8 minute read

OFF THE PAGE with Raymond Atkins


Let’s go off the page and into the life of Raymond Atkins

Whether you are a reader or a writer, there is a pretty good chance you have been to a book signing. These are most often held at bookstores, although you may have attended one at a literary festival, your local library, or perhaps at a book club or a civic organization. Readings and signings are an excellent way to get to know your favorite writers, and in my experience, they are generally enjoyed by readers, although on occasion they can be a mixed blessing for writers. Oh, don’t misunderstand me. If even one of you shows up for an event of mine, I am grateful. You could have bought any one of a million other books, and you chose to buy one of my titles, and I always try to make my presentation worth the trip. But sometimes with book signings, things do not go as expected.

All writers have book signing stories. Here are a few of mine.

I suppose the most discouraging signing I ever participated in was at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. The Southern Festival is an excellent event that has been held each year for the past thirty-five years, and I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to attend for three of my books. The event is structured so that a variety of writers conduct readings and make presentations each hour at one of several venues, and then that group gathers to sign books for the reading public during the following hour. The episode I want to share with you happened in 2012 or maybe 2013 when I was “on the road” promoting my latest effort, Camp Redemption.

My reading was well received, and after the Q and A, I was led by a volunteer to a large plaza and seated at the table where I would sign my books for my adoring fans. There were thirty or forty people already queued up, and as I sat there waiting for the signing to begin, another fifty people joined the line. Boy, was I excited. These were my people, and my time had come. Just as soon as the clock struck 2:00, the velvet rope holding back my readers would be removed, and they would be allowed to bask in my literary awesomeness. I checked my shirt pocket to be sure I had two pens and discreetly slipped a Tic-Tac under my tongue.

Then, my volunteer came back to me. She looked a bit sheepish, and she was accompanied by Congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights icon and recent author of Across That Bridge. He looked a bit sheepish as well. My volunteer apologetically explained that she had mistakenly seated me at the wrong table, and that I would have to move. I and my two pens and the remains of my Tic-Tac got up to follow her to my spot while John Lewis sat at his and began to take care of some business. By the way, Across That Bridge is an excellent book, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

When I got to my table there were about ten readers waiting in line, which wasn’t one hundred or more like John Lewis had drawn but which could have been worse, and I settled in with my best smile to tend to them.

Ray to First Reader in Line: Good afternoon!

First Reader in Line to Ray: Can you tell me where John Lewis is signing?

I suppose the worst signing I ever experienced was one I participated in jointly with the late, great Terry Kay of To Dance with the White Dog fame. I don’t even remember which book I was promoting—it may have been Sorrow Wood—and if that was it, then Terry would have been pushing The Book of Marie, my second-favorite Terry Kay novel and well worth your time. The event was held at a charming little bookstore in Macon on a Saturday afternoon, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to appear with such a well-known writer. To sum up the longest two hours of my life, while we were there, not one single person came into the store. At one point the proprietor even left to go get a hot dog after first asking us to keep an eye on things. I guess we looked honest.

Sometimes this happens, and when it does you just have to shrug it off and not take it personally. There were about thirty other things going on that day in Macon including a tractor pull and an international food festival, and the bookstore was downtown and hard to find, and it was hot, and Hillary and those emails surely had something to do with it, and we didn’t really want to sell some books anyway. If you happened to be in Macon that day and didn’t come to the event, well, I like international food and tractor pulls as much as the next guy, so I can’t really blame you, but geez y’all, it was Terry Kay!

Most publishers have publicists, and one of the main reasons for having one is to get the books into readers’ hands. One of the ways they do this is by setting up book signings, and upon the release of my first book, The Front Porch Prophet, I was just tickled to death to be getting this exposure. Unfortunately, my publicist at Medallion wasn’t from around these parts, as they say, and being from Chicago, I guess she thought that the entire Southeastern United States was about as big as Cleveland. Thus it came to pass that I found myself driving to Memphis four weekends in a row, which is an eight-hour odyssey from my house. That’s eight hours each way if you are from Chicago and don’t know.

Lucky for me I got nailed at the infamous I-40 speed trap all four trips, which sort of broke up the drive each week. Seriously, the speed limit drops from 70 to 50 in about the length of time it just took me to write this sentence, and I am a fast writer. Then a friendly Tennessee State Trooper explains that fact to you as you receive your ticket. If you just can’t believe it and go back to check the sign, you will see the following: The Speed Limit Dropped to 50 MPH Back There a Ways. Thank You For Your Service. You will also notice that it is on wheels so it can be moved from place to place the day before payday.

The most unexpectedly successful signing I ever had was at a Barnes and Noble in Pensacola, at which I sold a metric ton of books, and I still don’t know why. Sales were so brisk that the bookstore ran out of copies, and I had to supplement their stock with a couple of cases from my trunk (Yes, all writers have some in the trunk. I believe it is a federal law.). Maybe it was the weather. It was beach season, but that day it was raining so hard that people were sheltering in place in the bookstore. I looked out of the window one time and there were four flaming horsemen on pale horses hanging around the parking lot. Anyway, the store was packed with wet people, and I guess they all figured that they might as well buy a book while they were in there. Perhaps they were tying them on their heads before attempting to make a break for the safety of their vehicles.

I once drove to a book festival being held at Bainbridge State College in South Georgia. Since my day job is as a college professor, I like college events, and even though it was a five-hour drive to get to Bainbridge, I really didn’t mind. I just set the cruise control on 64 to avoid the infamous US 27 speed trap, tuned into some classic 70s rock, which is really the only music you ever want to drive to, and let the authormobile roll. When I pulled into the parking lot, however, I was the only one there. Well, me and a sweeper truck, and to be frank with you, the guy driving it just didn’t strike me as a reader. Yes, I had driven to Bainbridge on the wrong weekend, which meant that I had to repeat the trip the following weekend, and that second time around wasn’t nearly as relaxing as the first.

Well, I have hit this month’s word limit, and as Mandy constantly reminds me, “Pixels ain’t free, big boy.” I will leave you with this thought. If a writer you favor is making an appearance near you, and if the tractor pull is not in town and you have a finicky stomach when it comes to international food, consider going to that event. It will be much appreciated.

Raymond L. Atkins lives and works in the mountains of Northwest Georgia. You can reach him at raymondlatkins@aol.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/raymondlatkins.

Raymond L. Atkins lives and works in the mountains of Northwest Georgia. You can reach him at raymondlatkins@aol.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/raymondlatkins.