A brief conversation with author Richard Russo leads to thoughts about community

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Elena Seibert/Knopf

I knew Richard Russo was coming to our little neighborhood bookstore in Brewster today to sign copies of his latest novel That Old Cape Magic.  But I’d already bought the book and read it, and besides, every time a noteworthy writer shows up at the Brewster book store the lines stretch across the parking lot.

Sure enough, when I passed the tiny shop on a late morning bike ride with my two kids, 100-plus readers stood anxiously peering over the shoulders of those ahead of them as they awaited their turn in line for a brief audience with the author.

I called out, “Love the book,” as I rode by and figured that would be the end of it.  But upon returning an hour later, the line was gone and Richard Russo sat alone, beneath an awning in the 90-degree heat, diligently signing copies of his book for future customers.

“Go talk to him,” encouraged my eight-year-old son as we came to a stop at the corner of 6A where we were about to cross.  “Come on, Dad, go.”  So I did.

With my kids standing patiently nearby, Richard Russo and I chatted about Cape Magic and writing and authors.  During our brief conversation he never stopped scribbling his name, half looking up and half making sure his Sharpie stayed in the center of the title pages, one after another.  The stack of autographed books already stood as tall as the author himself, who seemed surprisingly shorter than I’d imagined –must be that I assumed physical stature would equal literary stature – but he kept right on signing.  It was impressive to see a Pulitzer Prize winning author, humbly sitting in a folding chair behind a portable table, fulfilling his responsibility to readers.

I had time to ask him a few questions.  How long had it take to write That Old Cape Magic? He told me that he’d never written a novel as quickly as this one.  It took but a year and a half to get it right, a short time for him.

He shared his writing habits:  daily, morning, but not early.  “Definitely not at the crack of dawn, not even close,” he emphasized with a smile that suggested, “if you think I get up at that early, you have no idea.”

Finally I wanted to know whom he’s been readPicture 1ing.  “I recently judged the Hemingway awards for first time authors” he offered without missing a beat.  “I can give you four books I read and liked.  You won’t be disappointed.”

This is great, I thought, personal recommendations from Richard Russo.  As I was about to leave I said, “Richard, the only town you didn’t mention in That Old Cape Magic was Brewster.  How come?”  He seemed surprised and thought about it for a moment.  “I didn’t?  Not sure why, it’s one of my favorite towns on the Cape.”

The encounter took all of 10 minutes, but it made me think.  Local bookstores, personal appearances by Richard Russo and authors like him would, at first glance, seem like the oldest form of marketing there is.  But isn’t this what all of us are trying to do in the age of conversation?

The little Brewster Bookstore and Richard Russo don’t simply talk, they listen.  They engage their audience.  They create a community.  They provide them with useful content.  And if this post is an example, they inspire word of mouth.  Funny, as marketers we talk about social media as if it’s this new phenomenon.  Yet if we pulled our eyes away from the screen for a few minutes we’d realize it’s actually all around us, there to learn from and replicate.

Oh by the way, here’s what Richard suggested I read:

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living by Michael Dahlie, which actually won this year’s PEN Award.

Alive in Necropolis by Doug Dorst.

Personal Days by Ed Park

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti.

Met any good authors lately?  Visited any great bookstores?  Noticed any examples of community and conversation worth learning from?  Please share.

11 comments
christine cox
christine cox

Thoroughly enjoyed this post, and how you tied in a chance meeting w/ social media and the importance of community.

Thanks, also, for including Mr. Russo's reading recommendations! Thoughtful gesture.
.-= christine cox´s last blog ..The God Block =-.

David Saxe
David Saxe

2 great marketing powers in play:
1) The power of 1 to 1 or even 1 to a few communication. although one could argue that Mr. Russo would be better served building a Twitter following of thousands and speaking to his community that way, his commitment to treating the people he encounters as though that will be his only chance to leave an impact has created an (at least one) evangelist.
2) The power of social media. yeah yeah, and so the beat goes on. It sounds as though Mr. Russo treated his one-on-one encounter with you as one he truly cared about. For all he knew though, you'd tell your kids about it and leave it at that. You became an evangelist (at least in this context) because he valued and cared about your conversation. Without his commitment to the most obvious (and often abandoned) form of marketing, you probably wouldn't have shared with your readers.

Seth makes a great point. There's certainly no substitute for this sort of encounter, but the potential impact of that encounter is now much greater.

Great story...thanks for sharing.
.-= David Saxe´s last blog ..Choose to Play with Someone Better =-.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

Interestingly enough, I sent an e-mail to author and uber-consultant David Maister over the weekend. (As you probably know, he lives in Boston.) I received a reply within a day that was as warm and responsive to my questions as one could imagine. It wasn't a bookstore in Brewster, or an in-person encounter, but it was a great way to start my day, over a hot cup of coffee in the comfort of my own home.
.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Client Service or Client Relationships? =-.

Jaci Russo
Jaci Russo

Great blog. Thank you. I always have a chick/egg question in situations like this. Is he a great writer because he engages in the conversation or is it a great conversation because he is a great writer.

Social media at work - I found Amy Flanagan and her blog, which is so very funny and right on, http://theshortestblogintheworld.blogspot.com/, through a comment she made on your blog and I think she is fantastic. Social media connects us all.

Chris Wooster
Chris Wooster

Years ago I wrote review for Straight Man for the Boston Phoenix. Just a little blurby, but at a book event at the Hampshire House he went out of his way to thank me for it. Perhaps it sold one book for him, but he couldn't have been more grateful.

My former life (before advertising) was in book event marketing, running author events for Waterstone's on Newbury Street. i can honestly say that Russo and Dennis Lehane (who I booked for his very first reading for A Drink Before The War... he had just quit his job as a limo driver) were the two most grateful writers I ever hosted.

Book recommendation (a bit old, but): James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning. About the only think I've ever loved about Los Angeles was this stunning novel.

edward boches
edward boches

Seth,
Great to get that kind of reinforcement from you. Have been reading your posts and learning from them for a while now. For me, and for the brands for which I work, there is social media theory and social media practice. I'm far more interested in the latter: figuring out how to take stuff like the Brewster Bookstore and the behavior or Richard Russo, combine it with all that technology enables, and apply it toward new and better ways of interacting, sharing and creating. Thanks for stopping by.

Sarah Mitchell
Sarah Mitchell

This is a marvelous piece and proof that modern social media works. I wouldn't have found this link expect I follow Seth Simonds and he recommended it in a tweet. Russo is one my of my all-time favorite authors and I'll devour his reading list, to be sure.

It's also encouraging to know that authors, especially the big guys like Russo, continue to support indpendent booksellers. There's no greater pleasure in life than browsing a bookstore and finding a gem that you would never have found on Amazon.com or the multi-national chain bookstores. As the publishing world becomes focused on profit before talent, the future of the independent bookstore is under threat.

I'm a fan of social media but not at the expense of the traditional methods.

Seth Simonds
Seth Simonds

Social media addicts roll their eyes at me when I insist that social media has helped change the way we move words around, but not the way we respond to them. There's lots of chatter about scale and efficiency but I've yet to see a substitute for the experience of standing in line to share a few words with an author who seems to really care.

With a narrative to bring valuable lessons home and vetted suggestions for further reading, you tie the whole post into community and marketing with a flourish. A joy to read and I feel like I know you better for it. Impressive! Thank you!
.-= Seth Simonds´s last blog ..What’s A Topic You Wish Your Parents Had Talked To You About As A Kid? =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Jaci:
Thanks for kind words. I think he's a great writer first. But most great writers make for good conversation. Glad you found me, through Amy, whose blog I love. Wish I could write that shot.

edward boches
edward boches

Chris:
Thanks for sharing the story. All writers probably write for themselves first, but it's great when someone you admire has a mutual regard for his audience of readers. And thanks for the James Frey recommendation.

edward boches
edward boches

Sarah:
Great to hear from you. Glad you stopped by and liked the post. Agree with all you say about the independent's. I love Amazon for convenience, but am loyal to two local bookstores (and others when I travel) the one here in Brewster (worth checking out if you're ever here) and Bookends in Winchester, MA where I live full time. I think we all have a responsibility to support our local booksellers. Nevertheless, the real point of the post was not only should we support them, but what we can actually learn from the likes of small, personal, intimate businesses (general stores, barber shops, hardware stores, etc.). They offer us valuable lessons that are applicable to the new age of community and relationship marketing.

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