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Book tour? More like a safari

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

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.

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