Tom Angleberger, Or, The Skype Visit That Was(n’t); Or, Placating the Hordes

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 2nd, 2011

Tom Angleberger

What do you have when an author visit gets thwarted by 1) a second-story fall, 2) surgery to fix the resulting badly broken leg, precluding travel, and 3) unreliable wireless service? You have our Sunday event with intrepid author Tom Angleberger, creative genius behind The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and his new Horton Halfpott: Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; Or, the Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset.

When we heard the distressing news about Tom’s accident, we considered simply rescheduling the event for this fall, but then Abrams publicist Laura Mihalick suggested a Skype visit instead, and we thought it was an interesting idea. We’ve never done a Skype visit with an author; how 20th-century of us! It was high time. Laura and Tom also arranged to have bookplates (complete with cute drawings) sent ahead of time.

So what do indie booksellers do in a situation like this? First, to alert our customers to the change, we sent out an email blast to our mailing list and made a new printed events flyer. However, somehow, we either neglected to alter our website listing or the change didn’t “take” (our web tool has changed platforms and I am not quite up to speed on the new system, so I like to think I did at least TRY to change it…). At any rate, it didn’t appear, which we found out when one of the event attendees mentioned it afterward. Whoops. We did figure that most of the kids who showed up would not have gotten the message that Tom wouldn’t be there, and hoped the Skyping and bookplates and new novel would assuage their author hunger enough to last them until he is able to visit in person.

Then, we did a test run the day before the event. Worked like a charm! Clear visuals, good sound. All was well. At least, we thought so — until Saturday morning, when we gathered all of the guests—who absorbed the news of Tom’s absence with gracious aplomb—only to encounter Skype malfunctions of the worst kind. Dropped calls, missing video, 11-year-olds enthusiastically offering misguided technical advice (“Press THIS button!” “No, that one!” Click. Dial tone. Lost call. Lather, rinse, repeat.) This went on for a Keystone Kops-esque 20 minutes or so, moments of hope followed by minutes of despair. While Josie valiantly fiddled with the laptop, I affixed bookplates in the kids’ copies of Origami Yoda and Horton Halfpott and helped them tape their little origami Yodas.

We felt terrible not being able to get the video functioning. The kids were SO terrific! They weren’t mad, but they were a little disappointed, naturally. Really, they could have complained and whined, but instead took the delays and disappointment in stride, trusting that Tom would visit in the future and they would get to meet him someday.

We offered the families 20% off downstairs in the store, which they appreciated. We also invited them to sign up on the email list if they hadn’t already, to make sure they always have the most up-t0-date event info. So families started trickling down to browse for books or get on with their Saturday.

And then patient Tom came out with a most generous offer (sent via email, since Skype had flaked altogether by then): he asked for the kids’ names so he could send them personalized drawings of Darth Paper! I ran downstairs to collect as many names as I could. You should have heard the excited gasps and seen the won-the-lottery grins on the faces of the kids who received that news. We missed some families who had already left, but lots of participants will be receiving small personal treasures from a quick-thinking, talented, generous author and artist — and really, along with the books, what more could a kid really want?

All’s well that ends well. I’m pretty sure we didn’t lose any customers, and we actually had two families new to the store thank us for our handling of the event and tell us they’d be back. It’s pretty gratifying when you can NOT present a promised author to an expectant group and somehow turn it around. As event disasters go, this one was made tolerable by all parties—guests, booksellers, and most especially a wonderful author—making the very best of an unfortunate situation.

Anyone else got disaster stories to share? And tips for salvaging them?

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