By the time Harley Jane Kozak arrives at the Barnes & Noble bookstore for her 7:30 p.m. reading, the stage is set. Two rows of chairs borrowed from the cafe face a low table stacked with copies of her recently published second mystery novel, "Dating Is Murder." The seats, to Kozak's relief, are filled, but many of the faces are familiar -- a niece and her young husband, some friends, loose acquaintances, a former chauffeur from Kozak's acting days and four people with whom she has corresponded by e-mail.
Of the 19 people facing her, only six are strangers, which is not exactly what Kozak is after. The idea is to build a fan base among people who will buy her book for reasons other than personal loyalty, or even because they remember her career acting in soaps, movies ("Parenthood" and "When Harry Met Sally," among them) and TV pilots that crashed on takeoff.
But the event still works, because part of Kozak's mission is to sow seeds. Kozak comes from a big family -- she has seven bothers and sisters -- and has developed an even wider circle of friends, and on this weeklong seven-city tour, she hopes to marshal them all -- family, friends and fans -- into an unsuspecting army of Johnny Appleseeds to help spread the word.
Kozak's writing career might hang in the balance. "Dating Is Murder" winds up her two-book deal with Doubleday, although her first, "Dating Dead Men," recently won an Agatha Award for best first novel. "My next book really is contingent upon how many people buy this book," says Kozak, who also scheduled a series of short forays to such places as San Mateo, San Diego and Scottsdale, Ariz. (With more than 70,000 of Kozak's books in print, Doubleday publicist Rachel Pace says she can't go on record with any contract details at this time, "but can say we are extremely pleased with how we've published Harley thus far.")
For many authors, the book tour is a literary Bataan Death March of long days, uncertain meals and strange beds; interviewers who didn't crack your book; and skeptical readers. "That doesn't sound like a lot of giggles," one woman drawled earlier in the day as she looked at the stack of copies of "Dating Is Murder" Kozak was about to sign at a Borders store here.
And then when the day's over, after a dinner that started at 9 p.m. and with a plane reservation for 8 the next morning, you try to connect with your real life back in Topanga Canyon, the hiss of cellular technology crossing time zones to deliver the heart pang that even though your children miss you and your husband reports there's no milk in the house, things at home are going on nicely without you.
"Those little things nibble at my mind," says Kozak, 48. "They're getting along without me, and I guess that's a relief.... Then I worry that they're going to be mad at me for having left. I'm so glad that this is only 10 days out of the year. If I had to do this on a regular basis, I don't think I could do it."
On the road
In a sense, this is the old-fashioned way to build a writing career. With travel becoming increasingly expensive and technology making it cheaper to link authors and readers in ever more inventive ways, the tradition of the writer physically going out to press the flesh has faded. There are fewer Kozaks -- new writers hoping to stake out a readership -- out on the road these days. When they do tours, the trips tend to be shorter and closer to where the author lives or where the book is set, hoping to play off local interest.
"What we have learned is that if you are going to go out on tour with basically an unknown author and set up a book-signing, chances are you'll have two to five people show up," says Justin Loeber, publicity director for Simon & Schuster. "It's just not very cost-effective."
Instead, publicity campaigns are increasingly built on satellite television and radio interviews, in which an author can spend one morning doing half a dozen on-air interviews from one studio; interviews on the Web; phone interviews with local newspapers; visits with buyers for bookstore chains; and the occasional gimmick. For Kozak's book, Doubleday is offering a $5 discount to people who buy both the new hardcover and a paperback copy of her first mystery.
One new tack merges readings -- traditionally rather sedate affairs in bookstores -- and a night on the town. Last month, four first-time novelists collectively toured bars around the country, including Los Angeles' Cafe-Club Fais Do-Do. Book Soup added dinner to a reading at the club last week by Chuck Palahniuk from his new short story collection, "Haunted."