Generally there are two measures of authorial success: How well one does with the critics, and how well one does in the bookstores. When good reviews combine with good sales, a writer is doubly happy.
Unfortunately each of most of my books has been what the French call, with sweet irony, un succes d'estime. That means reviewers hailed it but book buyers turned their backs. So it goes with most midlist authors. We're happy with the scraps we can find.
But last night a third kind of success emerged: the live auction.
The Lady Friend contributed an autographed copy of Hang Fire, my fourth mystery novel, to the annual fund-raising dinner of the Ontonagon County Animal Protection shelter. (Ontonagon County in upper Michigan is the prototype of Porcupine County, the bailiwick of my sheriff hero Steve Martinez.)
The highlight of the evening is a spirited auction of donated items that range from carved birds to antique humidors, handmade guitars to cast-iron fire pits. They run the gamut of white-elephant kitsch to exquisite folk art, and the proceeds all go to keep the struggling animal shelter alive.
I attended the dinner expecting to be embarrassed. The Lady Friend set the floor for Hang Fire to $15, and I hoped it would sell for close to its jacket price of $26, enabling me to exit the restaurant with honor. Much less than that and I'd have to put on a brittle fixed smile, pretending to be a good sport.
The book was the last item to go under the gavel. As it was raised high and the auctioneer began his spiel, I wanted to crawl under the table. Most everything else had brought $100 to $125 each for the charity, and how could an obscure little mystery novel compete with that?
To my astonishment four bidders plunged in, and the price rapidly escalated, from $15 to $25 to $30 and $50. Within two minutes, as the price crept past $100, the county's biggest log home builder was competing fiercely against the county's probate judge.
When the dust settled, the winner was Judge Janis M. Burgess, with a bid of $155. One hundred fifty-five bucks!
I guess I'll just have to make her a character in the fifth Steve Martinez novel. Actually, that won't be difficult. Her Honor, or Janis as she wants everyone to call her, is sui generis in Ontonagon County. There isn't a local charity, or social organization, that she doesn't participate in with both treasure and sweat. She's visible everywhere and is probably the most liked public figure in all of the Upper Peninsula.
A classy lady, as we Chicagoans say. She even makes summer people like me feel good.