the parking lot of a Quaker Steak and Lube in Youngstown, Ohio at noon. Mary, Stephen and I woke up and made the drive from DuBois to Youngstown. We arrived right at noon. Kenny and his partner pulled in behind us, which gave us all a good laugh. For a few minutes, I thought it might just be us, and that my experiment had failed. But then Travis arrived. Travis is another long-time reader whom I’ve chatted with online for years. And then Jason arrived, along with his daughter. I signed all of Jason and Travis’s books, and spent some time with them, and took some pictures. Jason had to leave. I invited the others to lunch. While we were inside the restaurant, two more readers showed up, so I went outside and spent some time with them, and sold them some books out of the trunk of my car. And then, as they were leaving, another guy showed up and I did the same for him.
The theory of Eternal Return tells us that time is a flat circle, that events will occur and recur endlessly throughout the different realities.
In 2001, I am selling books out of the trunk of a car, and am grateful and indebted to every single good bookseller and fan I meet.
In 2016, I am selling books out of the trunk of a car, and am grateful and indebted to every single good bookseller and fan I meet.
I’ve come a long way from not giving a fuck, selling books out of a trunk to moving this far up—but in a way, it’s not that far at all.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.