La Zona Fantasma: Selling Our Wares
As I write this, the Madrid Book Fair is about to start. By the time you read this, it will be over. This gives you an idea of how hellishly far in advance I am asked to submit my articles, which so often seem destined to be stillborn.
Be that as it may, at this time of year in Spain, one always comes across a few authors who, for various and sundry reasons, decide to desert the Retiro, the park where the Madrid Book Fair is held. If memory serves me correctly, Captain Alatriste declared that he would never set foot there again after he discovered a group of journalists determined to measure—yes, measure, yardstick in hand—the length of the lines snaking out from certain booths where certain authors were signing books in the hope of publishing a saucy article about the endeavor. He felt that the fair had degenerated into a depressing, pathetic circus, and I fully understand his gripe. I should also note, however, that this aforementioned information is never very reliable, because the length of the line outside a bookstall depends, to a very large degree, on the tenacity and cunning of the book-signer in question. Those of us who are book-fair veterans could easily name a few precious authors who have such a keen sense of competition that they actually hide behind the booth where they are to sign books, even if they arrive on time, and wait around until a nice long line has formed out front. They lie in wait, crouching in the bushes with their binoculars, to the astonishment of their speechless booksellers, and refuse to sit down until a respectable crowd has gathered. At that point, of course, they take it nice and slow, chitchatting with the visitors, signing and even doodling in their readers’ books, prolonging every encounter so as to keep the booth and surrounding area as crowded as possible.
There are other respected writers who refuse to participate in the book fair altogether, for very abstract reasons: they feel that signing volumes in a bookseller’s booth is the most vile, despicable thing an artist can succumb to. I don’t know why, but that is how they feel— they are absolutely scandalized by the mere existence of the tradition. When the last book fair in Barcelona rolled around, I read that a number of Catalan authors boycotted the event, claiming that it represented a “commercialization of culture.” Quite a sharp remark, but also somewhat mysterious, given that the purpose of printing books is to sell and commercialize them as best as possible. One of these purists, however, did announce that he would be holding a book-signing session—but in his own studio and at a time of his own choosing. I never did find out how many devoted readers actually waited on the steps of his building (the papers never publish the really interesting news…), or how his neighbors reacted to what was no doubt a veritable swarm of aficionados.
One of the main reasons that writers are willing to sit for hours in the sweltering heat of a booth at the book fair is to lend a hand to the booksellers: on occasion, the presence of a few well-known authors signing books can help a bookseller stay in the black. After all, for each sale, the bookseller takes home a substantial amount more than the writer,who usually has to make do with a meager 10 percent.But then of course,if you don’t manage to sign many books, you end up with the embarrassing feeling (I speak for myself, though I know I’m not the only one) that you haven’t done much to help your host, who could have used his booth and his time to far better advantage by enlisting another, more popular author. More than once I have said that going to the Madrid Book Fair is a worthy exercise in humility: for once in our lives, it is incumbent upon us to carry our wares to the bookstall and defend them as best we can, just like the fruit and vegetable sellers of yesteryear—“let’s see how we make out today,” we have to say to ourselves.When nobody buys our product despite our valiant efforts to be our own best salesmen,we inevitably end up feeling like failures—like scorned, unattractive, hopeless duds, defrauded by the indifference of others.But it’s an experience worth going through.Oddly enough, when your presence at the book stand actually does help to sell books,you still end up feeling ambivalent about it all because in addition to the very welcome praise you receive from some readers, you always have to contend with the strangest assortment of complaints and even reprimands from others, as well. Once, for example, I was scolded for wearing sunglasses—under the most merciless Madrid sun, after a night battling insomnia—and another time I was even chastised for being a Real Madrid fan.“It’s terrible for your public image,” I was told.“It makes you look so pathetic, so repulsive.”
Sometimes,when you have to share space in a booth with another writer, you end up next to a competitive type who insists on keeping a running tally of books signed, and when that happens there is no way to have anything but a perfectly awful time, no matter how the numbers work out in the end. If you sell more than he does, you feel uncomfortable—so uncomfortable that sometimes you feel compelled to convince one of your readers to buy his book, even if it is dense and unreadable, just to stay on his good side. And if your boothmate ends up signing more than you—I have had, on occasion, the score sheet literally shoved in my face, as if my literary colleague and I were back in the schoolyard.That, at least in part, is what the book fair experience feels like: it’s like a trip back to the schoolyard, to those bleak moments when you stood around waiting in vain to get picked for a team or a clique of some sort. And so, I suppose that the secret thought that most frequently and involuntarily runs through our minds during those endless book-signing sessions is that for a few days we writers are just like little children, or perhaps like those roving vendors who sell flowers and things on the street:“Buy one, sir, just one, please!”
Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero