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What Garth Stein Can Teach Us About Delighting Your Reader

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending a book reading/signing for A Sudden Light by Garth Stein at {pages}, my local independent bookstore. It had already been a really busy weekend and I was close to opting out of getting dressed and getting in the car and fighting for a parking place, but I didn’t.  Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was one of those novels that unexpectedly blew me away  -- unexpected because I am not a dog person and dog-centered stories don’t usually do much for me  (I know, I know… I am well aware that not liking dogs is not my most endearing trait…) I wanted to see for myself what this author was all about, so off I went to the bookstore.

The Art of Racing in the Rain sold more than 4 million copies, and is being made into a movie by Universal Pictures. Stein explained that he has made a lot of money -- enough to give him the luxury of spending five years researching and writing the newest novel; enough to give him creative control on his next movie; enough to send all three of his kids to college. He is free, in other words, from the day-job concerns that plague most writers. He could rest on his laurels, coast a little on the next book, dial it in. But Stein is doing the opposite. He is working his tail off to delight his readers, and we can all learn from his efforts, because delighting readers is what the primary job of any writer must be.

Here is evidence for how hard Stein is working, and inspiration for what anyone who aspires to connect with 4 million readers might want to think about doing, too:


1.     Be excited about your work. I looked at his online events calendar and Garth Stein is speaking at 20 bookstores between now and November 21. That’s 20 bookstores in 30 days, from Southern California to Northern California to Washington to Texas. I debated whether or not to get up and get out for just ONE such event and he is committed to 20, all over the country. That’s a lot of miles and meals out, and yet at the one event I attended, Stein was engaged and charming – as if our little bookstore was the one he was most excited to visit.

2.     Be authentic. Garth Stein is an attractive man and a famous author, and I expected him to give a somewhat polished, sophisticated “performance” at his reading. This was so not what he did. He was actually somewhat scattered, bouncing from topic to topic, taking too long to get to the heart of what he was trying to say, seeming at times to be a person who had one too many cups of coffee. But it was real. He was real. You got the sense that he was letting us see a little piece of his authentic self – almost as if he knew that this was exactly why we came. A book is a polished, finished, permanent thing. The Art of Racing in the Rain  still managed to surprise me – and seeing Stein in person made me realize why: he seems like a guy who is not afraid to be real, and he put something of his true self in that book. It is a gift.  In writing and in person, authenticity is a gift.

3.     Have a killer website. Did you notice that I mentioned in #1 that I went to Stein’s website? I did this because a woman in the audience gushed about his website. She raised her hand first – and high – and said, “I LOVE your website.” Stein laughed and thanked her and said he had worked hard on it. How hard? There is music up there that was written for his books, videos he had made about some of the topics of his books, book trailers, interactive art, historical facts, extra reading material – tons and tons and tons of extra material. He made this for US. He could have just pumped out the book and said, “I wrote a book, isn’t that enough?” but he didn’t. He made all those OTHER things, too. Yes, he probably has a staff and a big budget, but still. It takes energy and he spent it.

4.     Engage your audience.  Stein took our photo and said it would be on Twitter and Facebook later that night, and he invited us to go online to see it – and then he asked us to please do that and to Tweet it and put it on Facebook because that would make his publisher happy. It was what his publisher wanted, in fact -- for him to have followers and friends and likes. Four million copies sold and he still needs a social media following. He wasn’t grumbling about this. He wasn’t saying, “Isn’t it enough that I wrote the book?” He was offering us something, inviting us, engaging us. To test it out, I re-tweeted the picture (including my local bookstore, of course.) They both favorited the tweet within minutes.  This, by the way, is being a good audience member and also a good literary citizen.

5.     Respect your reader. When it was time for questions, the first came from a kid who was probably 12 and was reading The Art of Racing in the Rain with a reading group. The kid asked about the significance of the zebra in the story – he said people were arguing about it. Stein answered (and I wasn’t recording him, so I paraphrase): "I know the answer because I’m the author but I’m not going to tell you because I think that makes it more fun.” In other words, Stein respects his reader. He respects the readers’ role in the story – the energy and attention and conviction they bring to it. He needs us. He lives for us. And guess what? People like to be needed.

6.     Understand that it’s about delight. At the end of his talk, Stein stood up there with A Sudden Light in hand – the book he wrote after the book that sold 4 million copies – and he said something very close to this: “There are no dogs and race cars in this book, but listen. It’s a big deal to read a book. I know that. You can’t do it while you’re cooking dinner. It’s a commitment. If I’m going to ask you to do that, it’s going to be the best book I’ve ever written. And this is the best book I’ve ever written.”