I’d never been to an authors’ book fair before, and it was sobering to appear alongside 90 writers at the National Press Club’s annual jamboree in Washington DC in November. As we gathered for the opening reception, we sized each other up. I have to say we didn’t look particularly diverse, notable, or even interesting as a group, except for one of our number who was determined to make the most of the occasion. His book had a picture of a gorilla on the front cover, and he made us notice this by holding it out in front of him as he swept through the cocktail crowd with a full-size dummy ape in evening dress piggy-backed onto his hips. Plenty of people’s drinks got spilled as he lurched about.
Otherwise most of us, I reckon, had a pretty furtive look. Conceiving a book, finding an agent, landing a publisher, writing the text, rewriting it, getting the book accepted for publication, managing the editing process, planning the promotion, and now, finally, selling the book, is, in the end, a pretty harrowing experience. We were the survivors, I agreed with a cheerfully agitated fellow-author, Steve Light, a New York kindergarten teacher and artist with a picture book called “The Christmas Giant”. But we all felt we had to keep an eye on the others for ideas on how to make our pitches more attractive, and waited for our turn with media out to cover the event (C-SPAN Book TV’s three-minute interview with me about Dining with al-Qaeda is here).
As we practiced potted accounts of the best possible interpretation of our publishing success, one group of authors seemed set above the rest of us. This was clear right from the nametag get-go. Writers who might be ambassadors, doctors, professors, priests, lords or ladies got no titles in front of their names. But if you were a cookbook writer, you got to be “Chef”. One or two even wore a white coat and chef’s hat, so that everybody could spot them from a distance. As we moved into the ballroom where tables were set out with piles of our books, their other advantages became clear. Spotlights illuminated the long line of authors touting books like SOS! The Six O’Clock Scramble to the Rescue: Earth-Friendly, Kid-Pleasing Dinners for Busy Families. This meta-kitchen was where the energy was, where everyone clustered. Several even had big bowls of pre-cooked offerings to tempt the passing crowds to linger, chat and feel more like buying the book.
I had a good spot in the center of the room, but felt in the shadow of the glamorous cooks, towards whom the eyes of people walking past were naturally attracted. There wasn’t much I could do except wait until someone approached me. I wished that, like the chefs, I’d put on some professional gear, the flak jacket that still lies unused under my bed at home, for instance. Perhaps I could also have found a battered helmet and put a plaster strip over its rim and scrawled “PRESS” on it in Arabic. After a while I realized that since I couldn’t beat the chefs, I should join them. “Dining with al-Qaeda” is of course in the mealtime category, and when the eyes of a passing soul paused on the title, that was my chance: “No, it’s not a cookbook, but it does have a really interesting account of what it’s like to eat a Chinese meal with someone who knew the September 11 hijackers …”
My pile of books gradually and gratifyingly diminished. I suppose that at least half the people in the world are not likely to find your book to be just right – I know that only a few books in an average bookshop appeal to me. Indeed, the National Press Club had chosen very few other books on foreign affairs, let alone the Middle East (full list here) — the closest to that category I found was a book about the CIA and a novel about Little Egypt, Illinois.
On the other hand, it was fun chatting with the kind of people who did want to buy my book. A lady told me she was writing about the fate of journalists who could no longer support themselves by working in the media. An elderly man related how he’d set up the Peace Corps program in Turkey, becoming godfather of a galaxy of Americans who grew to be prominent in introducing the country to the world, from historian Heath Lowry to guidebook pioneer Tom Brosnahan. Best of all, I met several younger readers for whom I really wrote the book, students starting out in their discovery of the Middle East.
With a series of people stopping by my table for anything for one to ten minutes, I honed my message about what the book was about (and learned that if someone hasn’t bought your book after five minutes, they are probably not going to). Perhaps this is what the publishing world should do before anyone starts to write: organize a book fair in which publishers wander from table to table and hear writers making their pitch. Or perhaps that’s what the publishers’ rejection system is actually trying to imitate – if only they’d just say “no” straight away, instead of leaving us nervously waiting months for their message telling us “this is a fascinating and important book, but we’re going to pass”. Anyway, when C-SPAN’s Book TV reporter and cameraman suddenly turned up at my table, I was in full flow, and about as clear as I can verbally get (the result is here). And perhaps even better, an agent appeared in front of me and said she was interested in my work, flattering my vain authors’ idea that one day I might be able to earn a living from all this books business.
The reality is, of course, that most of us have to have day jobs. I had to leave the book fair early to rush off to the airport (and board the second of Turkish Airlines’ superb new Boeing 777 flights direct from DC to Istanbul). So I don’t know what the final score was for the evening. At least as successful as the chefs was my neighbor to the right, a former senator had been in constant demand for his colourful tome about What Washington Could Learn from the World of Sports. On they other hand, my neighbor to the left, New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, shifted only a few copies of her ‘Boiling Mad’ book on the Tea Party movement. But then she hadn’t turned up.
In the end it seemed that, with my pile of books about halved, I’d roughly equaled the performance of nearby James Zogby, a pollster and long-standing Arab voice in the American wilderness. Throughout the evening he had looked predisposed to be disappointed with the world as he stood behind his new volume telling Americans about what Arabs really think. Still, who knows what makes what happen in publishing? Perhaps it was something at the Press Club book fair that helped him hit a vital jackpot two weeks later, a sweet review in the New York Times…