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The blind courage of the book signing

Maybe my author events were sparsely attended. Maybe I sold no books. But there is something I miss about them — and the bookstores that once hosted them.

The author signs his book "The Heaven Stone" at Barnes & Noble in Holyoke in 1994.Stephanie Daniel

Most of the published writers I know are of two minds about self-promotion. They acknowledge the value but aren’t thrilled about doing it. Mostly they’re midlist writers, an odd appellation because it implies a bottom list, which there really isn’t. Bottom-list means you aren’t on it. It’s like actors, I suppose: There’s the A-list and then all the others who have to duke it out for parts. Old joke: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 10 — one to change the bulb, the other nine to say, “That should be me up there!” For a time, over the course of two decades into the early aughts, I was that guy up there — or close.

This came about through the same confluence of elements as happens still: a yearning, time spent learning the craft, market forces, a tolerance for rejection, luck, persistence, sweat. On these last points, the late Boston crime writer George V. Higgins once remarked of his 1973 novel: “The success of ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ was termed ‘overnight’ in some quarters. That was one hell of a damned long night, lasting 17 years!” (Higgins had 14 previously written unpublished novels that never saw the light of day.)

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My luck came when Richard Marek, a legendary New York editor, liked a novel I’d sent him, a book called “Ark.” Later there was more luck: My private-eye novel, “The Heaven Stone,” won a prize. There were a few more awards. And I kept plugging.

My books were widely reviewed, sold well, went into paperback reprints and foreign language editions. One was a bestseller in college bookstores. I also did a fair number of book signings.

Signings, or author events, were an act of blind faith that set you out there for the world to see — but mostly ignore. Although no one threw rocks or anything and there were people who’d come and you were glad for the contact with readers, the events were exercises in uncertainty.

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You’d sit in a mall or a book emporium — Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Brentano’s, and a lot more independent booksellers were around then — amidst a soft insinuation of Muzak, and wonder: Is tonight the night? Will rockets flare and sales soar? Does the industry see you poised for takeoff to the stratosphere? Or will it be another grind, an agonizing crawl of minutes until the appointed hour arrives when, chagrined, you pocket your pens and whatever tatters of pride remain and slink home?

The author at a signing for his novel "The Tuesday Man" at a Brentano's in 1991.Robert Whitaker

Brentano’s was the granddaddy of American booksellers, founded in 1853. Barnes & Noble followed in 1886, Waldenbooks in 1933, Borders in 1971. They are mostly gone now, having joined the dinosaurs in extinction. But one thing about author events remains the same: You take your chances and try to be a sport about it. People pass and you smile, the way I remember shy girls at junior high school dances smiling when boys would walk past, trying to get their courage up. It’s not always clear who’s the wallflower, but there’s something forever heartbreaking in that smile.

There was the absurd side to it all, too, that you came to smile at. The storewide announcement: “Please join Mr. Daniel in the cookbook section, reading from his new mystery.” Or the lonely individual who’d hang around, fondling your book and asking questions for an hour, then set the book down, murmur “Be right back,” and never be seen again.

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One afternoon at an urban mall, a boy with a pen and a scrap of paper came up and said, “Can I get your autograph?” You want my autograph? “My mother says you’re wicked famous.” Wicked famous? I realized they didn’t know me from Homer but must have figured: Dude’s sitting here on display in a mall, he must be someone. Go get his signature.

I sat in a Waldenbooks in Manhattan one sleet-shot February night, and the manager, perhaps apologizing and wanting to assure me that the lousy turnout wasn’t my fault, kept telling me that if it were a different night, a typical night, there’d be a lot more traffic through. Behind me, otherwise idle, several of the sales staff had begun to erect a ziggurat (the only word for it) of copies of the late, great Michael Crichton’s newest — probably more copies than the entire first printing of my book. As the slow evening went on, the tower grew ever taller, just feet from where I sat. If it toppled, I’d be crushed. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Crichton, of course, was a major writer, and over my head Waldenbooks had strung a banner with his name and a perhaps too-apt title for the state of the bookstore back then: “The Lost World.”

Toward the end of the evening an elderly gentleman entered the store, shaking rain off his hat. Spotting me, he approached. I sat straighter, gripped my pen. “So that’s you, huh?” he enthused, nodding up at the Crichton banner. After he’d gone, I wished I’d pointed to the book I was actually there to peddle and said, “Yep, and this is my other new book, written under my pen name, David Daniel.” But my mind wasn’t quick enough. If it were, I’d be the one with my name on the banner.

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Anyway, it didn’t matter. That fellow didn’t buy either book.

David Daniel’s latest book, “Beach Town,” is set on the South Shore and will be published in 2023. He teaches part-time at UMass, Lowell and can be reached at daviddaniel67@gmail.com.