Book tour? More like a safari
A cat peeing in an author’s bag? A writer waking up to discover that a complete stranger has left him four jars of delicious homemade preserves? Such things are not traditionally part of book promotion. But they happened to Bill Cotter and Annie La Ganga, an Austin, Texas-based couple who celebrated the simultaneous release of their debut books this fall by jumping in their car for an 8,500-mile, 27-day, do-it-yourself tour.
They didn’t have much choice. As the business of publishing changes, book tours increasingly look like bad risks. “In 99.9% of cases,” says Peter Miller, director of publicity at Bloomsbury USA, “you can’t justify the costs through regular book sales.”
Which is why when McSweeney’s published Cotter’s first novel, “Fever Chart,” and La Ganga’s prose poetry memoir, “Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints,” came out with Red Hen Press, neither publisher was able to provide more than moral support.
La Ganga, 41, a cake decorator, and Cotter, 45, a rare book dealer, relied on many kindnesses: Relatives bought them new tires, and friends gave them Starbucks and McDonald’s gift cards. They spent only one night in a motel, staying instead with family and friends and in the crash pads they found on couchsurfing.com. The benefits: shared meals, new connections and (mostly) friendly pets.
“I learned a lot doing the tour,” says La Ganga, who cold-called bookstores to set up readings. Indeed, with no advance publicity and no connection to local literary communities, it was, at times, a steep learning curve. In Pittsburgh, the pair arrived at a Borders store to discover that the staff, unaware of their event, had turned people away. “I’m going to call it ‘tuition,’ ” she continues, “the money we spent on it.”
All told, the tour cost $2,500 -- modest for their itinerary but significant for the pair.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: T.C. Boyle has published more than 20 books since 1979. For his new story collection, “Wild Child,” his publisher set up a classic book tour; he traveled to a dozen cities, staying in hotels and reading to audiences of 50 to 1,000 people.
“Performing is a really great thing,” Boyle says. “My approach is to entertain the crowd. People aren’t used to hearing stories read aloud, and you have to cast a spell on them. I love the audience, and it’s a thrill to be in contact with them.”
Boyle even likes talking to the media. “I love to do interviews, I love to be on TV, radio,” he says. Now, though, “there aren’t as many press interviews anymore, of course, and we know the reason for that.”
Book tours used to be about local media. “You would go to these places to get reviews, interviews, TV and radio,” Miller explains, but with print outlets closing down and cutting coverage and new technologies enabling long-distance video interviews, “it is becoming less important to do that kind of tour.”
One-on-one with authors
Bookstores are also becoming harder to find. When its B. Dalton shut down this year, Laredo, Texas, population 200,000-plus, became the largest bookstore-less city in the United States. In January, when “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert came to Los Angeles to sign her new book, “Committed,” she wound up at Costco in Marina del Rey.
As the book tour takes on new shapes, what will it mean for writers -- and for readers? Authors like Boyle don’t just read -- they perform and stay until they’ve signed every book. They know the value of connection. But how will their lesser-known counterparts connect?
Take Dan Chaon. He’s not widely known, despite having been a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award and having benefited from a strong critical reception for his latest novel, “Await Your Reply.”
Chaon’s publisher sent him on a staggered book tour; he’d spend a couple of days in one region, return home to Ohio to teach at Oberlin, and then go out again. One section of the tour began, officially, in Naperville, outside Chicago, where he read to a respectable but underwhelming bookstore audience of 20.
Less officially, Chaon decamped after the reading to a bar in Chicago, where he charmed staffers from the city’s independent bookstores. “I’m still at the stage where if somebody really likes my work, I want to be their friend,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got relationships with booksellers and with readers who have written me e-mails, and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, thank you for writing, meet me at my reading for a drink.’ ”
Booksellers conduct one of the mysterious, essential transactions of the business: “handselling.” That’s when a staffer thinks of the perfect book and gets it in a customer’s hands. Booksellers can’t snow customers, because they won’t come back. Successful handselling can make a big difference in book sales; the connection between bookseller and author can make a big difference in whether or how enthusiastically books are handsold. For Chaon, then, selling a few books in Naperville is good; hanging out with Chicago booksellers is better.
The next morning, Chaon headed for the University of Iowa, home to the most esteemed writing program in the country. “Mr. State Trooper,” he murmured as he drove past a speed trap, “please don’t stop me.” He watched the rearview mirror, relaxing when no lights appeared.
Universities have speakers’ budgets, which can offset the cost of travel, but because publishers’ publicity departments and academic committees work on vastly different schedules, they haven’t collaborated much. It takes an insider like Chaon or Rebecca Skloot, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, to navigate the territory. Skloot, whose “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” intertwines journalism, race, class and medical ethics, built a 100-day book tour incorporating talks at medical institutes, creative writing classes and bookstores.
In Iowa City, Chaon spoke to students. He also read at the legendary Prairie Lights Bookstore, where he made sure to sign as many books as he could. Signing stock, as it’s called, is something publishers like: Booksellers often return unsold books for refunds, but signed books can’t be returned, so they’re as good as sold. It’s another reason to send authors on tour.
These days, however, you don’t need to visit a bookstore to sign stock. When Jonathan Safran Foer published “Eating Animals,” a nonfiction treatise on vegetarianism, he spent a couple of hours in a Midwest warehouse signing thousands of copies of the book. He had no problem drawing a standing-room-only crowd at Vroman’s in Pasadena but never made it to many of the stores selling signed editions of his book.
The future of literature
If things continue on their current trajectory, book tours will become striated by class. Elite authors will go where they can reach big audiences, while others will have to work the angles to propel a trip on the road.
It’s a shame because, for all the hoopla surrounding the latest celebrity memoir, readers are rarely drawn to books by hype machines. We get turned on by trusted friends, by the local bookseller, by a reading, even by a newspaper review. “It was exciting to get a lot of different reviews in regional newspapers,” Chaon says, “but it just doesn’t happen that much anymore.”
Technology can help, but it has limits. Reading an online Q&A with Walter Mosley isn’t the same as hearing him speak or waiting in line to shake his hand. If authors never get farther from home than they can travel in a day, they’ll have a hard time extending their reach; as readers, we’ll become increasingly provincial.
Something about the bookishness of a book creates a hunger for connection with the person who created it -- among devoted readers, that is. “I love literature, and I resent the fact that it’s got a declining role in our culture,” Boyle says. “I want to keep things going.”
Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times’ book blog.