This weekend I’m at the LA Times Festival of Books — one of my favorite literary events of the year, and I’m not just saying that because The Times pays me to be a critic at large — and my stop here is only part of a long book tour that takes me from Boston to Houston to Seattle to Los Angeles and beyond.
For those of you on the other side of the tour, the ones who come to see us at our events and stops, it can seem like a pretty sweet gig. We show up, people are happy to see us, we sign books and take pictures. Easy, yes? Sure! Once! But when you do a full tour, it begins to be work — actual work. So for everyone who’s never been on book tour, here are some things about touring you might not have known.
1. It’s disorienting
My tour this year took me to 24 cities over five weeks, with many stops having more than one event (a lunchtime private event at a tech company, an afternoon mixer with booksellers and then a bookstore event in the evening, for example). As a result, you experience time-slippage: After a few days it’s hard to remember which day it is or what city you’re in, and you suddenly sympathize with touring musicians who yell “Hello, Cleveland!” from the stage when they’re in Detroit. Fortunately ...
Publishers will frequently hire “media escorts” for writers at each stop of the tour. These are folks who pick the author up from the airport, ferry them to and from their hotels and events, feed them snacks to keep their blood sugar up, and help make sure events run smoothly for the author. The first time I went on tour I was told I’d have these handlers and I wondered why I, a then-thirtysomething grown man, needed a hand-holder; by the end of the first week I was desperately happy I had someone telling me where to go and when to go there and occasionally shoving a granola bar into my hand.
3. It’s a grind
It’s a very good thing when a publisher decides to tour an author; it’s a vote of confidence. But on the author end it means: Wake up super early to get to the airport, wait in security lines (pro tip: TSA Pre is your friend), get on a plane, hope you don’t miss your connection, go to a hotel, go to your events, read to crowd and sign books, go back to a hotel, sleep, and then repeat all the steps again. Somewhere in there, eat and shower (pro tip: Not at the same time, tempting as it might be). It’s not glamorous! But, glamorous or not —
4. You have to be “on”
When people show up to your event, they expect to be entertained — yes, even at an author event, when technically all you’re doing is reading from your book and maybe answering some questions. As the author, you have to be up and appear happy and be glad people showed up, and you have to do that from the moment you enter the event space to the moment you get in a car to go back to the hotel, which can be several hours. It’s tiring even for extroverts and, well, most authors aren’t extroverts. Being “on” for several hours a day, several days in a row, is one of the hardest things you’ll ask an introverted author used to working alone to do. And speaking of work …
5. Many authors are also working while they tour
The touring itself is actual work, mind you. But I mean that many if not most are also trying to do their “regular” work — writing or editing what they’ve written. Whether they succeed is another question. My friend Cory Doctorow (with whom I am doing several events on tour) has mastered the habit of popping open his laptop in airports and on planes and writing in his next novel; I myself usually can only manage emails and short pieces. The point is that life doesn’t stop and most authors are looking toward their next work, even as they’re presenting their current one on tour.
Every author can tell you the story of the time they did an event and it was attended by crickets and dead air.
— John Scalzi
6. The author is worried no one will show up
Every author — every author — can tell you the story of the time they did an event and it was attended by crickets and dead air. My own story of this was on the first tour stop of my very first book, in 2000: I had a lunchtime event at a Chicago Barnes & Noble and the only person who was in the audience was a store staffer who attended, I suspect, out of pity. These days I worry less about no one showing up, but the worry is still there. It’s not only about whether you are a draw, but also any other number of factors, including bad weather, insufficient advertising of an event, competing attractions in the city, or even just doing an event somewhere that your many fans... aren’t. There are lot of ways for people not to show up! And trust us, we’ve imagined them all. Paradoxically, however —
7. Your author is coated in hand sanitizer
Just in case people do show up for their event. See, here’s the thing: People are covered in germs, and they also want to shake the author’s hand and get in close for pictures, and sometimes they even ask for a hug. As much as authors may be willing to accommodate those requests (and please don’t be upset if they don’t — everyone has their own comfort level with these things), the fact is they don’t know you or where you’ve been, and they have more tour stops to go. So authors slather on the hand sanitizer, suck on throat lozenges and otherwise try to keep from collecting a full set of viruses on the road. It works the other way too — the author does not want to get infected because they do not wish to infect you! — but either way, yeah. We actively support the hand sanitizer industry.
8. We like that you want to give us gifts, but …
I have received some pretty amazing gifts from fans while on the road, things like military insignia, challenge coins, knitted hats, books and edibles — cookies and pies and churros. Generally speaking these are all very cool to receive, and we appreciate that you’ve given them to signify how much our work has meant to you. The flip side of this is that we are generally very tightly packed for travel so transporting your gifts is often a challenge. I usually end up asking the bookstore or my media escort to mail them back to me, except edibles, the uneaten portions of which — sorry! — are left in hotel rooms. Be aware some authors don’t eat your food gifts for dietary reasons and/or the entirely reasonable concern they don’t know you or the cleanliness standard of your kitchen. Please don’t be offended. On that same note:
9. We’re probably not going to hang out with you outside the event
Whenever I announce a tour I get emails and tweets from fans inviting me to come hang out with them before or after events, promising to take me to secret cool places in their town, and so on. I always, always appreciate the gesture, and I think most authors do. But we’re probably going to decline. One, because, as noted above, we’re on a treadmill when we’re on tour. Two, because often what little free time we have will be used seeing old friends whom we do not get to see enough because the real world conspires to keep you away from the people you love. But also three, which is that although you know us (through our work), we don’t know you. While there’s no doubt you are a lovely person, every author can also tell a story about That One Fan, the one who wasn’t clear on boundaries and who made us feel uncomfortable or unsafe or even genuinely scared. That One Fan doesn’t always advertise themselves up front. Sometimes it takes a little while for them to reveal themselves. So we don’t know. And we have to keep ourselves safe. With that said:
10. We are really going to work to make it worth your time to come see us
My friend Wil Wheaton, who is a writer as well as an actor, once told me the secret to doing events. He told me that at events you’ll meet hundreds or even thousands of people, and you won’t remember them all — it’s impossible. But they’ll remember, because they’re not seeing thousands of people, they’re here for you. So no matter what, make sure that moment you have talking to them personally, signing their book or taking that picture, is a good one for them. Because that’s what they’re there for. I take his advice to heart, and I think every author I know feels similarly; we want you to come away from our event feeling like it was time well spent. And when that happens, despite the grind and disorientation and the hand sanitizer, it becomes time well spent for us too. Those moments add up to a good tour. Thanks for letting us have them with you.
Scalzi, a Times critic at large, is a Hugo Award-winning novelist. His latest book is “The Collapsing Empire.”