On the Road No More: Book Tours Are Over

Among the most frequently voiced opinions about contemporary publishing-on a list that includes such truisms as “Nobody really edits anymore” and the ever-popular whine, “It got good reviews, why didn’t it sell?”-is the idea that every author should go on a book tour. Like visions of Maxwell Perkins holding a pen in one fist and a tortured writer’s hand in the other, the picture of an author facing a hall filled with avid readers hanging on his every word is irresistible.

Never mind that it’s also unrealistic and unrealizable.

I published my first book last month, and no sooner had the boxes arrived in the stores than people-those in publishing and those outside-began asking: When do you go on tour? How many cities are you going to? My answers: I was going on a tour-lette, to just a couple of places where I actually had some friends and thus could beat the drum and send mass e-mails and call in old favors to get people to show up-and oh, by the way, this was not necessarily an all-expenses-paid-by-the-publisher boondoggle, but rather a cobbled-together financial plan involving my publisher, the venues that were hosting me, my day job and my very own bank account. To some, this was all surprising: Surely, the thinking goes, if a publisher is really “behind” a book, the house will pony up the money and the arrangements for an author’s soon-to-be-triumphant national tour.

Yet while I have no doubt that Hyperion, say, has paid for publicists to cater to Steve Martin’s whims as he goes around the country flogging his beguiling new novel The Pleasure of My Company, or that HarperCollins is covering Gail Collins’ multi-city trip on behalf of America’s Women, I’m equally sure that most so-called “mid-list” authors-like, God-willing, me-aren’t getting the same treatment.

But this is not a complaint; it’s a fact. And besides, the publishers are right: In an age of dwindling local-newspaper book coverage, formidable Internet, radio and TV outlets and-let’s face it-strained budgets and stagnant (at best) book sales, most authors shouldn’t spend thousands of anybody’s dollars to show their faces in Cleveland-unless, of course, they happen to have grown up in Cleveland. It’s simply not cost-effective, especially since even the author of a book showing modest to decent sales will likely end up in a Barnes and Noble in Berkeley with only three audience members, two of whom are homeless.

“I’d rather they just gave me the money,” opined one such mid-list author whose name you’d know if only he’d let me use it. Or, better yet, spent the cash-and, not incidentally, the publicist’s energy-on ads, or on placement in stores, or on national radio coverage. “I’d spend days and days planning an author’s trip and arranging local TV shows in St. Louis-where we’d ultimately sell five books,” said a former book publicist. “It would take away from the time and energy I might have had to get the book on Charlie Rose or Fresh Air.”

But to authors, appearances-

especially public appearances-

remain important.

“I can’t tell you how many authors still believe a publisher’s love is measured by the number of cities on their book tour,” said Barb Burg, a senior vice president and director of publicity for the Bantam Dell Publishing Group. “I tell my authors, ‘You’ll know I really love you and care about your book when I spare you the humiliation of empty bookstores and lonely hotel rooms and spend our publicity time, energy and dollars on what’s best for the book.’”

That said, even the most harried publicist and frustrated author will agree that the human touch-a personally signed book at a reading or, maybe even more important, a friendly relationship between author, publisher and smart independent booksellers-never hurts sales. Yet it seems to me that you can establish those relationships without necessarily getting on a plane. My publisher, Putnam, brilliantly suggested that I send personal notes and signed books to booksellers around the country-some of whom I’ve met, thanks in part to my column in this paper-but also to many I have not. I’ve also been making a point of stopping in bookstores and signing stock; who knows if one of those “Autographed Copy” stickers might sway a wavering book buyer?

And yes, I’ve gone out of town, too-I’m writing this from a hotel room in Florida, in fact-but I doubt I’ll ever log as many miles as Jill Nelson, the journalist and author of Sexual Healing, who said at the Sarasota Reading Festival on Nov. 1 that she’s visited more than 20 cities since her book appeared last summer. Her novel-from tiny, brand-new Chicago-based publisher Agate-is doing well; it’s selling strongly and has been sold to the movies.

But is a book a hit because its author toured, or is a tour successful because the book’s a hit?