2009.06.10 It's all about the tomatoes and homemade bread

Written by David Green.

By COLLEEN LEDDY

Landing Elizabeth Berg for an appearance at Stair Public Library traces back to the culinary prowess of another Elizabeth...retired library director Liz Stella.

It all started when I emailed Elizabeth’s agent to see if she would put me in contact with her. I was trying to schedule a speakerphone chat for “Dream When You’re Feeling Blue” for the evening book discussion group’s March meeting.

Elizabeth wasn’t available, and said she doesn’t like speakerphone chats anyway. But she loves doing readings and asked if the library ever hosted authors.

I sent her a long email in response:

Oh, phone chats are so fun! I'm sorry you don't enjoy them. The first one we did was with Steven Sorrentino ("Luncheonette") and it was also his first book discussion chat. He started off telling us he had done lots of conference calls by speakerphone in his work for a publishing company so he was quite experienced with it. Then he caught us off guard by saying this was the first one he had done in the nude. When we stopped laughing, one of our ladies retorted, "Well, I thought you might want to know, we're all naked here, too!"

We do host authors in person, but I am guessing we are way out of your league. We're a small library, so we don't have a huge budget to host big-name authors like yourself.

This scenario is more our speed: the Ultimate Cheapskate, Jeff Yeager, author of "The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches: A Practical (and Fun) Guide to Enjoying Life More by Spending Less" visits our library, is served a wonderful lunch of homemade manicotti, homemade bread, and a fresh garden salad with just picked tomatoes, prepared by our former director who married an Italian from the hills of West Virginia and learned to cook from her [first generation Italian-American] mother-in-law...Yeager speaks to a group of 66 people at 2 on a weekday afternoon and sells lots of books and he ends up paying us $100!

That's a bit unusual, but he had such a good time here, he decided to offer us the deal he gave libraries on a book promotion tour he had just finished. He biked from library to library and gave his publisher's per diem to the libraries if they arranged for somebody to put him up overnight....

...Do you have a special price for displaced-New-Yorker library directors trying to add big-city culture to tiny rural Midwest towns? Or a flat fee for everyone? And what would that fee be?

Elizabeth was taken in by the tales of small town library life and responded with this email:

What a charming letter! So let's see what we can do here. First of all, fresh-picked tomatoes: a must. Ditto homemade bread.

When I speak through my lecture agent, I get $5,000 which I rush to add I'm sure you can't afford. So here's the deal: do you think you can get over 100 people and good book sales? And some tomatoes to take home?

If so, give me your best offer, and let's see what we can work out.

The email exchange continued with negotiation on price and book sales—and promises of more of Liz’s specialties:

 Tomatoes, bread...even homemade brownies using the Zingerman's recipe (the most divine brownies known to womankind) and sticky toffee pudding which sounds horrible, but is the most luscious dessert known to all of humanity. ... Liz Stella, the afore-mentioned former library director, says she will fix you up with a basket of good stuff.

...I think I could offer something in the $300 to $500 range. That sounds so paltry compared to your usual fee, but your usual fee is our programming budget for the entire year! I promise you, though, Zingerman's brownies and sticky toffee pudding made by Liz are utterly priceless and totally worth your time...along with the tomatoes.

In one exchange, Elizabeth proposed this scenario:

...For my payment, start with $500, but for every person over 100 that you get, take  $10 off my fee, but up the portion size of the sticky toffee pudding. …

In that scenario, if we had 150 people she wouldn’t have received anything....and Liz would have had to bake a heck of a lot of sticky toffee pudding. But, in the end we settled on a flat fee and Susan Bach of Waldenbooks in Adrian will handle book sales. Elizabeth forfeited the tomatoes when she realized June was better for her schedule than tomato harvest season.

I’m nervous as all get-out about having a good-size crowd, especially in light of Berg’s comment in this email excerpt:

For the record, I think a crowd of 100 would be terrific, and I always like to do whatever I can to encourage book sales of ANY author.…

On the strength of her emails alone, I’m expecting an entertaining, enlightening wonderful program.

And, of course, it will be all the more wonderful if you’re there, too.

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