This past Thursday, some friends and I went and checked out Terry Brooks at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s Books. I had read one of his books back in the late 80’s. He writes elf magic fantasy novels mostly, which aren’t really my thing, but I’m always interested in hearing what an experienced novelist has to say regardless of genre. My favorite thing about genre fiction is that the fans are dedicated to their favorite authors. And let me just add here that Terry Brooks’ fans are fanatics. I love that. There’s something infectious about people being so in love with an author’s world that they squirm with unrestrained giddiness and exchange obscure trivia about the different books set in that universe. I didn’t know much about Terry Brooks or his novels, but within five minutes of sitting down, I was pumped for I didn’t know what.
In all about 60 people sat in folding chairs and stood around the edges. There was a guy a row ahead of me who had a duffle bag full of all the Brooks novels in paperback. An employee from the store was handing out post-its so Terry would spell your name right when he personalized your book. There was a rolling rack full of dozens of copies of his latest novel and a few people grabbed a copy before they sat down. There was a microphone at a podium behind which was propped a large poster of the new book cover. To the right of that, a table with pens on it. Pretty standard book release/signing setup. I’ve been to a few of these things and sometimes the authors come out, they read, they answer a few questions (one of which is invariably, “Where do you get your ideas?”), then they sign books. The author’s demeanor at these things normally ranges from contemptuous to putting-on-a-good-face.
But Terry Brooks has been in this business a long time. When he came out, he said hello and from that instant, he was in 100% control of his fans. He said he would read a few pages from a book, but instead of the book being released, he would read from the next, unpublished book. He then said he would make an announcement about upcoming works that he hadn’t even told his publisher. Lastly, he said he was going to release a book every sixth months instead of once a year. If you think the crowd was excited when they showed up, after these three statements, people were losing their minds. It wasn’t like they were cheering and screaming like a drunk at a soccer match, but they were exchanging looks and shifting in their seats. If there’s one thing about fans and collectors, they love knowing something before anyone else. And more than that, they love to be the ones who tell their friends who didn’t make it to the reading! More than one person was using their phone get video of the announcements.
Mr. Brooks understands his readers. Maybe better than any novelist I’ve seen speak. When the Q&A came, he didn’t laugh or scoff at the obscurity of any of the questions. And he answered every question quickly with engaging humor and honesty. I couldn’t tell if he actually had his whole universe in his head, or was just making stuff up on the fly, but either way, every fan was satisfied with his answers. He never dismissed anyone or said anything like, “What do you think should happen?” It was amazing. I won’t even go into the pages he read, but I’ll sum up by saying the reading ended with a cliffhanger. I read one book 20 years ago and suddenly I can’t wait for the next one? Brilliant. The guy was a master of his element.
What I took from this besides an admiration for the professionalism of Terry Brooks was that it’s crucial to know your audience. Crucial! He writes books that he knows his audience will love. He’s not writing to a general fantasy market, but specifically to those who already read his books. John Locke, the million-selling ebook guy, said the same thing. Guys like them know they will ultimately sell more books because their hardcore fans will be a marketing army. For FREE. When I at last reached the signing table, Mr. Brooks made eye contact and shook my hand. I asked him how many of these events he does for each book. He said a dozen or so. When he was speaking earlier, I had noticed he pronounced “Shannara” (his universe) differently than all his fans did. He said “Shanneruh” while everyone else says, “Shuh-nara.” You know, sounds more elf-y that way. So I asked him if he ever got into arguments with fans who pronounce things differently than he does. He said, “No, man. It’s your book. Say it how you want.” People behind me in line laughed. Flawless. Now it’s MY book!
The number of books he sold that night was astounding. People who had casually picked up a used paperback before he spoke had stacks of books by the time they got in line for the signing. The new release rack was nearly empty when I left. He had converted everyone in the room. He reminded his die hard fans why they read his books. If said before that the energy of the fans was infectious, Terry Brooks’ respect for his fans was doubly so.
People who aren’t sci fi or crime or fantasy dorks don’t get it. Book nerds are weird people, they think. They also think it’s ok to dress head to toe in Timbers or Seahawks colors and get hammered in the nosebleed seats on game night, but not ok to take an armload of books to the suburbs and actually shake the hand of the man who enriched your life for the past 30 years? Give me the book nerds any day.