A few years ago, on
a hot summer afternoon, I stood in my suit and completely insensible
heels, watching one of my authors (I’ll call him ‘John’) signing books
for retailers lined up at our convention booth. For old pros like
John—he relishes a private moment with each fan—I try to maintain about
ten feet between us: close enough to help if needed and to catch pieces
of the conversations, but far enough away so that I’m not hovering.
Things were going well, with a few dozen people in line, a good
forty-five minutes left in the signing, and lots of satisfied retailers
walking away with treasured copies and memories to pocket. John’s
wife—a high-profile agent representing some of our other high-profile
authors—snapped pictures of her husband in his glorious element.
Then I noticed the next fan in
line. He was about nine, and from the looks of the overstuffed suitcase
he dragged behind him, he’d been making the rounds to book signings
that day, probably at the order of his parents, who were calling on
other publishers’ booths. His most interesting feature, though, was the
most distinctive complexion I’ve ever seen. God help me, I remember
actually thinking, That kid’s skin is green. Green! How odd.
Soon it was his turn to shake John’s hand. He strode up to the desk and
solemnly stood there, blank expression, not saying a word. John leaned
forward like a caring grandfather, trying to get the kid to engage with
him. The little tyke leaned in, too, mirroring John’s nodding.
And then it happened.
I wish I could report that I
scaled the ten feet between us in a split second and pulled some Kevin
Costner Bodyguard move. No dice. The young fan’s
half-digested lunch was now all over the counter, the chair, the event
signage, the carefully arranged display of books, and worst of all, on
John’s custom seersucker suit and loafers the hipster wore sans socks.
The next five minutes are a blur. John let out a sound I’ve never heard
before. A sales rep grabbed a roll of paper towels and ordered the
crowd to back off. Someone in line led the tiny assailant to a nearby
bench and whipped out a cell phone for him to call his parents. And,
afraid that the odor would get to me and I’d be next, I fled the scene.
I tore off to Exhibitor Services as quick as my stilettos would carry
me, phoning our booth rep on the way.
I mediated a union argument at
the Exhibitor Services counter:
“If it’s in the aisle carpet,
really Convention Services. If it’s in the booth carpet, it should be
Vendor Services . . . And should we charge them ‘special cleaning’ ?” Puke
in my booth! Puke in my booth! I barked over and over, a fact
that seemed somehow immaterial to the reluctant custodial staff.
Without a whole lot of
perspective, several thoughts scrambled through my head then, not the
least of which was, I’ll be dishonorably discharged from my
post as publicist, having allowed a very important author (who happens
to be married to a very important agent) to be assaulted by a nauseous
child. Well, it’s been a nice career. It’s been a good run.
I’ll never forget a job
interview I had for a position in the publishing industry. After the
manager had asked me all the questions on his list, I posed one of my
own to him: “What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in our line of
work?” The sharp executive didn’t miss a beat: “A complete shift in
mentality. Away from what best serves our publishing house, and away
from what best serves the author. That’s not the ultimate balance, you
know. What we too often forget is that we are all ultimately
called by God to serve the reader, to find the best way to use our time
and talents to serve the guy who’s looking for answers in one of our
books. Ironically enough, it’s the best way to impact our sales, too.
But that’s secondary compared to the task of service to which we’re
I returned to booth that
afternoon, wary to face the firing squad, and ashamed to face the
author I’d let down. To my bewilderment, John was not miffed. He did
not scold me for professionally failing to serve him in a moment of
need. Instead, he’d wiped off his shoes and had already gone back to
work signing books. He graciously threw off the trappings of an
industry often tainted with a sense of entitlement and blinded by a
focus on appearances. He remembered who it is we both serve, and that
by working for the reader, we ultimately serve our God.
John smiled. He gripped my
forearm and leaned in to whisper, “You know, here’s what’s so
disappointing . . . the kid hadn’t even read my book yet. How did he
know it was that bad?”