Archive for book signings

Close enough to hear, but not to see

There was no way I’d get to see Khaled Hosseini.
No matter how long I stood, or how high I stood on my tiptoes. The author was there–but invisible. All I could hear was his beautiful Pashto accent, and shake my head at myself for being such a groupie.
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Last Sunday, I drove through DC traffic, parked in a pricey downtown garage and walked a half mile in beautiful, 70-degree weather to the National Book Festival on the Mall. The Washington Post’s tabloid section promoting the book festival had given me the full schedule a week ago and I’d let many of my friends–and even my daughter’s English teacher–know about this rare opportunity to see the California-based international literature superstar discuss his first book in five years, And The Mountains Roared.

I’d brought two of his novels in my trusty oversized bag. So did a lot of other people. Like–maybe a thousand? The line to his signing booth was actually three lines that stretched almost the width of the mall. Even though Mr. Hosseini stayed on signing long after the scheduled half hour event was over, hundreds were still in line. I was faced with a dilemma. Surely the experience of getting a book signed–with so many people waiting–would be reduced to a few seconds, and a quick scrawl. There could hardly be a chance to mention how much I loved his books, let alone have a brief conversation.
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But we’d come to the book festival to see writers and hear them talk about their books. We would have a rotten time, if we just stayed in a line and never had a book signed. After 45 minutes in the Hosseini line, I moved to plan B and went to see the author-journalist Fred Hiatt and the young Chinese-Canadian human rights activist Ti-Anna Wang discuss Hiatt’s young adult novel, Nine Days. There was a crowd of over 100, but still extra seats in the Special Programs tent. The author and activist presented; the audience offered thoughtful questions which were answered at length by Mr.Hiatt and Ms. Wang. This book talk ran as smoothly as the soft serve ice cream being vended on the mall.

I ducked out of this event ten minutes before it ended, because I was concerned about getting a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s talk, which was scheduled to start at 4:35 at the fiction and mystery tent next door. Already I could see a ring of people standing around the tent, which had several hundred seats already filled by an audience enjoying a presentation by Mark Helprin. But when the Helprin talk ended…hardly anyone got up and freed seats. It turned out the Hosseini fans were already there, staked out. The hundreds of standing readers tried to press in to be close enough to see the podium–but could not. Festival staff begged people not to fill the aisles, or lean on the tent posts. I was left along with many others behind a standing room only crowd ten deep. Although Mr. Hosseini and his interviewer, the reviewer Maureen Corrigan, were supposedly seated on a raised stage within the tent, the only person I could see onstage was the interpreter for the deaf. A very attractive and tall woman–but not Khaled Hosseini.

OK. Staging a signing for someone who’s stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for the last ten years straight is a challenge. But placing him in a tent with a few hundred seats is tantamount to offering a free Robin Thicke concert in a high school gym. Khaled Hosseini crowds cannot be fit into any size tent. They need an open space about the size of a soccer stadium. This event should have been set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

In the course of publishing eleven novels, I’ve had a few big signings too. Not a thousand readers or more than 100–but many dozens at book launches in my two hometowns, Minneapolis and Baltimore. Yes, such crowds are flattering, but it’s just as sad for the writer as it is the reader not to be able to see each other. Writers feel a lot of guilt knowing the investment in time, travel, and funds that the readers have made to come to a signing.

I think Mr. Hosseini felt the same, judging from the first comments he made in the tent, which were blessedly amplified by a microphone. He thanked everyone for coming. He marveled at the turnout. But ultimately, he was impossible to see…and there were technical problems at the camera area, behind which I was standing. In the end, the technical team’s troubleshooting was so distracting–as were the texts from my daughter, who had become separated from me–that I bagged the event.

It wasn’t a total loss. I love the energy and diversity of D.C. That Sunday, I had a good conversation while waiting in the line with another Hosseini fan. But I wondered how many of the thousand fans I saw have a regular chance to attend author events. Publishers are cutting back on signing tours, and bookstore owners are sometimes loath to host authors who aren’t gigantic names. Both these factors compromise the magic of the time a reader meets a writer–ideas are exchanged–and books are signed, becoming treasures.

Later this week, I’m participating in a book festival, Fall for the Book, run by George Mason University. The events are spread out, over the course of two weeks, in many different halls and bookstores. Interestingly, this festival has been named as one of the best in the country. It may not the National Book Fesitval, but I’ll make a wild guess that there will be seats for everyone who wants to come.

The Road to the Right Cover

I just ate three five chocolates to celebrate the fact that my book’s cover design is finally approved. This was more than a three month process. The talented artists at Simon&Schuster went through four designs before resulting in this one:

I like the bold red and gold, the cozy, interesting vintage bed, and the opened book on it. And I’ve got to say, cover designs that match the writer’s dream don’t usually come together. Here’s how it happened.

Years ago, when I started writing The Sleeping Dictionary, I thought there was a strong chance I would self-publish, so I got an account at Istock, a photo image shopping source. There I saved a “lightbox” of good images I might one day use. I gathered pictures of ornately carved doors, intricate textiles, graceful young women in saris, and also, a very romantic, canopied bed (all right, it was a Moroccan bed, but I would sleep in it any day!) Then my book was sold to the amazing Kathy Sagan at Simon&Schuster…and I thought I probably wouldn’t look in the India lightbox again.

Writers don’t direct their cover designs. Our skills are typically stronger for words than graphics and images. Therefore, we are offered “cover consultation.” The art department comes up with a design, and if you absolutely hate it, will prepare another one for you to consider. Fortunately, I’ve never heard the swearing that must be inevitable after someone sweats for weeks on a design that I’ve rejected.

Over the last ten books, I’ve had thirty-plus covers, if you count all the US hardcovers, the foreign editions and trade and mass market paperbacks. Generally, for the paperbacks and all foreign published editions, I know nothing about what the covers look like until a box of finished books thuds onto my porch. Still, my favorite Rei Shimura cover design of all time is the very first one. How I love the face and Mount Fuji-san…let’s forget that only elderly farmers in Japan would ever wear such a conical straw hat!

The early cover design ideas for The Sleeping Dictionary appeared in February. I’d post them if they were not lost in the Iclouds. But I remember them! Both cover ideas were sepia toned photographs. The first was a teenaged Indian girl wearing a North Indian dancer’s skirt and blouse. She was smiling and frolicking in a meadow. The other was an image of a naked Victorian lady seated with her voluptuous back and buns facing the viewer. Now, there is a short chapter in the book about naked photographs…but this cover was from a different era, featuring a European! There was nothing ugly about these cover designs–but they just didn’t connect with the material inside the book. Quietly praying to myself–they will change the cover!–I sent my editor a polite note with suggestions and a link to the sepia toned photos of Calcutta from the University of Pennsylvania’s magnificent collection and also the image of the Moroccan bed from Istock.com. Luckily she adored the bed, and a month later the art department came up with a cover featuring their own Indian bed.

I was so thrilled with the publisher’s willingness to put a nice-looking bed with a red coverlet on the cover that I didn’t have the heart to make any comments other than they maybe brighten up the red. But in my long-ago imaginary design for self-publishing, I’d thought there should be a book on the bed. It turned out I didn’t need to say this, because the assistant publisher was struck by the idea herself, and voila!

But we weren’t done yet.My agent suggested that the book was awkwardly large–and the green didn’t play well with the red and gold. At a publishing meeting in New York, I mentioned that the book might look better if it was opened, like someone had been interrupted while reading. Again, the publisher listened–and a nice new book appeared on the bed!

The Sleeping Dictionary will be released August 20. But you can pre-order it now through Amazon or any bricks-and-mortar bookseller. If you do this, and you’d like something special from me now, I’ve started mailing out signed, personalized book plates to stick inside the books. Pre-orders REALLY help the book to succeed…and right now I still have the time to send out bookplates in a timely fashion! I will sign personal messages to you, your mother, your friend, your school library…whoever! Just email me the details of where you’ve ordered The Sleeping Dictionary, and where I should mail your bookplate.

Hey! If you would rather have the book’s title page signed in ink by me, simply email one of the early bookstores on my tour–like Once Upon a Crime, Centuries and Sleuths, Mystery Loves Company, and The Ivy. They’ll take pre-orders and get the details from you on what I should write on the page. And rest assured that your book will be mailed straightaway once I’ve had it in my hands.