Bestseller Dreams

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Author: Paula Span
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,051 words

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[(essay date 4 February 2001) In the following essay, Span surveys Hoffman's career as a writer who has been critically acclaimed but has yet to achieve the status of bestselling author, focusing upon the promotion of his novel Blood and Guile.]

Bill Hoffman walks into the Volume II Bookstore in Blacksburg, Va., on a Wednesday evening and immediately wishes he could walk right out again.

It's the chairs. Past the poster promising "10% Off William Hoffman Books During Event," past the stacks of his novels Tidewater Blood and the just-published Blood and Guile, in the center of this enormous store that sells Virginia Tech textbooks and sweat shirts and baseball caps, he's spotted nearly 70 metal folding chairs. In a burst of reckless optimism, the store's staff has set up rows and rows for a reading and signing that's supposed to start in a few minutes--and all of them are empty.

"Doesn't look too promising, does it?" Hoffman says glumly to his wife.

He and Sue have driven 150 miles to this first stop on his promotional rounds, and all the way up into the Blue Ridge, Bill wondered whether the long trip could possibly prove worthwhile. Amiable but a little shy, Hoffman doesn't really like publicity appearances anyway. If he were the kind of name-brand author whose novels sold themselves, the superstore shelves emptying as quickly as clerks could stock them while he stayed at home writing in rural Charlotte County, why, that would be fine with him. "I could be a recluse," he'd said earlier in the day, sounding wistful as he was locking up their old farmhouse. "That'd be ideal."

But because he is not that kind of author, he knows he has to try to hustle books--especially since a major New York publishing house, HarperCollins, has picked up this novel after long years when only small houses and university presses would publish his work. The HarperCollins people want to make Blood and Guile his "breakout" book, the one that finally delivers a national readership. Hoffman hopes they succeed; he's 75 and has been writing for more than 40 years without reaching that elusive target, and he understands that he may not get many more shots. The contemporary publishing industry has limited patience with so-called midlist authors.

So even though the audience eventually fills only 10 chairs--including Sue and two of her cousins who drove over from Pearisburg--he goes to the lectern and adjusts his reading glasses and begins.

First, he gently corrects the staffer who introduced him as an award-winning writer who's published 10 novels and three collections of short stories. "Twelve novels and four short-story collections," Hoffman says. His voice is quiet, softened by his decades in Southside Virginia though he grew up in the twangy coal country of West Virginia. He has a long face with eyes that slope a bit sadly, a frosting of white hair. Years of horseback riding, bird-hunting and, more recently, long daily walks have kept him lean in his...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100038779