Thursday, April 30, 2009
There were seven people, if you count the couple that was actually just sitting in the comfortable chairs in the author signing area, reading a graphic novel. At times, particularly later on, the guy started paying attention, and seemed interested, but that might have been because the woman was hogging the graphic novel; she did not even pretend to be listening.
So: Five, and that’s only if you count Robbie, the store manager. So, really: Four. And if it hadn’t been for Betsy Triggs, with whom I went to high school and have not seen in 35 years – really, and who brought her husband and a friend, there would have just been one, a man named Paul Anderson, who’s great grandfather’s cousin was on the Sultana. The great grandfather’s cousin’s name was Samuel Raudebaugh. I quoted him in the book.
That said, the four of them were enough. Betsy alone would have been enough. She’s a pediatrician in Nashville with whom I reconnected not long ago through facebook. We knew each other, though not all that well, back at Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss., and both attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a time, though neither was aware the other was there. All in all ours has been a pretty random acquaintanceship; it’s not like we missed each other. At this point that seems odd to me, because we had a lot to talk about at the Sultana event, little of which concerned high school.
Betsy is smart and has stories to tell, and the same is true of her husband Austin, an attorney and healthcare consultant, and their friend Marshall Bouldin, also a doctor. We had an interesting conversation about Sultana at the Barnes & Noble in the Brentwood area of Nashville, where Thursday night's reading/signing was held. Afterward we – “we” being the author and three-quarters of his local fan base -- went out to dinner at a local restaurant that is reportedly favored by part-time Nashville resident Nicole Kidman, where we continued our pleasant and engaging tête-à-tête. Mostly they told me stories, which was a nice change of pace. They were good stories, too, with arcing plots and lots of intrigue and satisfying character development. We resolved to get together again soon, and continue along those veins.
From all appearances, Barnes & Noble had no great expectations for the event. When I first arrived I went up to the woman at the register, held up my book, pointed to my name on the cover and said, “This is me. I’m here for the signing.” She responded with a blank stare, so I offered, helpfully: “I’m the author.” She said, “Oh, OK,” and directed me to the back of the store. There were only a few chairs set up for the reading, and only 10 books, indicating, in hindsight, that the store’s management knows their market. Robbie admitted that their signings are not typically all that well-attended. Sometimes they’re competing on the same night with the Davis-Kidd bookstore; sometimes even big name authors come and it’s a wash. One guy, a well-known author, had an audience of one, Robbie said. I would have provided similar fodder for a cautionary author-reading tale had it not been for Betsy and company. Before the event even began, Robbie tried to prepare me. “Wednesday night is church night in the Bible belt,” he said, rather ominously. I wondered, but didn’t ask, why they would schedule author readings in flagrant opposition to belt-wide prayer meetings.
Nashville is technically where the odyssey began for many of the men aboard the Sultana. Union soldiers from the Midwest, Kentucky and Tennessee entered the war zone through the Tennessee capital, which was an important Union army staging area. Tennessee, where several bloody battles were fought, was divided over the war, and lost 365 soldiers to the Sultana disaster -- more than any state other than Ohio.
As I mentioned in my note about the Chattanooga signing, I had hoped for an audience rebound in Nashville, but again, I must admit that while I like the idea of huge crowds, and I enjoy them when they come, I also very much like small crowds. I keep telling myself I shouldn’t, but I do. I guess it’s a good thing, too, at times like these. They make for interesting conversations. In this case it was a rather expensive conversation, and didn’t do all that much to advance the book, but I liked it. The five of us got to really talk about Samuel Raudebaugh, how he fought in a pair of ferocious battles nearby, at Stones River and Franklin, and survived, only to be captured and sent to Andersonville, where thousands died, which he survived, after which he was transported to Vicksburg to board the Sultana, and yet again survived. We talked about Mississippi in Africa, and e-book readers, and even my high school literary journal, which Betsy published, a copy of which she brought to the signing. It was from 1972; Austin pointed out that I won first place for poetry. I have not written a poem since, and shuddered a little when Betsy said she read the poem aloud to Austin on the way to the event.
To my surprise, Marshall also knew the words to an old song about the Sultana, which I’d never heard. I was amazed that I’d never come across it, and that no one had ever mentioned it to me, even at the descendants reunion, where one of the bluegrass bands played an original ditty about the disaster. Marshall said the song dated to just after the disaster, and I wondered how it, like the disaster, had slipped though the cracks He said it’s a beautiful song, that he came across it while researching Civil War computer gaming online, and that he would email it to me. When he does, I’ll post it here.
Robbie appeared to be enthusiastic about everything that was being said. Apparently he also forgot that the point of a book tour is to publicize a book before the LARGEST NUMBER OF PEOPLE. In any event, he was clearly more up-to-speed than the cashier, and had recognized me when I wandered up to the author reading area, from the jacket photo. He’s a bright guy, and obviously into books, which is not always the case with the staffs of chain bookstores. He was also eager to talk about the state of the publishing industry, which is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. He said his store’s sales haven’t really fallen off much because Brentwood is affluent, though I couldn’t help noticing that there were few customers in the store on this particular night.
My own misguided affection for small audiences aside, the lack of bookstore customers is more than a little distressing. It’s not a good time for retail in general, but the future of the book, and of bookstores, is particularly cloudy. My publisher, HarperCollins, is itself a giant corporation, and has, from my perspective, made a few poor judgment calls in response to the economic collapse, including cutting back dramatically on publicity. Publishers today rarely develop long-term relationships with their authors, and as the physical printing of books has become easier, and big publishers grow increasingly aloof and monolithic, more authors are choosing alternative means of publishing, including online and through independent publishing houses. Even self-publishing has lost some of the stigma it once had. All of which raises questions about the future of big publishers and, by extension, of conventional books.
There is naturally a lot of panic about the current economic collapse, and no one seems sure whether the solution is to save, to lay people off, and to essentially circle the wagons, or to innovate, to adapt and, inevitably, to spend money on different things, but to spend just the same. In fact the collapse is advancing a process that was already in motion in the publishing industry, wherein customers buy more and more of their books online, and younger readers move toward electronic book downloads.
I’m not sure what I think about those trends. I’ve bought my share of books on amazon, and have been known to browse the remainder bins at Books-A-Million, yet I love local bookstores, especially when they’re staffed by knowledgeable, thoughtful people who are inveterate readers. And while I cannot imagine a world without libraries crammed with books, and dog-eared pages with underlining and notes scrawled in the margins, I can see the utility of e-books. I never thought I’d forsake my vinyl record albums, but at some point I moved on to CDs, and I now listen to my records as a quaint diversion; otherwise, I listen almost exclusively to music that I download. I will no doubt eventually own an electronic reader. The technology is improving, and it’s possible to synch an i-phone or other handheld device so that you can return to the last page you’ve read at any moment, on any number of devices, under almost any set of circumstances, and to have access to hundreds of books on what is essentially one book-sized and –shaped computer.
I can imagine a future in which I read most of my books on an e-reader, and buy the ones I like most in hard copy and store them in a glass-front shelf, much the way I occasionally buy CDs of favorite albums that I’ve downloaded. I like the feel of a book in my hands, and I cannot imagine having to depend on the electric power grid to provide access to the most important words that people have recorded in narrative form, but e-readers could provide useful winnowing of my ever-expanding personal library. The big questions are: Will hard copies be available indefinitely, and if so, will they be comparatively expensive luxuries, reserved for special occasions, much the way working fireplaces are? And what will be the role of bookstores themselves? There aren’t as many reasons to visit a bookstore if everything is available for download, from anywhere. And again: Retail; I couldn’t help noticing that despite its location in a thriving, underground-powerline-and-
sign-ordinance-intensive upscale neighborhood, the Barnes & Noble was next door to a closed CompUSA store.
It’s all food for thought, but for now, those five of us enjoyed sitting in a back corner of a bookstore and talking about books, the writing of them, and related stories, and at least one other person overheard.
This was the last reading of my current book tour, though additional events are scheduled for the summer and fall in Atlanta, Jackson, Mobile and Evansville, Ind., and I’ll be doing several radio shows next week; the C-Span broadcast and the re-broadcast of the Thacker Mountain radio show are also still to come.On Thursday I’m scheduled to talk to a group of eighth graders about the process of writing and publishing books. The school is somewhere out past Dolly Parton’s house. I look forward to hearing the students' take on the future of books, which likely will be as revealing as the dearth of customers at the Barnes & Noble.