I had a hard time explaining myself this weekend. “So, where’s your bookstore?” I was asked on more than one occasion, often as a free book was being shoved into my hands.
“I’m with a small press.” I’d flip over my nametag, which was almost always facing the wrong direction.
“Burlesque Press,” the person would read, sometimes arching an eyebrow — perhaps imagining feather boas and strategically-placed tassels, even though we at Burlesque Press don’t do burlesque nor do we publish books about it (yet). “And you live in Knoxville?”
“Oh, this is a lie.” I’d wave my name tag and laugh in that forced-friendly way everyone at these conferences starts to adopt after a few hours in the noisy exhibit hall with its fluorescent-lighting and sub-zero temperatures. “The press is based out of New Orleans, but the director recently moved to Knoxville.”
“So you’re in New Orleans then?”
“Well, I lived there for six years, but I recently relocated to the DC area.” I had decided after the first “explaining myself” disaster to leave out the five other places I’ve lived in between.
“But I’m actually an author,” I’d sometimes add, feeling even more like I should just stop talking.
And to be honest, that’s pretty much what I did at the SIBA Conference in Raleigh this weekend – shut up and listen. Because although I didn’t really belong there, I had a lot to learn.
SIBA, or the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, holds a conference every year to bring together publishers and booksellers, of which I am neither. I came on the coattails of my friend Jeni Wallace, who directs Burlesque Press and has just begun the exciting yet daunting process of publishing books.
The way it worked was this: Publishers displayed their wares in the exhibit hall. The booksellers walked around the tables to collect free books and place orders for their store. Then there were the meals. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we would all file in to one of the hotel ballrooms and collect a stack of new books. As we ate our wedge salads and drank our sweet tea, the authors of the books we’d just received would stand up and talk.
And that’s where it became interesting for me. Not just because we heard talks from big names like Augusten Burroughs (author of Running with Scissors) or Walter Wick (creator of the I Spy children’s books) or because we got stuff I’m super excited to read (like Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter), but because one day, I’d like to think, it could be me up there, telling booksellers why they should buy my book.
As I sat there eating my pecan pie for desert, I was filing all of this away for later: noting which authors really sold themselves and their books, and how they did it. Loren Long, author of Little Tree, moved people to tears. Homer Hickman, author of Rocket Boys (aka October Sky) had people laughing. Some other authors, however, were total snooze fests. So I learned what not to do as well.
On the last night of SIBA, after dinner, my Burlesque Press friends and I sat in our matching t-shirts in the hotel bar, surrounded by piles of books. I nursed a cider and imagined myself up on that stage. Somehow I knew I wouldn’t get there with either of the two middle-grade novels I’ve written. When I imagined myself up there, I saw myself talking about a book of mine that I haven’t even written yet. An idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple of months. It’s something I really want to write, and yet I’m scared to write it because it’s different than anything I’ve ever done before. I told my friends the idea. “You should write that book,” Jeni said in her no-nonsense voice. “You should write that book right now.”
I got a lot out of the SIBA conference, but that might have been the most helpful thing I heard all weekend.