FRANKFURT, GERMANY -- In the old days, novelists could measure their appeal only through the size of their royalty checks. They stayed home, behind the typewriter where they belonged, while the publisher's salesmen went from store to store and city to city hawking their latest.
Recently, though, everything went topsy-turvy. The chains have centralized ordering, while many of the independent stores acquire new stock through distributors. Consequently, there are fewer traveling salesmen. This means it's fallen to the novelist himself to make the case for his new work, a process that takes weeks or months.
Or even, in the case of Kazuo Ishiguro, years.
His third novel, "The Remains of the Day," appeared 17 months ago in Britain. Critics called the story, cast in the form of a memoir by an aging English butler, a dazzling work of literature. In America last fall, the reception was equally ecstatic. That creates a certain momentum, but to keep it going -- and extend it to other countries -- it's essential to make the circuit.
"I've been doing very little except publicity. I haven't written anything since 1988," Ishiguro says over a cup of miserable coffee in one of the many cafes that dot the campuslike grounds of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
He came to this combination literary festival and business meeting, which ended yesterday, for his German publisher, Rowolt. The past two days have involved standing at the crowded Rowolt booth, meeting, greeting and shaking hands like a politician running for office. Ishiguro has given five interviews to German journalists. And there was a lunch with another press contingent. Then there are the parties where his attendance is necessary.
"I was in Brazil. Then a 2 1/2-week tour of the United States," Ishiguro says with a small smile. "I got back over the weekend, I came here. I have in front of me a trip to Barcelona to promote the Spanish edition, then a trip to Italy in November. I have invitations outstanding from places like Hawaii, Czechoslovakia, Mexico."
His accent is precisely British middle-class. Some readers have assumed Ishiguro's spare style was greatly influenced by Japanese poetry, an assertion almost as off-base as thinking that his work is translated into English. His family left Japan when he was 5, in 1960. Three decades later, he looks like a slightly disheveled college student and is acclaimed as a master of contemporary prose. Nowhere in his quiet, elliptical and quite moving novels is there an irony as broad as the one he's now living.
As he explains it: "There's a lot of people out there organizing book festivals and readings, ostensibly to celebrate literature. In doing so, they impede the writing of the books they're celebrating. I actually find myself arguing with these people. This afternoon there was a very pleasant lady trying to persuade me to come to this book festival in Guadalajara. When an author says he wants to write a book, you shouldn't spend 15 minutes talking him out of it."
He is good-humored about this, although he twice makes the point that for a writer to be deprived of time to write is like an athlete being starved of exercise. But after all, these are the problems of success. Many novelists are never asked to tour, their books not having that initial groundswell of interest or their personalities not being as promotable. It helped that "The Remains of the Day" won the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award and one with a small but recognizable influence in the States. Hardback sales in America, where no one would have suspected an interest in butlers, were a remarkable 60,000 copies.
Extended tours create a kind of camaraderie among those similarly afflicted. As Ishiguro made his way last month from New York to Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, "Joy Luck Club" author Amy Tan made him lunch at her house, while Allan Gurganus ("Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All") passed along a music tape to cheer him up. At these encounters, the talk would focus on life on the run -- "the lack of hair dryers in certain hotel rooms," as Ishiguro puts it.
There's a kind of fatalism here. For one thing, contracts can now make a certain number of public appearances mandatory. So you've got to look for compensations.
"I've sometimes gone places as a tourist," Ishiguro says, "and it's very difficult to find one or even two people who actually live there to talk to you, to answer questions like, 'What happens in these shantytowns we're driving through?' But you can ask that question of eight or nine people a day on this kind of tour. You'll get interesting responses too, whereas a person a tourist might ask, a doorman or a tour guide, would be likely to give a flip answer."
There's more. Even within the relatively limiting confines of a book tour, you can begin to get a sense of how that culture functions. America, for example, possesses the most diffuse approach of any country to authors and books. To sell there, Ishiguro believes, something akin to an old-fashioned grass-roots political campaign is needed. A writer has to get out the votes.
"In America, you're dealing with a continent, not a single community. You don't have national papers. So bookstores form a crucial thread and are cultural centers the way they aren't elsewhere. Some are almost churchlike, where people drive for miles to come to meet others interested in books. The employees are like priests -- they recommend books and people go away with boxes, and drive 40 miles back to where they live in the wilderness."
If the stores are churches and the employees priests, that leaves only one possible role for the novelists themselves. But people aren't going to buy a book after a reading, or invite you to their festival, or host an autograph party in their store, if they don't like you. Aren't there perils to being worshiped?
Of course, Ishiguro says, dismissing the question. Then he adds: "The impulse of a writer is to be published and read as widely as possible. That's what this is all about." And then he goes off in search of his next appointment.