It’s Good To Be the Dream King: Part Two

I was moving an exercise machine – The Total Gym -down to the basement on the sly. My wife and I had discussed moving it from our bedroom – she wanted to keep it there and I wanted to move it to the basement. So, of course I moved the machine behind her back.

Now, the thing weighs about 90 pounds and has ropes and pulleys so it’s awkward to carry. As I wrestled with it coming down the stairs, I missed the last step, and landed on my left ankle. As I went crashing to the ground, the Total Gym followed and came down on my chest…just as my wife was turning the corner. She screamed thinking I had died. When she realized that her idiot of a husband was alive, she started yelling at me for being an ass for carrying it down on my own and reminded me she didn’t want it moved at all. Even though the machine was still on my chest, my wife was crying and yelling, and my ankle hurt like hell and was ballooning up to the size of Schwarzenegger’s bicep, all I could think was; “Shit, the Neil Gaiman book is coming out soon – I have too much to do.”  Then I asked my wife for an Advil.

2003 turned out to be an important year, for me and for graphic novels. DC Comics was publishing a BIG book, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Endless Nights. It was Neil’s return to Sandman comics and it was not a collection of comics, but an original graphic novel. There was the idea floating around the office that maybe, with Neil’s success with his novels and the fact that American Gods had hit the New York Times Bestseller List, we could have a bestseller on our hands. It was of a dream of mine, to have one of our graphic novels become a best seller.

Everyone pulled together to try and make this dream come true. Peggy Burns – now at Drawn and Quarterly – put together the most amazing publicity campaign. She was able to get a four page story on Neil – complete with a photo shoot – in Entertainment Weekly. Neil appeared on the front page of the Life section of USA Today – it was astounding coverage.  I remember Peggy bringing a writer from Publishers Weekly to our BEA party in Los Angles and how Karen Berger and I spent a good deal of the night talking to him about Neil,  graphic novels and Sandman. Karen had even brought some of the pencils of the book to show him. He decided he wanted to interview Neil.

 I secured the front cover of PW and a few pages inside for one of their late summer issues. I contacted his other publishers to tell them about our marketing plans for the book and let them know about our cover for PW. I suggested they might want to take an ad out to support their books by Neil. I was hoping they would – I wanted to show the breadth Neil’s work.  When the magazine came out Neil was on the cover, several ad pages were devoted to his work and to top it off, there was a seven page article on Neil. I affectionately call it the Neilzine.

The marketing plan also included the American Library Association producing a poster of Sandman with art by P. Craig Russell. It’s still available on their web site. We wanted everyone – booksellers, librarians, everyone to know this book was coming out.  We needed to tour Neil, and have him appear before his fans to promote the book. He appeared at the street festival New York Is Book Country, first speaking to a packed auditorium at the Equitable building on Fifth Avenue who had paid to hear him speak and attend a private signing afterward. He then moved to the streets of New York and sat at a table in the middle of Fifth Avenue and signed more books. In the end he had to be rushed out of the event like he was one of the Beatles.

The night before the street festival I had gone to a celebration for the event and on the way home – it was a late night and I had arranged for a car to take me back home. It was raining like crazy and my driver lost control of the car and we crashed into the medium. My back hurt but I was otherwise ok  – but combined with my slowly healing ankle I was not in great shape. But I survived and the show must go on.

The next day after New York is Bok Country Neil and I flew to a manager’s meeting for a major book retailer. He was scheduled to sign at the meeting and at one of their stores.  The hotel where the conference was held was on the beach in Florida – a beautiful place. The signing the night before went well and the next morning my Sales Manager Alicia Wilson and I set up our booth and the table for the signing. The staff for the retailer couldn’t have been nicer to us. Bringing Neil to the event came late in planning his travels – we heard there was an opportunity for us to bring Neil and we jumped on it.

During the weekend I was responsible for the care of feeding of Neil and making sure he got to where he needed to go. Now, my only previous experience with an author tour was when I was with Scholastic and drove Ann M. Martin, the author of The Baby Sitters Club series, around independent bookstores in the Albany area. She was a lovely woman and very nice and we were met by enthusiastic crowds, but traveling with Neil I felt like I his road manager. Neil couldn’t have been more gracious, kind, and generous and extremely easy going and I never had to sort out the brown M&Ms. In the middle of all this traveling he would disappear to his hotel room to write 1602 for Marvel.

The day of the signing Neil decided he wanted to pay a visit to Will Eisner who lived a short distance away. Neil had a car take him to Will’s home and I had to stay back with Alicia and I set up our booth for the trade show. After Alicia and I got everything set up we ran upstairs to our rooms to get dressed in our business clothes for the trade show. When we came back down the authors who were signing in the same area as Neil were starting to arrive and their publicity people were getting them settled at their tables. The signing tables were set up in this massive hallway outside the trade show floor with a row of tables, one for each author. I don’t remember who else was there signing, what I do remember is that they each had a few people in line waiting to get their books signed. Neil had about thirty people waiting for his arrival! These were bookstore managers! I recently learned from one of the organizers that she had to shoo away some people from Neil’s line so it didn’t look so overwhelming unbalanced to the other authors.

Soon all the authors were seated and signing – except Neil. He was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t in his room and I couldn’t reach him by cell phone. I started to freak out. I was debating going to the gift shop to buy black jeans, a black t-shirt and a leather jacket, a wig and sunglasses so I could sign for him, when suddenly my phone rang – it was Neil. He was in the lobby. I went to meet him.

Now, this hotel had a huge escalator that leads to the convention level and I see Neil at the bottom talking on his phone. He slowly rises up to meet me. He gets to the top of the stairs and one of his fans waiting in line to get his autograph sees him and shouts his name… and the crowd goes CRAZY! Coincidently the CEO of this bookstore chain just happens to be roaming the hall with a video camera crew to chronicle the event. He and the crew hear the crowd cheer and he turn to see why they are cheering. The camera crew naturally turns the camera toward the source of the excitement – Neil. The CEO and the camera crew walk up to Neil and they interview him. Neil excuses himself saying he needs to start signing and heads to the table, escorted by one of the staff members.

The CEO and I exchange cards and we discuss the book and Neil for a few minutes, then this CEO asks me, “Do you think he’d sign a book for me?” And I’m thinking, “You’re the CEO of this company I’m pretty god damn sure he’ll sign a book for you.”  We walk over to the table and I ask Neil if he could sign a book for our new friend. Neil takes a copy of Endless Nights, signs one and gives it to the CEO who thanks him and then goes off to find their graphic novel buyer on the exhibit floor. He tracks down the buyer, who has no clue as to what had just happened; the CEO stops him and says, “This Neil Gaiman is a rock star!! Tell me all about graphic novels.”

A few days later I am back home and I am out picking up a pizza for my family, when I see I have a voice mail. It was Paul Levitz, the President and Publisher of DC Comics. I cursed myself for missing the call and was tempted to immediately call him back, but decided to hear the message first. I held the phone to my ear and listened; “Rich, this is Paul I wanted to let you know Sandman hit the Times list, terrific job we’ll celebrate when you get back,” Tears welled up in my eyes the dream had come true – we had a bestseller. I remembered that buyer who, a few years before, told me graphic novels were dead – dead my ass.

Comments

  1. I remember when the book came out. Barnes & Noble had it featured on a “step ladder” display with Orson Scott Card’s “First Meetings: In the Ederverse” book. Those step ladder displays are reserved for the “hot new book” of the week, so that was remarkable. (And yes, they cost a pretty penny to reserve.)

    At the same NYIBC, Jim Lee designed and signed the official poster. I remember the little rickety stage smack-dab in the middle of Fifth Avenue, like an after-thought, but it was part of their graphic novel programming, so I didn’t complain. The line wasn’t that long, as I recall.

    (And in 2005, Tara McPherson designed the Dream/Death poster of NYIBC. Ironically, that was the LAST NYIBC…)

    DC always had a good presence at NYIBC, handing out free copies of MAD and what-not.

    The “dead” buyer wasn’t the buyer who the CEO talked with, right?

  2. Rich Johnson says:

    Actually the Jim Lee poster was not the offical poster – even though it graced the cover of the official guide and was at the top of all the kiosks up and down Fifth Ave.The official poster was by Maurice Sendak. I convinced the powers that be at NYIBC that they should do a second poster (they had never done two posters before). And no – it was not the same buyer.

  3. David Serchay says:

    I was at the Barnes and Noble Signing in Ft. Lauderdale. My friend and I left work early to get there, though as librarians we considered it a work-related event. Driving only 15 minutes to get there, I was amazed to see that some in the crowd had come as far as Lousiana and had been lined up for over 6 hours.

  4. Alicia Wilson says:

    Hey Rich, thanks for the fun trip down memory lane and what an amazing job we did getting this book out and the snowball effect into main street bookstores.
    Little did people know we were a department of three people making S#*t happen and serious money for DC. Kudos to the entire team. I will always appreciate the unique opportunity working with you allowed. All the perks that some fanboys/fangirls would have sold their collections to have for one day. I can’t thank our buyers enough for trusting us and for going along for the ride.
    Anyway I’m having one of those damn, I wish we were still having fun, selling, shaping what was to come moments, but really it’s more like, “damn I couldn’t deal with all the sh*t again” moment.

  5. Martha Thomases says:

    I stood in line with my son at the pre-NYIBC event, because it was the only place I could be sure I’d see Neil. The line was so long, and moved so slowly (everyone savoring a special moment with Mr. Gaiman) that I knit an entire scarf for Lilian Baker while I waited.

    Very few people would wait that long for a rock star.

  6. Rich, amid all that, you forgot that DC published a free Endless Nights sampler to promote an original graphic novel. Sure, DC had done original graphic novels before (their first ISBNs are all original albums), but not at this level of enthusiasm.

    Time-Warner even sent out a special press release touting Endless Nights charting on the NY Times bestseller list! (#20 the first week) Quite an achievement, as that list did not survey comics shops; all sales came from trade accounts.

  7. Rich Johnson says:

    Torsten

    There was actually a lot I omitted – for space reasons – this piece was pretty long to begin with and I had to stop somewhere. I also want to clarify that the press release was from Time Warner corporate – not from Time Warner Book Group – who distributed the book but did not sell it. DC also took out an ad for the book in The New York Times Book Review.
    I also left out that I was so wiped out from all of this that I spent Christmas Day 2003 in bed with bronchitis. We also came out with Death at Death’s Door which believe was one of the first original English language manga titles. I think – if I remember right – PW’s bestseller list for the year Sandman was number #1 and the Death book was #11 or #12 for the year. If anyone remembers this better than me I would love to know.

    I also want to mention the third person in the sales and marketing department when I was at DC who made Sandman Endless Nights and that person is Brett Shanahan a great guy. So thank you Brett and Alicia.

  8. Mark Sullivan says:

    I was Neil’s minder for a couple days in October 2003 when he was a guest of the public library’s Novello Festival. He was suffering from a throat infection, so he was trying to protect his voice. But he was still extremely gracious. On the evening of the reading he started out with things that were easy on his voice, but soon felt confident enough to go all out (I especially remember “Crazy Hair”). His voice held up just fine. And he signed for hours afterward; I think I got him back to his hotel about midnight.

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