When Colin Powell's 25-city book-promotion campaign rolls into Orange County today for a book signing at the Price Club in Fountain Valley, a noontime crowd of as many as 1,000 is expected to greet the retired general and potential presidential contender.
The man Newsweek calls "the nation's most intriguing public figure" will be escorted to a table near the front of the membership warehouse, which has stockpiled 3,000 copies of his high-profile memoir, "My American Journey" (Random House; $25.95). And as Powell's admirers wait their turn in a line that may snake around the store, employees will be passing out sample slices of pizza.
"We'll try to keep them content," vows assistant manager Alex Valasakos.
It's every author's book-signing dream come true: a horde of fawning fans, complete with hors d'oeuvres.
But celebrity book-signing extravaganzas such as Powell's are the exception: His is the World Series of book signings compared with the typical author's autograph session, which is more akin to a sandlot pickup game.
And as veterans of the book-signing circuit joke, there are some signings where, instead of being asked for autographs, the most they're asked is for directions to the restroom.
Put another way: For every Anne Rice, whose signing at Rizzoli bookstore in South Coast Plaza earlier this month required handing out tickets for crowd control, there are a thousand Mike Blakes.
"The average book signing is not Howard Stern signing 1,500 books and causing a traffic jam," says Blake, a Brea author of several books about baseball. "The average book signing is five books."
At a signing in the Del Amo Fashion Plaza in Torrance, Blake was stunned to sell 60 copies of his books, "The Minor Leagues: A Celebration of the Little Show" and "The Incomplete Book of Baseball Superstitions, Rituals and Oddities."
"It was one of my best signings," he says.
Feeling cocky, Blake asked the manager what the store record was. "She told me Dr. Seuss did 800!"
Lisa Johnson, publicity director for a New York publishing house, says she has heard of book signings where only one or two books were sold and, yes, when no one has even shown up.
"Those do happen," says Johnson of Dutton and Plume, two imprints of Penguin USA. "We do a real wide range of signings, and with some of them you're lucky if you sell 20 books, and 20 books for someone who's not very well-known is a good sale."
The Powell signing at Price Club, Johnson says, "is a totally different game because it's a celebrity book signing." Johnson says it will be promoting TV actor Kelsey Grammer's autobiography, "So Far," in November, "and that will be the same kind of thing."
Because they generate such large crowds, she says, celebrity authors such as Powell, Grammer and Charlton Heston--who will be signing his autobiography, "In the Arena," today at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda--can only do "straight" signings: Sign one book, with minimal chitchat with the book buyer, and move on to the next one.
But for other authors, she says, it's more of an event.
"So many bookstores are into the entertainment value of book signings. If Joyce Carol Oates is on the road, she'll do a reading at a bookstore, answer questions and then sign books."
Despite at least a thousand fans waiting in line hours to get Rice's autograph at Rizzoli's--it was the store's biggest signing since super homemaker Martha Stewart's appearance last year--the author of the Vampire Chronicles managed to talk, joke and pose for pictures with her fans. Many of them, dubbed "Riceheads," were decked out in Gothic finery. (Even Rice sported a billowy black gown, black net gloves and a beaded Cleopatra-style headdress.)
Best-selling Newport Beach suspense writer Dean Koontz laments not having more time to spend chatting with fans at signings.
But all authors should be as fortunate as Koontz, who once signed so many books at three signings in one week that he developed tendinitis in his right hand. It was in a splint for three weeks, and it took him five months to regain full use of his index finger.
Koontz says he dodged doing book signings for years after listening to writer friends' stories of signings where only five people showed up.
He sold about 50 books at his first formal book signing--at Book Carnival in Orange in 1985--but in the years since his books began landing in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, he signs more than 1,000 books at his annual Book Carnival signing--where the so-called "Master of Menace" has been known to spend nine hours continuously scrawling his signature, along with such Koontzian sentiments as: "This tale from a writer only half as weird as his work."
Last year, at his publisher's request, Koontz began branching out of the Orange County area for signings. He even did one at a Sam's Club in Torrance.