Writers thrive on Martha’s Vineyard the way those exotic wild mushrooms sprout over our lawns and in our woods. (A word of advice: Read the writers, but don’t even think of eating the mushrooms, yummy as they look.)
So when any one of our number — in this case, super-successful mystery writer Cynthia Riggs of West Tisbury — puts out the call to hawk our books at an impromptu authors’ table this past weekend at the Artisans Festival in the Ag Hall, it required a mere spattering of emails to assemble a crew of writers to fill 16 slots over two days.
For me, locally known ghost lady (“Haunted Island” and “Vineyard Supernatural”) and unabashed gossip (“Vineyard Confidential”), I discovered the main takeaway from this bacchanal of book signings was what any writer, new or long-indentured, can learn from watching other pros at work.
Among them, Ms. Riggs is the reigning sales queen. Her most cherished canon is the Victoria Trumbull series (St. Martin’s Press), which features a 92-year-old amateur sleuth, gardener, and poet; a character, for those in the know, based very much on Cynthia’s fabled mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs.
I’ve seen our Cynthia at work, and she is to book selling what Jordan Spieth is to the long drive hit off the tee. First off — and pay attention, young disciples — she never sits down. This tall, straight-backed, white-haired author of a certain age (in her 80s), normally decked out in trim slacks and a button-down shirt, stands over her wide expanse of books, and calls out a friendly, nonpushy “Hi!” to all. People love to be greeted, and as they pause to smile back, Ms. Riggs poses her inimitable question, lifting a book simultaneously, “Do you like mysteries?”
In a twinkle, the various offerings are discussed, a wallet is removed from a purse or pocket, and a happy transaction occurs. A moment later, Ms. Riggs chirps “Hi!” to a new eager customer.
Second only to Ms. Riggs as a master seller is Thomas Dresser, with books covering every last aspect of Vineyard culture and history. Dresser takes the opposite approach to Riggs: He stands behind a sign that reads, “SAY HI TO THE AUTHOR!” This too leads to animated conversation, and brisk sales ensue.
The rest of us this past weekend were more lackadaisical. Considerably more. My own Saturday-morning stretch from 10 am to 1 pm found me seated at a table with photographer Lynn Christoffers, co-creator with Ms. Riggs of “Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard Guide,” and genius feline photographer of her signature book, “Cats of Martha’s Vineyard.” In the middle of our crew perched author and illustrator C.K. Wolfson, presenting her gorgeous art book “Painting a Life,” filled with photos of the paintings of Ray Ellis, with text by the talented Ms. Wolfson. Problem was, all three of us spent so much time yakking with people we knew in a non-merchandisiacal way, taking photos with Christoffers’ camera, and cracking each other up, that we spent two-thirds of our time forgetting our vital purpose for being there.
For the second shift, which included sales demon Mr. Dresser, Suzan Bellincampi, naturalist and director of Felix Neck, brought along a sidekick to accessorize her book, “Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.” The accomplice was her corn snake, Panthy, about two feet long, an exquisite pale apricot, with a sweet face marked with an uber-cute flicking tongue. The pet stayed coiled around Ms. Bellincampi’s right arm, but occasionally Suzan let the critter slither amongst her books for the delectation of the little kids stopping by.
Ms. Bellincampi emailed me the following morning: “It’s nice to share wildlife with islanders and visitors, and it’s definitely a conversation starter! Can’t say whether she helped to sell books.”
Also assembled at the snake table was writer Susanna Sturgis, who emailed, “I think of my writing as part of a conversation, so I love sending copies of my year-round Vineyard novel, ‘The Mud of the Place,’ out into the world to do its own talking. I even sold one copy each of two of the three fantasy and science fiction anthologies I edited many, many years ago: ‘The Women Who Walk Through Fire’ and ‘Tales of Magic Realism by Women.’ They [the books] were sick of being cooped up in my closet.”
On Sunday, author Gail Rodney of “The Martha’s Vineyard and Chappy Sketchbook” sold a respectable number of copies. She emailed, “I enjoyed watching my seatmate Tom Dresser chat up his potential customers! Susanna Sturgis, my other seatmate, had fantastic photos to share of the snake from the day before. It was a much more interesting morning than I anticipated.”
Jane Dreeben, teacher, administrator, fundraiser, and psychologist, was on hand on Sunday to swap money for copies of her book, “The Urge to Create: 50 Vineyard Portraits,” a collection of colorful photos accompanied by each subject’s page-wide autobiography.
C.K. Wolfson emailed, “I was unprepared for the fun of the experience. The pleasures came both from in front and from behind the table. You could sell tickets for the chance to sit between Lynn Christoffers and Holly Nadler. We laughed and complimented passing babies and dogs, and took pictures and chatted up strangers about their cats and their experience with things that go bump in the night. More than selling, it was about smiles.”
The learning curve was high for all of us. Next year at the Island authors’ table, we’ll all be standing tall, greeting strangers with a unanimous “Hi!” and holding picket signs that read, “SAY HELLO TO THE AUTHOR (SHE’S SHY)!”