Sunday, September 18, 2016

Not everything is about money

     One of the many drawback of living in a capitalist society is we tend to view our endeavors through the lens of monetary profit and loss.  And on that scale, going to Cleveland to do a book signing on my own dime was a bust. I spent $200 to fly out there, sold a dozen books, made maybe $10. Not a smart business plan.
     But money is only one factor, and not always the most important one. 
     Add to the non-monetary side of the tally sheet the  lovely lunch my friend Laura made when I arrived, one we enjoyed on her stone patio, surrounded by trees and gardens. Walking around my hometown, noting what had changed, and what hadn't. The hours of conversation with her and her husband Jim, my oldest friend. Sitting on their front porch Saturday morning, watching the rain pelt the streets of Berea, contented as a clam.
     All profit, though not one that could show up on my tax returns.
     I snapped the above photo in Barnes & Noble at 1 p.m., the starting time of my talk. It might sound odd, but I felt genuine relief, almost a thrill, at the little phalanx of six empty chairs -- such low expectations, and even those were unmet. You had to laugh, and I did. "What matters," I said to Jim and Laura, quoting Charles Bukowski from our book, "is how well you walk through the fire." 
    And people did show up shortly thereafter—that helped, I won't lie to you. Two classmates from high school. A friend from the synagogue I attended, Beth Israel. The sister-in-law of a Chicago friend. And strangers ... six, maybe eight. A mother and daughter. A women sent by a therapist colleague. A father who hurried in, a half hour late after the talk was done. He explained to me that his wife was following the Mary Worth comic strip, deep in an episode about addiction, and turned to the comic page, where the article about my signing happened to be. The coincidence rattled her.
     "My wife said you were sent by God," he explained, in utter sincerity. Their son, 23, ravaged by addiction, driven from college. She dispatched him to get the book. I explained that the book is not a panacea, that it can't help anybody who isn't trying to to stay sober already, that people have to decide for themselves they are going to try to get better and maybe this could help give them perspective and insight. 
    "You might get more out of it than he does," I said. We talked for a long time, after my presentation. Then a set of parents stepped up with a similar story. The child beyond help. Looking for anything. We talked some more. They were so subdued, the bone-deep humility of the defeated. 
     So my visit might help them. And it certainly helped me. I went, not to turn a profit, not just to toss a rope to strangers, though I hoped to do that, but also because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your writing, no one will. Sure it's pointless. Still, I wanted to get a couple planes off the cratered runway and into the air to challenge wave after wave of the sky-darkening squadrons of obscurity, bombing my latest little literary vessel. I knew I could go to my hometown and the local paper would maybe carry something -- yes, it was vinegary and hastily-cobbled together, but prominently displayed, and it did get a few people there, including that kid's father. And 30 minutes on a big radio station. It was fun of spending a half hour talking to the smart, sensitive Alan Cox on WMMS -- a legendary radio station in Cleveland that I listened to religiously as a teenager. The resulting turn-out might have seemed paltry compared to the push behind it, but only if you consider touching a person or two paltry. I really don't. I had such a good time visiting my friends that I said my only mistake was scheduling a reading—I should have just come, hung out with them for a day and then gone home. "But you wouldn't have come without the reading," Jim said, and I realized he was right. The motive was commercial, but the benefits were purely spiritual. And who knows? Maybe someday, at another sparsely-attended reading, a man will step up and say, "You don't know me, but my parents met you at a book store in Cleveland in 2016, and mister, your book saved my life."  That would be true treasure though, again, not in a monetary sense. Something that would enrich me even though it could never be spent.


  1. Sorry your actual turn out was so low, Neil. I've been in your shoes in that respect, many times. I Maybe the weather or family plans kept people away (my Granddaughter's birthday was my reason), but that doesn't mean that I wasn't thinking about you or sharing the message of your book. It would have been wonderful to have heard you speak about your book, as before it was published, I had no clue of your struggle and I would have been happy to support you on your continued journey.
    I've been suggesting your book to those who might benefit from its message.
    And, you are so right, to know you have helped to save even one life is priceless. Not many people, even after living an entire lifetime, can say that they've made such a difference in the life of another. Well done!

  2. Hi Neil. I enjoyed reading your book on Kindle. I think one reason a lot of people don't go to book signings and readings anymore is because they're buying the Kindle and other electronic versions of books. I thought about attending your book signing at Atlas downtown. It would have been nice to meet you in person and I would have thanked you for always responding to my emails, but then I got busy at work and didn't make it. Plus, I had already purchased the e-book. Still, it's nice that you put yourself out there to help people!

    Linda Barnes

    1. Linda -- The Atlas signing was rescheduled for the 29th. Feel free to come with your Kindle. I had that happen last time I was at Atlas, for the Chicago book, and I signed a business card for the guy. Atlas is an office supply store, and their signing really is a fun party. 12 to 2 p.m. Sept. 29.

    2. Linda -- The Atlas signing was rescheduled for the 29th. Feel free to come with your Kindle. I had that happen last time I was at Atlas, for the Chicago book, and I signed a business card for the guy. Atlas is an office supply store, and their signing really is a fun party. 12 to 2 p.m. Sept. 29.

    3. Thanks, Neil. I'm putting it on my calendar.

      Linda Barnes

    4. Be sure to update the new Atlas date on your book signing section.

  3. Wish I could have been there. Got the book, anyway!

  4. Your work, like that of any teacher is challenging because unlike a carpenter, you will not immediately see the impact of your work. The proof, as you point out, wil be in the yes and voices of the people who come up to you in 10-20yrs. You are quoting literature from long dead men and women, you will be quoted too. Honestly and frankly, this topic isn'5 sexy or wildly titilating so it would be unfair to hold the Cleveland turnout against an ideal. The reality is you are planting seeds and continue to build name recognition. I don'5 count myself among the recovery community, but you caught my attention. You can use this quote: "This is a process not an event". Endure if not enjoy the ride. John

  5. Having worked for some years in promotions for a sometimes unpopular cause, I know how dispiriting a scheduled event that nobody shows up for can be. And how it can make you feel like you're engaged in pushing on a string. However, half an hour on a popular radio program is not chopped liver. Probably made the 200 bucks a good investment. Nice you were able to offset the disappointing aspects of the trip with a demonstration that, Thoms Wolfe to the contrary, one can go home again. When I revisit my own home town I find that everyone I knew has, like me, escaped.

    I don't know enough about the book business to judge, but generating a lot of traffic with book signings, in this day and age, seems unlikely unless the author has some going-in celebrity. And outside a circle of literate Chicagoans Neil ain't no Opra -- for which he, no doubt gives thanks.

    Tom Evans

  6. Glad to hear there was personal enrichment. Especially in the age of Drumpf, good to learn there *is* more to life than a profit.


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