On Saturday, I walked into one of my greatest pet peeves in the book world: a signing at which the customers were treated like second-rate citizens. This happened at Barnes & Noble in Oceanside, where I entered the fray a willing participant and walked out feeling like I was part of a cattle drive.
The occasion was an appearance and signing by Ace Frehley, the lead guitarist of KISS. After seeing a sign advertising the event a few days prior, I called my friend Robert Munger, the webmaster of RockChoice.com and a much more ardent KISS fan than me, and we decided to meet up at the signing.
I haven’t listened to a KISS song in 30 years, but they were a major part of my teenage years. I saw them twice in concert, and I always felt a sort of affinity for “The Spaceman,” Frehley’s costumed alter ego. As a huge music fan and saluter of high achievers in general, I like commiserating with musicians known to be nice, engaging and creative people. I also like taking an occasional ride down memory lane (or reclaiming lost memories, to be more accurate in this case) by reading memoirs from people who helped make those times.
When my lady, her son and I arrived 40 minutes early, the line already queued 100 feet from the table where Ace would sign. Already, my first hope was dashed: that Ace would give a talk about his memoir, “No Regrets,” and then sign. I bought a book for a friend’s Christmas gift, and stood near the front of the line with Robert until the signing started, at which time I moved to the back and prepared to stand for the next 60 to 90 minutes. No problem. The line was filled with excited fans sharing KISS stories and concert memories. Always a fun line to join.
A half-hour after the signing started, I was twenty feet from the signing table. That was fast: I was probably #240 of the 250 or so people on hand. How could Ace sign so many books so quickly, and banter with his fans?
The answer: store management didn’t really let him banter. When I got close to the table, two B & N employees and three security guards were on hand. “Open your book to the page you want him to sign,” one of the employees said. “No, he won’t personalize for anyone.”
With that, the man took my book and planted it on the table, behind two other books. Clearly uncomfortable with the arrangement, Ace made sure to shake everyone’s hand and chat with them for a second, and take in whatever they had to say — usually, favorite KISS concert moments delivered in the 10 or 15 seconds they had before being moved on. As I said, he was very engaging, just as friendly as I would have expected, and clearly delighted to meet long-time fans. I respected and appreciated him not only because of his music, but because of his continuing desire to create new music and his commitment to sober living — which, if you know anything about his past, is quite an achievement. So when I got up there, I shook his hand and said, “Thanks for the music and keeping your creative force alive.”
“Along with the rest of me,” he quipped.
We had a quick exchange, and then I was moved out of there by the book signing posse.
A moment on that. The B & N crew, hell-bent on efficiently running people by the table as quickly as possible, created a countercurrent to Ace’s obvious desire to interact with his fans and readers. As an author who loves to talk with people who read my books, and as one who’s purchased hundreds of books from B & N stores nationwide (and had books on their shelves for years), I couldn’t sit silently and watch this. I turned to one employee and said, “You know, we’ve already purchased our books, and this man might not have been someone you looked up to, but he was that person to a lot of people here. How ironic that the dude who quit KISS because the band became more about profit than music is subject to the way you’re doing this book signing.”
Naturally, my comments fell on deaf ears. Ten minutes later, just 50 minutes after it began, the signing was over. B & N was happy — in and out in less than an hour. Another item checked off the to-do list. Efficient.
But no way to run a book signing. Part of the reason to get a book signed is to share a moment with the author, connect with the person whose book you’re about to read. I guarantee you, that is what everyone had in mind when they arrived. Thankfully, the author did everything he could to accommodate them, even though he was flanked by a personal assistant on one side (of course) and two security people moving people away from the table (totally unnecessary).
As an author, educator and one who works on behalf of many authors, and has been to much bigger B & N signings (when I saw Tom Robbins in New York in 2004, nearly 1,000 people showed up. The employees couldn’t have been more supportive), I felt perturbed by the scene. What made it more irritating was that the featured author wanted to talk with each of his fans as he signed their books, but they kept moving the line. By my rough count, 250 people stood in line with books they’d just purchased for $26. That’s $6,500 that would not have happened without Ace Frehley’s presence.
One would think the booksellers would be a little more appreciative of that fact. I know one thing: had this signing taken place at an independent bookseller, the result would have been much different.
Let’s start remembering why you’re so massive, Barnes & Noble: Because of we, the readers.