Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 7, 2013

Rows of Empty Chairs

Last night I walked down a sidewalk to a bookshop, turning at a sign adorned with bright balloons to welcome a debut author, someone I knew and occasionally run into, but we don’t really keep up. I was excited that she’d written a book, and eager to hear some passages. I was the only person there. J had done other readings locally, and might have used up her allotment of people likely to come. When she told me that she’d hoped people who didn’t know her might attend, I shook my head and said something I meant to be soothing about busy lives. J shook her own head harder, and said, “People suck.” I laughed. She laughed. It wasn’t kind or entirely true. But I’ve felt that sinking feeling in front of rows of empty folding chairs, too. And the words might be a better than what she said next, voicing her dread that no one came because something in her or her book was unlikeable.

No no no no no. Unattended or sparsely attended readings are just something that happens. We shouldn’t blame them on ourselves any more than we should think bad weather is a result of our character flaws.

As we talked, and it became increasingly clear that no one else was coming, J asked me to go get something to eat with her, rather than standing in the shop. We walked to a restaurant where I answered some of her authorly questions and served as a link between those who’ve passed along words about persistence. We also talked about our families, friends, and other work. As she was someone I hadn’t seen in years, there was not only lots to catch up on, but a theme of loss. It’s not just published books that don’t turn out exactly the way we dreamed, but almost everything and everyone surprises us.

Life is not a dream, despite what some of us sang as children while pretending to row a boat. We can make plans, but how many will blossom as beautifully as we can imagine? When our makeshift castles fall flat, we’re advised to accept things as they are or look for what’s good amidst the rubble. We can cry or curse because only one person came to a reading, or be glad that the two of us got to have a salad and glass of wine.  But while trying to see that half-filled glass, we shouldn’t forget to include, “People suck” in the conversation. Disappointment is part of the dinner.

We can write a book, but we can’t make people want or buy it. I’m not sure all the balloons in the world would draw people in.  Okay, millions of balloons might. But shouting for attention for a quiet book seems as likely to make people cross the street to avoid the megaphones as a lure. When do we stop beating the drum or try an entirely new tune? There aren’t easy answers for those of us authors who are marketers by default. But it’s good to have a friend or stranger remind you that the short rows of empty chairs aren’t who we are. Or are we? Is life about finding reflections of ourselves in those chairs, the one person who came to hear, the person who wrote the book, the affable booksellers, and all the people who just walked by? We’re a mix of dismay at the turn of events and trying to look sturdy.  We’re readers and writers, living through the past, present, and hope as buoyant but vulnerable to fizzling as helium-filled balloons.




  1. How fortunate for J, that she has a friend in you!

    Reality throws some sharp elbows, doesn’t it? But crisp salads and robust wine, served with generous portions of Humor and Truth? Seems to me these are the perfect remedy for fizzling balloons.

  2. What a gift that you were there and able to listen, encourage, and empathize. Marketers by default. Yes, that’s the part of the job I dislike and dread the most.

  3. I enjoyed your reflection about this Jeannine. Life’s fickle ways sometimes takes our breath away, and then we learn to take one more breath, on one more day. Your friend was lucky that you gave her time to talk over this, perhaps surprise. And it gave you something to ponder, too!

  4. There’s no telling….. but Shakespeare has a clue: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: 
our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; 
and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.”

  5. Sorry, didn’t mean to be anonymous.

    • Thank you, my Shakespeare-loving friend!

  6. Loved Gretchen/Anonymous’ post and loved yours, of course, Jeannine. In my earlier days, I booked readings all over the place, choosing “high market” areas rather than places where I knew folks. When no one showed up (often), I thought it was funny, feeling my own hubris and ridiculousness. I’m sorry your friend took it hard – glad you encouraged her to believe it was no reflection on her. Just a lesson learned. Have a few readings where you know people or have none at all – the book will do its own thing, I believe.

  7. I agree with your conclusion, Sarah, but it is a shame that more people don’t include going to readings more as part of their social lives. I almost always have a good time — big or small.

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