Lessons from the Road

By Roger Johns

September and October were the first two full months following the end-of-August release of my debut crime novel, Dark River Rising. I spent almost half of those sixty-one days on the road, promoting the book. It was an enlightening experience. I met a lot of wonderful people and learned some interesting lessons––about myself, and about the opportunities being on the road presents.

For most of my twenty-five years as a lawyer and college professor I did a lot of talking. After that, during my years of failed retirement, when I finally got down to the business of writing my book, I entered a quiet phase. I became accustomed to long hours of alone time at the keyboard, getting to know my story and my characters. And then, with a suddenness I had not anticipated, I found myself in bookstores, conference rooms, classrooms, a few night spots, and even an old courtroom, facing groups of people who expected me to say something. This led to my initial on-the-road discovery: my yakking skills had atrophied.

I always brought prepared remarks calculated to carry me sensibly from the beginning to the end of my allotted time. This strategy worked, but it rarely felt satisfying. But it did lead to my second discovery: people who come to book events want to hear about what they want to hear about, and that might be different from what I’ve decided to talk about. My years in the classroom taught me to use the questions and responses of my students as cues on how to proceed.

Somehow, I had lost sight of taking my cue from the audience. Perhaps it was fear that had me shuffling my papers around, talking about…something.

I needn’t have worried. People wouldn’t have showed up if they weren’t interested to begin with. And, for an unknown author, it seems they’re less interested in the particulars of the book and more interested in the story of how it (and I) came to be sitting in front of them.

The collective impact of those first few audiences taught me that the book will do a much better job of explaining itself to the reader than I can hope to in the short time these events last. The goal is to give folks a reason to risk their time and money on someone new. And, all things being equal, people would rather do business with someone they like than someone they don’t know. Hence, the best way to get readers to take a chance on an unknown author is to give them a reason to like you. If they do, they might buy your book.

So, if members of the audience ask about the book, I answer their questions, but I no longer lead with the book.

My next two discoveries were hiding-in-plain-sight experiences. I was in the gate area, waiting to board a flight to a bookstore event in upstate New York where I knew no one and no one knew me. My destination was not a travel hub, so most people at the gate were headed to the same place I was. Several were reading books. Some were reading the kind of books I write. After a few minutes of nervous hesitation, I sat next to one such reader and struck up a conversation. Eventually the discussion wound around to my book and my reason for travelling. He knew the store I was visiting. He’d been there many times. The same thing happened with my seatmate on the plane. Neither showed up at my event, but in the week following, my sales in that town went well past the number of books I sold in the store. Maybe my travelling companions bought it later. I had a copy of my book with me, at the airport. It turned out to be a very powerful piece of show-and-tell.

Now I know that people I meet along the way are as much potential readers as those attending my events.

And it’s never a bad idea to keep a copy of the book to show around.

Roger Johns is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor. He is a native of Louisiana,and a resident of Georgia since 2004. Dark River Rising is his debut novel.

To learn more about Dark River Rising, click on the cover below: