The book tour, supercharged

Jodi Picoult (Photo credit Adam Bouska)
Jodi Picoult (Photo credit Adam Bouska)

You know the drill at the bookstore author event: A novelist reads to a dozen people, sometimes more, often fewer. Takes some questions from the audience (“Could you tell us about your process?”). Signs some books.

It’s become a well-worn routine for authors popular enough to command a book tour. But for a very select group of writers — the mega-bestsellers — something lies beyond. It’s not just an author event but a Special Event.

We’ll see an example of this supercharged literary extravaganza on Wednesday when Jodi Picoult comes to the Mead Center in Southwest Washington. The presentation, co-hosted by Random House and Good Housekeeping, offers fans a buffet dinner with wine, a chocolate tasting, live music and dancing, manicures, a fashion preview curated by Talbots, a tote bag and a very early copy — signed, of course — of Picoult’s upcoming novel, “Leaving Time.”

Clearly, this is no ordinary bookstore reading. But it all comes at no ordinary cost: $95 per person.

(Courtesy of Ballantine)
(Courtesy of Ballantine)

Theresa Zoro, director of publicity and communications at Random House, is quick to point out that the standard author tour is still alive and well. “This program is an added service for our authors and their readers,” she writes via e-mail. “These events are a fan experience — connecting author to reader and reader to reader because much feedback from readers has indicated this is something they want in addition to the author tour.”

Is this the beginning of a sea change in book marketing, something analogous to the way certain bands give their songs away and then make money by touring?

No, says Zoro. “To be clear, this is not a revenue-generating program, but part of the overall promotion for the book and author.”

It sounds like an effective one. Consider: At $95, the price is high enough to draw only the most devoted fans, and the lineup is special enough to turn each of those fans into a supercharged promoter weeks before the novel is officially released. (Tickets are still available.)

Zoro calls the program “innovative and wholly original,” and it clearly answers a demand for a more personal connection to a certain kind of celebrity author. Zoro points to a similar event that Random House conducted recently for another mega-bestseller: Diana Gabaldon. Five hundred people paid $150 to attend the Outlander Fan Retreat in Seattle a few days before “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” went on sale in June. (The novel is No. 4 on The Washington Post bestseller list.)

Once again, it wasn’t about making money from ticket sales; it was about exciting the base. “We even developed an app for this event,” Zoro says, “so the fans could start connecting with each other weeks before.”

Later this fall, Random House has a special event planned with Redbook magazine and the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa to launch Sophie Kinsella’s new novel, “Shopaholic to the Stars.” And the upcoming book tour for Lena Dunham’s memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl,” is designed to generate Major Buzz across the country.

But don’t worry if don’t have $150 or even $95 to see your favorite author in the flesh. Picoult will be back in Washington on Oct. 15 for an event at the National Geographic auditorium. (The plot of “Leaving Time” involves endangered Africa’s elephants.) Tickets start at $30; Politics & Prose will be the bookseller partner.

And remember, you can meet more than 100 of your favorite authors on Aug. 30 at the National Book Festival, the most spectacular literary event of the year — for free!

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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