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Book tour? More like a safari

AUTHORS & IDEAS

With publisher publicity departments backing away from traditional author tours, writers are left to their own devices (and strangers' couches).

March 07, 2010|By Carolyn Kellogg
(J.T. Steiny / For The Times )

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.

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