Why a Book Tour Is More Brutal Than a Political Campaign

There was an article written by Steve Israel in the New York Times on this past Tuesday with the above title.  I had to find out how this could possibly be the case, so I read it.  Steve Israel represented New York in Congress from 2001 to 2017. His most recent novel is Big Guns, published last April.  The Amazon website for Big Guns calls it, “a hilarious indictment of American politics, whose author knows from bitter experience how sensible laws almost never get passed by Congress.”

Steve Israel and his novel

He said, “During the course of eight successful campaigns for Congress in my Long Island district, I was called every imaginable name by unhappy voters, including, but not limited to, idiot, Communist, socialist, liberal (what’s worse than that?), Pelosi puppet, Obama lackey and Bush sellout. I was criticized as too progressive, too conservative, too middle-of-the-road. In 2010, when Tea Party fever swept through congressional districts, I sat in a slow-moving convertible, waving to crowds at a Memorial Day parade. People waved back, many with one particular finger.  I didn’t let any of it get to me. I brushed it off. In a swing district with about as many Democrats as Republicans — but all opinionated New Yorkers — dealing with voter rejection had become second nature.

So you’d think that I’d be inoculated against the indifference of some readers during the recent book tour for my novel.

Wrong.

In politics, one’s skin must be impenetrable to insult and even the occasional knife in the back. But sitting behind a pile of books at an Authors Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture. Often, they frown sceptically, weigh the book in their hands, glance at a few pages and toss it back on the pile. All right in front of you.

In August, I participated in a signing to benefit a historic public library in Connecticut. I was one of only a few novelists in a tent filled with nonfiction authors. My book, a political satire on the National Rifle Association, sat in a pile that actually seemed to grow higher as the evening progressed. Among the questions I received were:

1: “Is this a novel?” (The words “A Novel” appear on the cover.)

2: “Are you pro-gun or anti-gun?”

And my favourite: “I shoot bear. Will this book help?”

Each question was deflating. I remember receiving a letter when I was in Congress telling me that my support for Obamacare was so odious that the writer was voting for my opponent, then asking who, exactly, my opponent was. I laughed. But in that tent in Connecticut, I had to restrain myself when a reader asked me if my passion for exposing the insanity of the N.R.A.’s influence in a novel (written in 90,000 words and taking over two years of my life) might improve his bear-hunting skills. “Dude, this book’s not for you,” I replied.

Then I sat down, jiggling my signing pen, watching the line get longer at Simon Winchester’s table.

There’s some solace in knowing that I’m not alone. The producer and writer Alan Zweibel recently shared with me his favourite story about the occasional solitude of the book-signing tour earlier in his career. Zweibel was one of the original writers on “Saturday Night Live,” and the author of numerous books. He’d been invited to promote his book at the Barnes & Noble in Paramus, N.J. The night before, he had appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman,” the kind of visibility an author or publicist craves. Anticipating a large crowd, the Barnes & Noble staff put out about 200 folding chairs. There was a crowd, Zweibel said — only they were rushing to the multiplex on the other side of the mall for the opening of a new movie. Zweibel made the best of it, gracefully taking his audience of five to dinner at the local Legal Sea Foods.

My presence at authors nights usually draws folks I call “political leaners.” They don’t lean to the ideological left or right. They lean forward. On my books. Blocking people who might actually buy my work while they fulminate about Mueller, Putin, impeachment, climate change, the obscure member of Congress whom they hate/love, the granddaughter who wants to go into politics or the president’s latest kooky tweet. Sometimes they want a handshake and a selfie. Then they move on. But so have the people behind them.

So how is it that rejection in politics rolled off my back while even one person’s rejection of my book sticks in my craw? For me, there’s a big difference between being snubbed in an election and being ignored on a book tour.

The maxim in politics is that “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Maybe that’s the psychological armour every politician wears against insults and indignities. Someone’s going to run against you, lie about you, spend millions of dollars vilifying you — but it’s not personal. If angry voters spew, it’s not about you, it’s about that unpopular vote that you cast, or the tough political environment for your party or because they’re uninformed. Writing a book, on the other hand, is deeply personal. Politicians put on protective gear, fiction writers take it off — fully exposing their creativity, emotions, fantasies. It’s like unburdening oneself on a therapist’s couch, only every reader on earth is your therapist.

Plus, there’s the issue of space. At elections, people reject you in the privacy of a voting booth. It stings, but it’s distant and anonymous. At a book signing, the judgements are cast from a distance of a few feet and in real time. The response to you is immediate.

Thankfully, at each signing I somehow manage to sell a fair share of books. And although I left politics (undefeated and unindicted), political skill hasn’t completely left me. For instance, I’ve figured a way to rationalise setback. In an election, anything over 50 percent is a win. At a book signing, I’ve decided that selling over 50 percent of my book pile is also a win.

So I’ll continue, skin thin, signing-pen sharp. And the next time someone asks me if my novel will help him shoot a bear, I’ll let my political instincts take over. I’ll say “Yes!” Then I’ll suggest he take extra copies for other bear hunters.

After all, it’s not personal. It’s business.”

 

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