I have a strange addiction: book signings. It is an odd thing to be hooked on, but since moving to Houston in 2010, I have been able to meet some of my favorite authors, and discover new writers, by attending the many book signing opportunities afforded by our city's independent booksellers. Over the last three years I've attended dozens of events at Murder By The Book, Brazos Bookstore, and Blue Willow Bookshop.
While it's true that national chain bookstores hold signing events--and get big, easily recognizable names--you might be surprised to learn that their smaller, indie counterparts sign pretty big stars as well. This month Brazos Bookstore has Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson signing copies of The Orphan Master's Son (July 17), while Murder By The Book is hosting trial attorney-turned-author Marcia Clark (of O.J. Simpson trial fame), who will appear along with Austin-based writer, and Rice University grad, Jeff Abbott (July 19); just last week, Blue Willow Bookshop hosted the one-and-only Weird Al Yankovic.
Beyond the big names, attending book signings reaps benefits far beyond a handshake, and a signature on a title page.
I know why I think book signings are exciting and important, but I wanted to hear directly from booksellers so I
accosted requested interviews with the staff of my three favorite indie bookstores. When I spoke with John Kwiatkowski, publicity manager at Murder By The Book, he had a theory: "Hearing authors talk makes you want to read their books. [Signing] events are a great way to enter the store, and see us do what we love to do which is help people find a book they are going to love. One of my favorite moments of every event is when someone says to an author, 'Tell us what you're reading right now.' You get a glimpse into [the writer's] inspiration and source materials. It's like literary archaeology."
A perfect example of John's theory at work is my own leap from reading Jeff Lindsay's Dexter novels to the works of Jack Kerley. After attending a signing event with Lindsay at MBTB, I found an insert in my book that said, "If you like the Dexter novels, you should read Jack Kerley's 'Carson Ryder' series." I picked up one, and have been devouring them ever since. And as MBTB is one of the only booksellers in the country who carries Kerley's books (they are published in the U.K., and not widely distributed in the U.S.) I've also been fortunate enough to attend his signing events ... and the circle of a reader's life continues.
This month at Murder by the Book: You can see the full event calendar here, but John pointed out a few particular highlights for July, including Martin Walker (Bruno, Chief of Police) on July 12 ("His star is rising, and he is a great speaker; people are becoming aware of him.") and debut author Koethi Zan on July 17 ("She's written for TV and theater, and I think it will be interesting, and it's great to see writers who are just starting out on the ground floor, moving up.")
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According to Jeremy Ellis, manager at Brazos Bookstore, the value in attending book signings is in their ability to expose you to something different, outside of your comfort zone. "I had a regular who came in for Tao Lin (Taipei) and while she didn't buy the book, she loved [the event]; it was weird, and different, and it was free!" Even if you don't purchase a book, when you attend a book signing you learn something from the author who is speaking. Says Ellis, "You get a tone or a voice that you might not get off of the page. Adam Johnson is going to come in and talk about North Korea--you can come and ask him questions, and draw that curtain back. With a book signing you draw that curtain back; you can take that curtain home, and you can wrap yourself up in it." Ellis is particularly proud of the way his bookstore has curated their literary fiction and debut fiction signings over the last year, and he sees that as a strong direction for the store moving forward.
This month at Brazos Bookstore: You can view the full event calendar here. Don't miss 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner (fiction) Adam Johnson on July 17 as he discusses and signs his award-winning The Orphan Master's Son; the event is co-produced with Blue Willow Bookshop. On July 20, celebrate "Hemingday: A Celebration." Visit Brazos Bookstore from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. and enjoy cocktails by Down House in celebration of Ernest Hemingway's 114th birthday--complete with a look-alike contest, safari challenge, and trivia battle.
When it comes to young readers, Blue Willow Bookshop has led the charge in Houston. They have curated a book collection and an events calendar that are designed to inspire young readers, and expand their reading interests. Event coordinator Cathy Berner says that while summer is slow, it's a great time for kids to visit Blue Willow. "July is probably our slowest month, but it gives us downtime to recoup. We are always heavily booked in the fall, and right now we are doing a lot of weekly activities for kids; our biggest events are the Camp Blue Willow on Wednesdays, and Thursday Story Time. Camp Blue Willow is run by a librarian, and she plans events every week relating to a book in the store. Bedtime Math is coming up, so we had a pajama party and did activities sent by publisher." Berner says that it's important to remember that independent booksellers are a resource, not just a retail outlet, "Bookstores offer an opportunity to explore new authors. All the booksellers in this city are experts and curate their store's collections to their readers. We want to Houston to become known as the literary city we know it to be."
This month at Blue Willow: You can view the store's full event calendar here. Camp Blue Willow starts at 4 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon, Story Time starts at 10 a.m. each Thursday (closed July 4), and Gamemeisters begins at 4 p.m. each Thursday afternoon. http://www.bluewillowbookshop.com/event/2013/07/01/month/all/all/1