Crucial lesson for new writers: Sometimes size doesn’t count


A young writer friend of mine called me last week. Her first book has just come out and she attended her in-store book signing. She was mortified after the event.

“Four people, Zooks. An Indian woman, a Brazilian woman, a Rwandan woman and a young South African woman,” she said in exasperation.

I knew how she was feeling. I have been there. So have many writer friends. An English writer friend went on a 10 city book signing tour to the United States.

Despite making noise on social media of the cities he was about to visit, his audience numbers were never more than single digits. The worst was when he had an audience of one. He went up to his audience member and decided they would have a chat.

“Thank you so much for coming. How did you hear about the event?” he asked.

“I saw it in the window of the bookstore as I was passing by and decided to come in,” came the answer.

Keen to make at least one sale so that the tour would not all be in vain, my friend enquired further, “so you love literature?”

He should not have asked. He told me when he got the answer it was certainly not what he wanted to hear. His audience member whispered conspiratorially that he was homeless and had come in for the free coffee and snacks that are often available at such functions.


This happens even to people that are now household names in literary circles.

Another writer friend recounted what happened when a then unknown Salman Rushdie visited their university campus in India immediately after Midnight’s Children had just come out.

He had two events. One in the morning and another in the evening. At both events, my friend Ro and her three friends were the only people in the audience.

So they ended up having an intimate conversation with Rushdie about all things literary. Many years later, because of those two conversations, my friend is still a big Rushdie fan and always gifts her friends and their children the works of Salman Rushdie.

I recounted these stories to my young friend. While it is great to have big numbers at book signings, sometimes treating the few that are there can get you far. Done well, her work would probably get to India, Brazil and Rwanda before many more established writers in South Africa.

The other side is that sometimes you will have a room full of people who feel they are not your audience and they will add little or no value. This often happens when doing a panel type discussion with another writer.

This happened to me, two years ago when my publisher asked me to do an in-store book signing for book four, Maid in SA. I was with a friend, fellow writer and stablemate Christa Kuljian whose book was about refugees.

Our audience comprised of some senior citizens who possibly volunteer to deliver food and clothes to refugees. When I read an excerpt of Maid in SA, there seemed to be much discomfort as my audience probably felt a mirror was being held up on their relationships and treatment of their domestic workers.

During a question and answer session, racial stereotypes came to play as one older woman commented, “You read so well and you wrote in pretty good English. Are these your experiences of being a domestic worker?” I suspect I could have claimed they were and managed to get my audience of over 50 to buy many copies for this former domestic worker who has done good.

But it would have been dishonest of me as these were the stories of the women I had interviewed during the course of my research. May be I should have just said no and left it at that. But lacking in chill as I seem to, I replied, “no madam. Although I do find it interesting that you did not ask Christa whether she was a refugee.”

I signed two books.

One for Christa and another for a friend who turned up immediately after the function.

Given a chance, I would have swapped audiences with my young friend. Even if there would have been no sales, I would have gone away having learnt something new.

But in an age where everyone wants to be a rock star, I can see how a small audience may be demoralizing to a newly published writer.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya.