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Far From Flatbush

A Brief History of Performance Anxiety

In 1971, in my sophomore year of college, when much to my parents' dismay I switched majors from architecture to creative writing, the idea of promoting my work with public performances was completely foreign to everything I saw myself doing as a writer. I hated getting up in front of people and talking. The idea of going on radio or TV was terrifying. I wanted to be a writer because I was good at sitting in a room and writing. And I believed that if I wrote good books then people would buy them, and that's all there was to it.

Forty-one years later, I spend most of my time in sitting a room, writing. And though I still believe that if I write good books people will buy them, I now know that marketing and promotion are far more important than the quality of the book itself. A well-promoted piece of dreck will outsell a great book, if not every time, then certainly most of the time. The trick, I realized, is to write the kind of books that people really want to read, and then emerge from my isolation cell and find a way to sell, sell, sell.

Thirteen years into the game, I’m hardly a novice. It was relatively easy to promote my first book, Nowhere Man, a “controversial” bio about John Lennon that became a bestseller in five countries. When it came out in the booming economy of 2000, people had lots of disposable income to spend on books. And, of course, everybody wanted to talk to me about Lennon. In the first year alone, I did about 150 interviews, spending entire days talking on the radio, doing one show after another, from before dawn until well into the night.

The live radio interview became my medium of choice. When the chemistry’s right, and the interviewer has actually read the book and knows how to put me at ease—The Louie Free Show, which I’ve done about two dozen times, comes to mind—my performance feels like free-form jazz; it can go anywhere.

In the dozen years since Nowhere Man was published, it simply wasn’t necessary to do a lot of readings. But in 2012, with the economy in shambles and the book business in chaos, every book is a tough sell unless your name’s Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. I know that if I want people to read Beaver Street, then I’m going to have to hand-sell it myself, event-by-event, blog-by-blog, reader-by-reader. Which is, of course, why I went to St. Louis.

Unlike, say, New York, St. Louis was immediately receptive, offering me three very different venues—Left Bank Books, Shameless Grounds, and Apop Records—where I could focus on Beaver Street’s literary and pornographic qualities. The media, too, was supportive. The Riverfront Times, for example, chose my Left Bank reading as a pick of the week, along with Fiddler on the Roof.

It was strange to do three live performances in a week. The nervousness-bordering-on-fear before each event was the worst of it. But I have to accept the fact that I need to do this kind of thing as much as possible. Yes, I’m learning as I go, and I know there’s room for improvement. But I also know I’ve written a book that’s well worth reading, and I thank the city of St. Louis for allowing me to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

Now, it’s on to L.A.
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