Oh, to be a real author … No, I haven’t lost my mind (much) or forgotten that I am an author of tiny repute and small fanbase. I’m talking about the real world of being an author vs. what I thought it would be. Some of it surprises and scares me. Other parts of this life are exactly what I’d envisioned. All in all, I’ll take it—I love it—and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even without the riches piling at my feet or the private jets and limos and movie deals. Sure, all that would be great. But let’s face it, there is life beyond that—and a good thing, too, because I don’t see any of that anytime soon.
So many times I’ve sat and looked at the bundles of money I spend pursuing my dream to be a successful author. Thus far, that success has eluded me—at least the business-success. And every time I think that perhaps I should dump all that money into my retirement or an investment and abandon this life of storytelling, something happens to remind me that success isn’t about royalties or fanfare or applause. Last week, I was hit with a couple years worth of sobering proof that my writing is about so much more than material things. Last week, I was hit with a day like I haven’t had in all the time I’ve been writing.
Marlton, New Jersey—thank you.
Who knew how to measure success as an author? There’s no “Author’s Life for Dummies” but there should be. Nobody told me I’d be my own publicist, marketer, sales rep, and seller-in-chief. No one said I had to blog my brains out and hunt down the next audience all by my lonesome. Where’s the army of publicists and marketers and sales folks? What? I’m unknown and on my own? Where was this in the brochure???? So if I’m doing all this and not making much money, then how do I know it’s all worth while?
Easy—Marlton, New Jersey.
I say all the time that writing is not a team sport. And damn, it’s not. But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a brilliant, supportive agent who is in my corner and I often wonder why. I found an amazing publicist who also supports me and is trying her every trick to boost my presence in the markets. And I have a few fans—far fewer than I’d hoped at this point, but they are there. And then there was Marlton. A small community east of Philadephia in a beautiful part of New Jersey I never knew existed.
This past week I was invited to speak to more than 320 Middle Schoolers, High Schoolers, and some faculty and followed it up with a great book signing at the local Barnes and Noble. I arrived to Cherokee High School and was greeted by the local police officer assigned to the school who knew me by name and said, “I saw you on all the posters and newsletters.” Students stopped and said hi, teachers waved and greeted me when I toured the building. Then, later in the day, I walked up to the front doors of Marlton Middle School. Handmade signs from the students hailed me. Signs and posters in the hallways welcomed me. And as the students filed into the library for my talks, they knew my name. Some waved, others were already asking questions.
For a guy without many fans, I was a celebrity in Marlton. And who better to be fans than students? Who can you still reach with words and good will and support? Who is worth urging on and encouraging? They were. They are. All of them.
These past couple years, I’ve met dozens of folks and gained a few fans along the slow, uphill slog to finding readers. But in Marlton, they were there for the taking, ready for me and eager to hear about life as an author. And afterward, as part of my day that set up by Janice Urban—Librarian Extraordinare—I went to the local Barnes and Noble for a signing. Many of the students arrived at the bookstore and other students from other schools were there, too. It was an unbelievable day.
All in all, I sold a bunch of books and had a 14-hour day that was one of the best I’ve had in a very, very long time. Why? No, not because of the sales or because I came away with a dozen or more fans. It’s because of the kids—the students—who were the best audience I’ve ever had. They asked great questions, they were interested, and they churned in their seats to ask more questions and tell me things about their favorite books. And in the end, I realized that reaching these students was a purpose all by itself for a new author. If you can get just a few to be readers and just a few more to be fans, then success is within reach.
During the day, I remember being a high schooler wishing to be an author. If I’d had the opportunity just one day to speak with just one author—one struggling, new author—and hear what life was like and what writing was truly about, well, that day would have been the best in my life. It never happened to me. But in Marlton, I cannot tell you (you’d never believe me anyway) how many students came up to speak with me after my talk and said just that—that talking with me was a huge thing for them. Some wanted to be writers. All wanted to just be readers and read everything they could. So many just wanted to hear from someone—other than their teachers and parents—who cared enough to share a little life with them.
Their wall posters and greetings said it all.
But you know the biggest personal thrill I received? It was at Barnes and Noble when a half-dozen students came in with their parents to see me and buy my books. Oh, it wasn’t because they bought my books. It was because they cared enough about books and writing to travel across town and come talk to me a little more after school. There were photographs and little chats, handshakes, and some stories about where my stories come from. There were more questions and them telling me of their favorite book—not mine but one day maybe—and how much they loved the bookstore and how many books they bought. So many of these kids told me that they cannot wait to go to the bookstore each week and check out all the books.
Wait, what? Can’t wait to go to a bookstore and check out the books? Hello, America, there is hope for our country yet. Forget the video games. Forget the T.V. and forget the internet. Kids still cannot wait to get to a bookstore and meet a struggling, unknown author like me.
And that, sports fans, is exactly what being an author is all about for me. It’s the author’s life I craved and didn’t even know until last week—meeting young readers who “can’t wait to get to the bookstore and check out the books.” It’s their love of stories. It’s the kids. The students. The families and teachers who believe that books are the key to our world—as I do.
And before I made the four hour drive home, I got oen last huge surprise. During the school talks, I gave the students a little quiz: What was the most important thing in the world they could all do—equally among themselves of different ages, races, backgrounds, genders, and so on—to be successful. Each group—four of them throughout the day all got it—read
. And in Barnes and Noble, late in the evening as I was about to leave, one student from Marlton Middle School came up to me with Dad and told me she was in one of my talks. She turned to her dad and said, “And being a reader will make me successful. I love to read.”
Thank you Marlton Middle School. Thank you Cherokee High School. Thank you Janice Urban. Thank you Lisa Bakanas and Lisa Kapenstein. The fate of our world is with those students. And so far, they’re passing with flying colors.
We’ll again chat next month …
Tj O’CONNOR IS THE GOLD MEDAL WINNER OF THE 2015 INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS BOOK AWARDS (IPPY) FOR MYSTERIES. He is the author of Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell, available in bookstores and e-books from Midnight Ink. He is currently working on a traditional mystery and a new thriller. Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism, investigations, and threat analysis—life experiences that drive his novels. With his former life as a government agent and years as a consultant, he has lived and worked around the world in places like Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Americas—among others. He was raised in New York’s Hudson Valley and lives with his wife and Lab companions in Virginia where they raised five children. Dying to Know is also the 2015 Bronze Medal winner of the Reader’s Favorite Book Review Awards, a finalist for the Silver Falchion Best Books of 2014, and a finalist for the Foreword Review’s 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award.
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