"Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing," Sylvia Plath once wrote during a dark period of fielding rejection letters. She might have rethought her position had she spent a weekend hawking her published wares alongside some 150 fellow authors in a cavernous convention center. After several hours spent staring at a mountain of her own books, she might have known the stench of painstakingly crafted sentences being reduced to pulp, which in the publishing business, is politely called "remaindering."
When the invitation to last spring's Southern Kentucky Book Festival arrived, my publicist suggested that the weekend in Bowling Green might present a "good opportunity" -- which turned out to be another industry euphemism, this one meaning that it would behoove me to attend, even though my publicity budget did not cover the cost of a room at the Holiday Inn. But money was beside the point, I thought. Here was my chance to spread my name throughout the great state of Kentucky, to network with my peers and even, if I was very savvy, to sell a few books.
Sue Grafton, Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech and, strangely (or perhaps sadly), Chuck Barris, from "The Gong Show," were among the weekend's headline attractions, and I considered the possibility that at the reception the first evening I might meet someone in a position to help boost my fledgling career. The chief flaw with this plan was that I am a walking networking disaster, and when a lovely woman linked her arm through mine as I stood in line at the buffet table and suggested that we find a place to sit, I choked. Her name tag said she was Jacquelyn Mitchard, and my memory said that her book The Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah's very first book club pick and had sold nearly three million copies. She was so beautiful and gracious that I worried she'd think I was looking for a favor, so I purposely lost her in the crowd.
In the harsh fluorescent reality of the convention center the next day, I watched in awe as the romance novelist to my left held court with devoted fans. Susan Crandall, a former dental hygienist, complained that she can barely write fast enough to satisfy her readers. She handed me her novel Back Roads, which promised that the take-charge protagonist was going to surrender to the demands of her hot-blooded heart. This seemed a good way to pass the next six hours, and I bought a copy. Susan bought one of my books in return. I had made my first sale of the day and felt as if I were on to something.
To my immediate right was a cute southern Christian chick-lit author named Denise Hildreth. Denise was also flush with fans, but I told myself that was because she had a geographic advantage: We were in the South, and her book about a rigged beauty pageant was called Savannah from Savannah. Then someone told me that Kentucky is not technically in the South. One more hour passed. I bought one of Denise's books, and she bought one of mine.
Although I had once professed to be the sort of author who cared more about kudos than sales figures, that posture was starting to feel absurd. My comrades in Kentucky were, for the most part, very successful trade paperback genre writers. Denise Swanson, an exuberant former school psychologist, had switched careers mid-life and published seven mystery novels in under five years. Expensive hardcover fiction with no promise of sex, God or murder splashed on the jacket suddenly seemed as bloated as all of the SUVs in the Safeway parking lot.
Another hour passed. In a burst of solidarity with hardcover fiction writers, I sought out Frances Norris, author of a quiet literary debut, Blue Plate Special, whom I had met at the airport. Frances and I had bonded over a discussion of our next books, as well as the discovery that we had both actually meant to write Prep, but Curtis Sittenfeld had beaten us to it. I bought Frances's book, and then she bought mine.
Into hour five, even Susan Crandall's flock was starting to thin. It was getting hot inside, C-SPAN had run out of free red book totes, and my chick-lit neighbor had abandoned ship. A woman handed me a flyer urging me to participate in the forthcoming Western Kentucky Book Festival. It seemed like a good time to leave.
Just then, a man stopped by to ask whether the Rockville Pike of my title was the selfsame road in Maryland. He said he had once owned a Kinko's franchise near Montrose Road on 355. After a long, slow day, this seemed a small miracle. I told him the coincidence meant he had to buy my book. I had never said such a thing before and felt ashamed of my desperate sales pitch, but anyway he bought a book.
Meanwhile, despite my poor social performance the previous evening, I kept randomly bumping into Jacquelyn Mitchard, who by then probably thought I was stalking her. I had not read her books and had not even seen the Hollywood adaptation of The Deep End of the Ocean, but I felt a strange draw toward this friendly, folksy woman. I bought a copy of her new book, The Breakdown Lane. She signed it "Fellow!" Close scrutiny did not reveal any ironic intent. She did not buy one of mine, but I didn't expect her to: The barter system doesn't cross class lines. I admired her glamorous author photograph: With her head cocked confidently, a jaunty smile on her lips, she looked as if she owned the Midwestern-plains backdrop, which actually, she probably does.
Perhaps I had simply breathed too much recirculated air inside the convention center or stared too long at my unsold books, but I was feeling on the verge. When Jacquelyn casually mentioned that her husband likes to clean the house and that she was buying him a Dyson vacuum cleaner for his birthday, something clicked. I realized that I didn't want to chat up Jacquelyn Mitchard so that she could help boost my career. What I wanted was to be Jacquelyn Mitchard. I thought of the film "Being John Malkovich." Was there a portal into Jacquelyn's brain that I could squeeze through, maybe if I lost a little weight?
I'm better now and have reclaimed my own unusually blessed life, even if Oprah hasn't called and my husband doesn't vacuum. A post-book-festival deconstruction revealed that selling seven books, even if six of them are to your peers, is not entirely unrespectable. When an author in that circle grumbled that she had been charged for the bottled water in her hotel room, Jacquelyn quipped that surely her publisher could afford it. We all exchanged weary glances. Someone broke the news to Jacquelyn that authors who are not book goddesses tend to get stuck with their own hotel bills. Jacquelyn said something about the world being unjust. All at once, I realized I was not alone in my mid-list funk and felt happy to be in such fine company, inhaling the smell of sweaty authors, packed like chattel in an airport van. *
Susan Coll, author of "Rockville Pike," is at work on her third novel.