Finding Opportunity in a Teacup
by Paula Margulies
I recently read Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, the fascinating non-fiction account of how Mortenson, a mountain climber and American nurse, came to build fifty-five schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mortenson describes a 1998 talk he gave in a sports shop in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where the store staff was so busy he had to set up the seating -- over a hundred folding chairs -- himself. After weeks of publicity, including posters at a local college, an AM radio morning show interview, and segments in the local papers, he faced an audience of only three people: two store employees and a single customer, who hovered at the back of the room. Though he was dejected at the small showing and exhausted by his continual efforts at fundraising, Mortenson decided to give his talk anyway and began showing slides of K2’s infamous summit and the eighteen schools he’d built so far in Pakistan’s remote and impoverished countryside. As he spoke, Mortenson felt a renewed enthusiasm for his work and his devotion to the Pakistani people and gave his all to the presentation, even though his audience was small.
When he finished, the lone customer disappeared, but the two employees approached him. One gave him ten dollars, while the other offered to volunteer his construction skills in Asia. Mortenson thanked them and then, as he picked up the brochures he’d set out on the chairs, he noticed an envelope on the last chair in the last row, where the customer had been sitting. In the envelope, Mortenson found a personal check, made out to his foundation, for twenty thousand dollars.
There is an important lesson here for all authors who initially see very little return on investment for the hours and dollars they spend promoting their books. Although a few lucky ones experience instant success when their books are published, the majority do not. Most writers, especially those who are publishing a book for the first time, can expect months and even years of effort, including building websites, posting on blogsites, giving interviews, sending out contest applications, presenting at speaking engagements, and hosting blog and book tours that don’t pan out to much in sales. And in our recently diminished economy, where consumers are pulling back on their expenditures, the return on an author’s promotional investment is lower than ever.
But, as Mortenson’s story reminds us, opportunities exist (and sometimes abound) in every venture we undertake, and bad economy or no, there is always the possibility that a single investment of time and effort will somehow result in some good. Even a book signing with only one or two attendees can turn out to be worthwhile, especially if one of the two people there happens to be one of Oprah’s producers, say, or a movie studio executive looking for a new idea for a script. We never know who will see our ads, read about us in a local newspaper article, stumble across our blog, or sit at the back of empty rows of chairs at a bookstore or university talk.
As another famous impoverished author, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “In the long run, we only hit what we aim at.” Although the results we seek may not always come as quickly as we’d like, with persistence, patience, and good promotional guidance and execution, they eventually appear – sometimes when we least expect them.
Aim often and high.