Just the other day I realized that I have been helping facilitate Reading events with the illustrious Elliott Bay Book Company now for ten years. In that time, I have seen such a variety of authors and events that I could barely attempt to synthesize them all. Some authors charm the audience with genuine affection, others seem jaded by the tour circuit or their own success
and choose to talk over the heads of anybody present, while still others are utterly overwhelmed by the prospect of speaking in front of even a handful of potential readers.
Two recent events, General Colin Powell and David Sedaris, seemed to symbolize some characteristic differences. (Social-Political differences aside, I am analyzing Mr. Powell as an author and public presenter, not as Former Secretary of State or Military personality.)
Sedaris performs with deft improvisational skill. He reads the mood and tone of the audience and finds a way to make everyone laugh, even in the face of, or likely because of, his awkward and often inappropriate jokes and observations. (See the following blog post for a snipit of an event I worked with Sedaris in 2008). At his signing table, Sedaris continues his socially incorrect humor and holds out for hours, insisting on interacting personally with each of the hundreds of people waiting in line to have books signed. He has a distinct affection for booksellers and always makes a point to approach and thank each of us. He even remembered working with me last time he was in town. You’d think the events person standing directly beside the author for an hour or more, prepping books for signature would be more often remembered, but after one hundred events, I imagine we all blend together. Kudos to Mr. Sedaris’ memory. He is appreciative of book lovers and well aware of who sells his books.
Powell, who spoke to as large an audience of people that each paid as much for their tickets as those who went to see Sedaris, also pandered to his audience. His intent was not to provoke his audience to humor though, instead he practiced that skilled political maneuvering that causes a person to believe he or she was just agreed with, whether or not he/she actually was. When people approached the signing table and extended their hand to Powell, saying, “Sir, I’d like to shake your hand,” he would lift his right hand from the title page he was signing, indicate the pen and say, “I can’t shake hands, with this pen and all.” People would nod and say something to acknowledge the sense of the statement and maybe not realize until they had stepped away from the table that it didn’t really make sense. He shook the occasional person’s hand; somebody he knew, who had waited in the long, snaking line to sneak in a few seconds of reunion with Mr. Powell. Nobody got
more than a few seconds. They would approach the table and we would already have the book in front of him. He’d say “Hi. Thanks for coming,” and the person in front of him would say something along the lines of, “It is a pleasure to meet you,” though “meeting” him was a bit of a stretch. Then we would hand the person the signed book and the next person would be moved in to place in front of the table. We were a well-oiled machine.
When the lines finally died down and Powell had signed all of the store’s stock, he finally did acknowledge the group of Bookstore folks buzzing about, making everything work. He shook each of our hands, after removing the pen from his grip, of course, made a few jokes, thanked us amiably and left.
I postulate that part of the difference in mood between the two events is the joy of the work. Sedaris clearly relishes his role as author and the satisfaction he brings each person who gets personal attention after waiting in the long signing line. These things perhaps bring Powell less satisfaction. As we packed away the books I recalled what Powell had said in the large hall where he’d just spoken about his new leadership book. In one of his roles on Capitol Hill he’d told his eager-to-please cabinet that they all needed to watch WWF and NASCAR and even to shop at Wal-Mart, so they could all get in touch with who they really worked for; they worked for the common
man! I reviewed the people who had attended the event that evening, wondering how many of them regularly watched WWF, followed NASCAR or shopped at Wal-Mart. He hadn’t been here for consumer surveys, of course, nor to necessarily win friends and influence people. All that appeared obviously unnecessary. He was on tour, that was all.
Airports . Ballard . Bangkok . Brasov . Cal Anderson Park . California . Canada . Chicago . Columbia City . Columbia River . Crete . Eastern Washington . Ethiopia . Germany . Greece . Green Lake . Hawaii . Home . Laos . Los Angeles . Maui . Myanmar . Nevada . Romania . Seattle . Seward Park . Texas . Thailand . Transylvania . Vashon Island . Washington . Wyoming .