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On July 31, 2007, I published my first book, “Dixieland Delight.” In the sixteen years since that book was released, a ton has changed in the world. I’ve become a dad three times over, I’ve moved from local radio in Nashville to national sports talk radio with Fox to the Clay & Buck show, I got into the pants business and lost $50,000 trying to sell SEC colored pants, I’ve founded and sold OutKick, and the world has gone absolutely insane while I feel like I’ve stayed pretty much the exact same.
But in the fall of 2007, something happened that I don’t think I’ve ever written about — I had a book signing at a Books-A-Million in the northern suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., Fultondale to be specific, and no one showed up to buy my book.
Not one single person.
For two hours I sat at a table by myself in that Books-A-Million and no one bought my book.
And it wasn’t like I was trying to sell something incredibly difficult — I was trying to sell a book about SEC football in the most SEC football crazy city in all of America. Heck, Alabama was even on the front cover of my book! And it was early December, peak Christmas shopping season. No one had to buy something for dad and had no idea what to get him? Not one person?!
Hell, you put Alabama or Auburn on the front of anything in the state of Alabama and they buy it. Even toothbrushes. (I’m sorry, it was too easy.)
As best I can remember, one middle-aged woman actually stopped to look at my book. She picked it up, stared at the cover for a minute or so and then put it back down on the table directly in front of me. I didn’t even realize I had been holding my breath, hoping she’d buy it and spare me the indignity of doing a book signing and not selling a single book.
“Maybe,” she said, “if you’d put us on the cover, I would have bought this.”
She was an Auburn fan!
And I had Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on the cover, but not Auburn.
What brutal luck.
That felt like salt in the wounds, to be honest. Here I was sitting by myself in a Books-A-Million a few weeks before Christmas, the store was packed with customers, and no one would buy my book, and this Auburn lady had just let me know she would have bought the book if I’d just had an Auburn picture on the cover too.
I kind of respected her fan loyalty, to be honest, but also, the book was $11 with the store discount.
Once she left, I was alone.
Book signings can by lonely
People didn’t even stop and look at me, they just walked past like I was a panhandler begging for money.
The store manager on duty that day eventually came by and picked up the book. He flipped through it. “You know,” he said, “I would have thought we would have sold more of these.”
Then he left too.
An hour later he came back and said, “You can leave if you’d like.”
But I was stubborn, I would stay for the entire two hours, just in case someone came rushing in late hoping to get an autographed copy.
Spoiler alert — they didn’t.
This was in the days before everyone had the Internet on their phone so I couldn’t even pretend I was distracted by anything, I couldn’t check Twitter, or send a text, I just had to sit there for two hours. And let me tell you something, if you ever find yourself sitting at a table for two hours trying to sell something that no one buys, you have a lot of time for sober self-reflection and contemplation.
You question every life decision you’ve ever made.
Put simply, it’s humiliating.
At that time I had no money to speak of, lots of debt, and my wife was pregnant with our first son, who would be born in January. I was writing a column for CBS Sports making virtually no money and doing sexual harassment investigations as part-time legal work to cover the bills. (Side note, in case you were wondering, no one has ever admitted to sexual harassment in the history of sexual harassment allegations.) We had just moved into a new house in downtown Nashville that I wasn’t sure we could afford — it cost $365,000 brand new and I have never been prouder than when we moved into that house to start our family — and I remember sitting there thinking over and over again, I am going to buy so many author’s books that I have no interest in just to keep them from ever feeling like I do right now.
And it’s true, I have a collection now of many autographed books on subjects I’ve never even thought about reading. I’m not kidding, I have autographed books about spelunking, shipwrecks in Lake Michigan, and the dairy industry in Iowa just because I know how the author feels. It’s a lonely feeling to pour your heart and soul into something that no one else is interested in.
And then see that lack of interest directly reflected back at you.
It’s not just authors, by the way, every comedian and musician has stories like this too. I’d much rather ask a comedian, a musician or an author about the worst event they ever had than about the best. All of us have these stories, but most of them don’t get told very often. Because success is a much more comfortable story. We’re inundated with stories of success, told very little about stories of failure.
But it’s failure that makes us, not successes.
Success makes you lazy and entitled. Lot of people want to say nice things to you when you succeed, but it’s been my experience that far fewer people say nice things when you really need to hear them, after you’ve dealt with a failure.
It’s why, I think, so many people, especially in today’s society, quit so quickly.
There’s shame and embarrassment in putting yourself out there publicly and not succeeding. People recoil from it because your failure makes their own insecurities come to mind.
I truly believe most people are more afraid of failure than they crave success.
Which is why most people don’t take true risks.
Notes from book signing resonate today
Anyway, these are some of the notes I jotted down to myself when I got home from that book signing that no one attended in 2007.
That year’s book signing tour included many rough stops. I did a signing at the Knoxville Wal-Mart, one the locals call the bad Wal-Mart and the one they didn’t even want to go to if they didn’t have to go there. You haven’t lived a full author’s life until you’ve tried to persuade an obese woman smoking a cigarette indoors with a cart full of Diet Dr. Pepper on special at the Knoxville Wal-Mart to also buy your book about SEC football. At the Gainesville, Fla., Wal-Mart, a girl who enjoyed my columns showed up and said, “I’m not sure if this is more awkward for you or me that no one else is here.”
Which I remember thinking was so perfect.
Because it’s awkward for an author to be there by yourself, but it’s also awkward to be a fan of someone that no one else knows. Because then the fan feels like a loser too.
And if you think the book signing stories are awkward, I could probably write an entire book about some of the local radio remotes we used to do in Nashville.
At gas stations.
And not gas stations that anyone in Nashville would ever go to, like gas stations 45 minutes from the interstate on the Kentucky and Tennessee border. The kind of place where you had to print off directions to reach. And then the directions didn’t work and if you tried to call for directions on your cell phone there was no signal.
People would walk in the front door of the gas station and see us sitting there in the main entrance, right beside the Slim Jims and the Mountain Dew on special, and say, “Are you guys really doing a show here?”
Sometimes the gas stations weren’t big enough to fit our folding table that we broadcast from so we would do them outside in the gas station parking lot.
Where it was inevitably either 185 degrees or -40 degrees.
There was no in-between.
Once I caught on fire while live on air trying to stand close to a remote heater on the coldest winter day in Nashville.
I once called a hot dog eating contest. Live, on the radio, at one of these places.
Think about how hard it is to call a hot dog eating contest on the radio.
No one knows any of the contestants, no one can see any of them so they don’t have any idea what the people are wearing, no one can speak because they are shoving hot dogs into their mouths, there are just 10 random dudes all eating hot dogs as fast as they can. And you have to describe it. (I would kill to hear that tape today, by the way. I had so much fun with, compared to now, almost no one listening.)
We didn’t have a single bit of security at these places, no protection. Sometimes people would get angry about my sports opinions — shocker, I know — and I asked our tech guy Kirby, who weighs 128 pounds soaking wet and might bench press 100 pounds on a good day, what we would do if someone showed up with a gun or attacked us while we were on the air.
“Don’t worry,” Kirby said, “I got you.”
(I took Kirby with me to Tao nightclub in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl last year. When we walked in Jamie Foxx was DJ’ing. Kirby, who is probably 65, was wearing a baseball cap down low over his head and he was the oldest guy in the club by 20 years. Everyone thought he was Beats founder Jimmy Iovine. So he pretended he was. I think Matt Leinart, who got us in that night, still thinks I’m buddies with Iovine. )
I’m thinking about all of this over the weekend because I’m in New York City and we’re releasing my fourth book, “American Playbook,” on Tuesday. I think you guys will really enjoy it and I’ve worked a lot of hours on it. If you’re not readers then you can buy the audio book, which I recorded all 10 hours of. https://www.amazon.com/American-Playbook-Winning-Country-Democrats/dp/1668022346
On Monday night I’m doing a signing in the New York City area and then I’ll be in Cleveland, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Houston, Tampa, Nashville and Milwaukee over the next two weeks. I hope to see many of you out at these signings, but I really have no idea what to expect because I haven’t done a book signing tour in over a decade.
But if I end up at the bookstore all by myself, at least we have smartphones now so I can look busier.
But in 2007, that night no one came to my book signing in Birmingham, I drove back home to Nashville. Meaning I’d driven three hours to Birmingham to sit at a table by myself for two hours and then turned around and driven three hours back home.
I’d been on the road eight hours to sell zero books.
Always learn from experiences
I was looking for anything positive to come out of the event at all.
Thankfully I’d been told that even if no one showed up at a signing to sign as many books as possible while I was there because, according to my then editor, “A signed book is a sold book.” (Book retailers aren’t supposed to be able to return books to the publisher once they are signed.)
On the drive home, I convinced myself that at least I’d signed 20 books at the Birmingham Books-A-Million.
Worst case scenario, I kept thinking, at least I’d sold 20 books.
Six months later, I was at a book remainder store where I saw a pile of unsold “Dixieland Delight,” copies. They were less than $2 each. I picked up one of the books and flipped to the title page, there in bold script, was my own signature.
Yep, autographed copies, now under $2.
Trust me, it’s a pretty humbling experience to see your book remaindered for 80% off the cover price, made all the more so when it’s also autographed.
It turns out a signed book isn’t a sold book after all.
I hope to see you on book tour
So after a decade of no book tour, I hope to see you guys on the road at the signings in the next two weeks.
But if I don’t see you out there at a signing, if you read this, buy a book from an author in a bookstore who doesn’t seem to be selling many copies. It won’t cost you that much and chances are it will mean way more to the author than you ever thought it would. Plus, it’s good karma for you. And, who knows, you might learn a ton about boat wrecks in Lake Michigan as a result.
But whatever you do, don’t pick up the book, look at it, and then criticize the cover and refuse to buy it.
Like that damn Auburn woman did to me 16 years ago in a Fultondale, Ala., Books-A-Million near Christmas in 2007.
Now I’m not one to hold grudges or bitterly cling to memories as fuel to keep me working 16 hour days 16 years later. That’s just not who I am. I’m better than that.
But having said that I do think it’s important for me to finish this column with an important message:
Roll Tide, y’all.