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Books among the slots at Mohegan Sun

Steve Wacksman for the Boston Globe

When state officials consider Mohegan Sun’s latest proposal to build a casino in Massachusetts, they might want to think about the gaming giant’s cultural contributions. On a Friday night in mid-November, the Mohegan Sun mothership in Uncasville, Conn., satisfied scores of people seeking entertainment. Thousands of fans, a significant number in cowboy hats, filled the Mohegan Sun Arena to cheer on Australian country phenom Keith Urban. Meanwhile, in the more intimate Wolf Den, ’90s nostalgists danced to Badfish, a tribute act to ska-rockers Sublime.

But beyond the blackjack tables with $20 dollar buy-ins, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, three writers discussed their work to a crowd of about 200. As it happens, Mohegan Sun has a reading series. It’s called Winning Authors. And although they might be overshadowed by Prince or Hall and Oates, dozens of marquee scribes like Nora Roberts and Lee Child have made the trek to Uncasville to read among the slots.

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On Nov. 15 authors Colleen Hoover, Jamie McGuire, and Abbi Glines stood where Harlan Coben and Mary Higgins Clark had come before. The women are among the biggest names in a genre known as New Adult, a category written about and ostensibly aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds facing difficult life decisions. Each author began her career by self-publishing; each is signed to the Simon and Schuster imprint Atria Books; each has had numerous titles on multiple bestseller lists; each writes about late-adolescent hunks and the women who love them, sometimes with supernatural results.

Twenty minutes before showtime, the authors strolled into a backstage green room where a Mohegan Sun flak took orders for Starbucks; Winning Authors get free hotel rooms and vouchers for food and drink. Glines, dressed in a perforated motorcycle jacket over a cocktail dress, rested her feet and offered a theory about how she and her cohort are able to fill a casino theater in rural Connecticut on a Friday night.

“One of the things about this genre is that we have countless, countless readers who tell us that they’ve never read a book before, or they didn’t enjoy reading,” she said. “It’s not your literary reader — it’s people who enjoy the escape, the excitement, and the passion. I equate them with soap-opera fans because . . . it’s the same exact crowd.”

Indeed, even if Mohegan Sun chose to host the most comely and popular critical darlings it would remain exceedingly difficult to imagine 200 readers of literary fiction coming out to Uncasville to see them. Rather, it’s genre writers like Glines, Hoover, and McGuire, each with tens of thousands of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook followers, who have the sort of mass-cultural pull that inspires travel. In a publishing era marked by ever-decreasing sales and dwindling influence, the name “Winning Authors” transcends its status as a middling pun and becomes an all-too-apt description of those increasingly rare writers with bona fide star power and the royalty checks that go with it.

“We try to use [authors] as a way to drive people into the casino,” confirms Mitchell Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and one of the series’s founders. The Winning Authors series has proved so successful that Etess and his PR team have expanded the concept to include celebrities in other realms, like cast members of the “Real Housewives” franchise and television chef Buddy Valastro. “People come to see famous people in whatever their trade.”

‘We try to use [authors] as a way to drive people into the casino.’

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Etess is an avid reader whose office is lined with signed first editions from writers who’ve visited Mohegan Sun. He and his wife once owned what he describes as “a nice, small-town bookstore” in a strip mall in Old Saybrook, Conn., next to a Walmart. But his memories of his tenure as an independent bookstore owner are bittersweet.

“It became harder and harder between the economy, Amazon, and e-books,” Etess recalls. “We did this one Harry Potter event — I think it must have been for the last book that came out. We had owls and stuff for the kids, and it was really great. A woman came to our event and bought the book — it was 20 percent off — and came back and said, ‘I could buy this book at Walmart for 40 percent off.’ She returned her book and went to Walmart.” Etess and his wife threw in the towel two years ago.

Back in Uncasville, groups of excited New Adult fans filled the cafe tables in front of the stage spilling out into the plush blue booths lining the theater. Friends Amie Morgado, Renee Dyer, and Kelly Crooks sat together near the back. They live in Epping, N.H. They had traveled 143 miles.

“We’ve never been to a book signing — we thought this would be good practice,” Morgado said. They planned on gambling when it was over.

The comfort of the seats, the fidelity of the sound system, and the promise of gambling are not the only things that set author events at Mohegan Sun apart from those at workaday bookstores. The audience — on this night at least — seemed more enthusiastic and less self-conscious; people asked earnest questions about “50 Shades of Grey” and declared their love for the authors with reckless abandon. Although the discussion contained its fair share of process questions — no author event has ever been without one — the doyennes of New Adult emphasized the personal struggles they faced on the way to the bestseller list and spoke freely of their “a-ha moments,” a phrase Oprah Winfrey coined to describe the confluence of instinct and inspiration. There were a lot of cheers.

When the discussion was over, most of the audience fanned out of the theater through the smoky gambling floor to meet the authors. The signing table was set up within the atrium that contains the Shops at Mohegan Sun; the writers looked out upon Coach and an Old Farmer’s Almanac General Store. The 200-person line, flanked by two fiberglass waterfalls, stretched past a lambent tree crafted by celebrity glassblower Dale Chihuly.

Like a teenager in mouse ears posted in front of a Disneyland roller coaster, a Mohegan Sun photographer was on hand to take pictures of the writers with each of her fans. Those who neglected to purchase a book from the Mohegan Sun bookstore before the event could score one from a folding table near the front of the line; buying more than one title secured fans a free tote bag, an Atria Books-branded lip balm, or a button bearing the slogan, “My book boyfriend is________.”

Although the line formed around 9 p.m., it was still going at midnight. The fans were still waiting, the authors still jumping up to hug them. Against the odds, all were still smiling into the night.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.
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