On a cool weekday night, I rushed home from my job in San Francisco to my Oakland bungalow to quickly arrange chairs and put out cookies and wine before the guests arrived. They weren’t coming to see me, but rather were going to be there for a reading by an author/actor they had heard me rave about. I copyedited John Mercer’s 2013 collection of memoir pieces, Swearing in English: Tall Tales from Shotgun (a reference to Shotgun Players, the Berkeley theater company he belonged to for 10 years), and his second, The Long Arm of Lunacy: More Swearing in English, which came out in November, both published by 125 Records.
By the time his latest book came back from the printer, it was too late to secure nights at most bookstores in the busy fall season. So Mercer came up with the idea of a Home Story Delivery Service. He asked various friends to organize a crowd in their homes and he’d come deliver a reading—and bring a box of books to sell and sign. He ended up moving more books at my house than he had two weeks before at a retail gig.
Taking art directly to the people is a trend that’s growing among writers, musicians, and even fashion industry folks, who stage trunk shows in people’s homes. Without the support of deep-pocket publishers, authors these days have to do what they can to get their books in the hands of readers.
“Unless you’re in the 1 percent [of sales] at the publishing house,” says P.R. and lifestyle guru Susan MacTavish Best, “little marketing goes to your book, so authors need to be way more creative than before.” Best has been hosting writers and musicians in her homes in San Francisco and New York for years. “Fortunately,” she adds, “with social media and whatnot, they can be.”
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Susan Ito, a writer and editor who has taught English and creative writing at Mills College, UC Berkeley Extension, and The Grotto in San Francisco, has hosted many book launches and readings at her house in the Oakland hills.
“I ran a series called the Shepherd Canyon Reading Series out of my home for several years. Even now I will do a few a year. I teamed up with a local bookstore to sell their books at my events. We’d have several or single authors. We found that people were much more likely to come to someone’s home than to a busy public bookstore.”
For Mercer, it’s the perfect, intimate setting to hear his stories. “It’s in the tradition of Scottish storytellers, who would tell stories to people gathered to drink whisky or tea. That’s where the stories get told.”
His tales are drawn from his adventures—personal and geographical—in his native Yorkshire, on Scottish farms and fishing boats, on religious retreats and acid trips, as well as in the quirky Bay Area, where he has lived since 1979, raised a family, developed a passion (and heartache) for Giants baseball, searched for the perfect club sandwich, and forged careers as a cabinetmaker, actor, and author. He only became a writer after somebody heard his stories recounted by heart and told him, “You really ought to write these down so there’s a record of them.”
At a reading done as a fundraiser for Shotgun Players, Sue Trowbridge of 125 Records in Alameda came up after and asked if he had more stories (he’d only written two at that point), and offered to publish his first collection, what became Swearing in English. He went home and got to work.
Going back to telling them live completes the circle.
“We loved having stories read to us as children, and we still love a good story,” says Mercer. “But there’s something different about the home stories. It’s not like listening to a story on the radio or a podcast.
“I’m interested in bringing stories into the workplace, too,” he adds. “I went into a law office and went on about 4 o’clock and read for an hour, and then the lawyers went back to work. It was a nice break for them. It stimulates creativity.”
Regan McMahon is deputy editor, books for Common Sense Media and copy editor for Zyzzyva.