ASHTABULA, Ohio — A local author’s disappointing book signing has led to a cinderella story no one saw coming. Last weekend, author Chelsea Banning partnered with an Ashtabula-area bookstore, Pretty Good Books, for a book-signing event for her new novel, Of Crowns and Legends. As the event came and went, her excitement turned to dismay as only two people attended.
Then came the plot twist.
Nestled in the crevices of the historic building’s exposed walls are the rare and vintage books that Joe Zinski’s clientele search for. The hardbacks stack from the rustic, hardwood floor to the antique tin ceiling. Named in honor of a family inside joke, Pretty Good Books along Main Avenue in Ashtabula exists solely on accident.
Zinski’s day job sent him stumbling past a bookstore that was shutting down.
“It is the coolest accidental adventure that we have ever embarked on,” Zinski said. “My experience prior to this was I was an end user. I bought books and enjoyed bookstores.”
He enjoyed them so much, Zinski bought one. Then he purchased the collections of two more. Four-and-a-half years into his "accidental adventure" Pretty Good Books’ catalogue includes roughly 200,000 items.
It is a quintessential small business.
“We are forging our way in a very crowded field of book-selling, especially up against Amazon and things like that,” Zinski said. “To be able to work with people who are on the ground level with us and help them grow and be supportive of their work. Also, we win and lose together.”
Even when the store’s shelves are full, Pretty Good Books always leaves room for small and independent authors. The struggle and the grind of being everything at once — accountant, executive, marketing -- is a shared experience.
“We win and lose together. This is why this has been such an incredible ride,” Zinski said.
Chelsea Banning, a full-time librarian that lives near Youngstown, has worked on her novel, Of Crowns and Legends, for the better part of 15 years. Inspired after hearing tales of King Arthur in high school, Banning started drafting the early version of the novel after college. While balancing the demands of a full-time job and a family, Banning’s debut novel went to print in August.
She’s been marketing it ever since.
Last Saturday, Banning partnered with Pretty Good Books to host a book-signing and began inviting friends and colleagues. Going into the event, Manning was brimming with excitement; nearly 40 people had RSVPed.
Only two of those friends showed up. Two more visitors to the bookstore also attended.
“During the event, I was having fun,” Banning said. “It was afterward when I got in the car, I was packing all the copies I had left over. I really thought more people would come.”
Zinski could see the excitement turn sour in real-time.
“It was kind of a perfect storm. The weather was kind of bad that day. Power was out in part of town,” Zinski said. "The enthusiasm and the joy she was hoping to get out of it was kind of dashed. You could see as the day progressed that she was starting to feel a little beat up. As you put yourself out there in the world, when you are not getting that recognition, it can be very, very devastating.”
Feeling the need to vent and express her frustration in a way not to embarrass those that were no-shows, Banning turned to Twitter. In less than 140 characters, Banning spilled what was in her heart.
“Only 2 people came to my author signing yesterday, so I was pretty bummed about it,” Banning tweeted. “Especially as 37 people responded 'going' to the event. Kind of upset, honestly, and a little embarrassed.”
She hit send and delivered the message into Twitter’s abyss. In the hours that followed, she didn’t think much of it. That was, until, later Sunday night when she started seeing the notifications coming in.
“I came back Sunday night after being out and about for the day, and it just kind of blew up,” Banning said. “I was staring at my laptop until 1 a.m. with my jaw dropped. Is this really happening? I saw these names starting showing up: Robin Haab, Jodie Picoult, Joanne Harris. It just blew my mind.”
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, offered up her own book-signing disappointment: “I did a signing to which Nobody came, except a guy who wanted to buy some Scotch tape and thought I was the help.”
Renowned horror author Stephen King shared his book-signing story when Salem’s Lot, debuted: only one person attended.
A "who’s who" of authors chimed in on the Twitter thread. Poor attendance at a book signing seems as if it is a rite of passage.
“I think it was really the rallying of writers that started to take it off. Encouragement. ‘Welcome to the club… we’ve all been there. This is just part of the process,’” Banning said. “Just to see all that encouragement and support just took off.”
The encouragement wasn’t only for Banning. She ensured that her favorite bookstore, Pretty Good Books, could gain some notoriety from the now-viral Twitter movement.
“It kind of reminds you that everybody starts somewhere. The household names that we know that line our shelves, they are regular people too,” Zinski said. “They have had their feelings hurt by a bad book signing or a bad review or somebody thinking they were the help at the book store. It’s a reminder that we are part of the struggle, that we are doing the best we can. To be associated with something so cool — it’s a movement at this point — and somebody so cool, it’s really magical.”
Since going viral, Banning’s tweet has rocketed her novel to the top of Amazon’s best-sellers list in her genre.
“It’s so rewarding. I’m still at a loss for words, and I’m a writer,” Banning said.