Most authors will tell you that book tours -- those cross-country promotional jaunts their publishers send them on every time they produce a new tome -- are hell. They tell you this because, frankly, authors would like you to think their lives are full of angst and woe and that a book tour is just another in a long line of unreasonable burdens placed on them by avaricious publishers.
In fact, book tours are actually kind of fun. You get to stay in nice hotels, you are driven everywhere in big silver cars, you are treated as if you are much more important than you really are, you can eat steak three times a day at someone else's expense, and you get to talk endlessly about yourself for days at a stretch. Is this a dream come true or what?
I have done two of these tours in just under a year -- once last September for Harper & Row for a book called "The Lost Continent" and another last month for William Morrow for a book called "The Mother Tongue." Between the two, I spent five weeks on the road, visited 16 cities (several of them twice), flew several thousand miles and gave, at a rough estimate, 12,816 mostly identical interviews.
It was a memorable experience, not least because it showed me a side of American life I scarcely knew existed. I had never before stayed in a really fancy hotel, never ordered room service, never called on the assistance of a valet, never tipped a doorman.
Thanks to an innate stinginess that permeated his every pore, my father always took us to the cheapest, dreariest motels imaginable when I was growing up -- the sort of places that made the Bates Motel in "Psycho" look cheery and urbane -- and when I was traveling around the country gathering material for "The Lost Continent" (which, I should explain, is an account of a long drive across America I made after living in England for several years) I sought out the same sort of places, partly out of inherited miserliness and partly because it was all I could afford at the time.
So you can imagine the delirium of joy I experienced at finding myself in hotels where there were fluffy bathrobes in the closets, beds the size of tennis courts, and marble-walled bathrooms brimming with complimentary shampoos, lotions, shower caps, sewing kits and other engaging keepsakes. Some, like the Omni Berkshire in New York and the Beverly Hills Hotel, provided lavish baskets of fruit and bottles of wine. Two even had elevator attendants, surely the most preposterous waste of a human resource yet thought of.
The great revelation to me was room service. I grew up thinking that ordering from the room service menu was the ultimate sign of a gracious lifestyle, so when a publicity person at Harper & Row suggested that I make free use of it, I jumped at the chance. In doing so, I discovered something that you doubtless already knew: Room service is terrible.
I ordered room service meals at least a dozen times in hotels all over the country, and it was almost always dire. The food would take a year to get there and it was usually cold and leathery. I was always fascinated by how much effort went into the presentation -- the white tablecloths, the vase with a rose in it, the ostentatious removal of the silver lids from each plate -- and how little went into keeping the food warm and palatable. At the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco, I particularly remember, the waiter whipped away a silver lid to reveal a bowl of white goo.
"What's that?" I asked.
He scrutinized it. "Vanilla ice cream, I believe, sir."
"But it's melted."
"Yes, it has," he agreed. "Enjoy," he added with a bow, pocketing my tip and withdrawing.
Some of these hotels have been in business for more than a century. You would think by now they would have contrived a way to get a tray of food from the basement to the eighth floor without killing it, but evidently not. And it's so expensive. At the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, I was so dumbfounded by the room service prices that I wrote some of them down: $4 for a bowl of corn flakes, $3.25 for an order of toast. But that's just for starters, because the hotels invariably add a minimum delivery service charge, a non-optional gratuity and sales tax.
The most outrageous grand total I reached was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where a steak sandwich, french fries and a Diet Coke came to almost $30 with tip. The Beverly Hills has further refined things by asking you to give not one tip but two. Every bill comes with a blank space for the waiter's gratuity and another for the captain's gratuity. (I always wrote in the captain's space: "See waiter.")
Of course, book tours aren't all lounging around in swank hotel rooms, watching HBO and eating melted ice cream. You also have to give interviews, which is more tiring than you might expect. I read somewhere that it costs publishers $1,000 a day to keep an author on the road, so they are naturally eager to get you in front of as many microphones as they can.
Often you begin at 6 in the morning and give interviews more or less continuously until bedtime (hence the frequent resorting to room service). It's quite a treadmill. At any time, scores of authors are on the circuit -- Greg Mowery of William Morrow told me that he sometimes has 30 authors on the road at once -- going to more or less the same radio and TV stations in the same cities. It's a disconcerting experience to keep running into the same writers day after day in radio station waiting rooms in cities thousands of miles apart.
Almost all publishers provide their authors with a cohort in each city who whisks you with admirable efficiency from one interview to the next, thus sparing you having to do any actual thinking. The general pattern is for the escort to drop you at the airport late each afternoon so you can catch your flight to the next city, where more often than not you have to undergo one last late-night talk show before crawling gratefully into bed.
The interviews themselves weren't so bad, but then I was lucky. Before sending me on the road, Harper & Row dispatched me to one of New York's leading media trainers, an endlessly nice man named Bill Parkhurst, who didn't so much train me in the art of answering questions (and it is quite an art) as simply spend two intensive days telling me exactly what it would be like. He pointed out certain fundamental truths about interviews that seem obvious on reflection but struck me as revelations -- for instance, that you, rather than the interviewer, are essentially in control of the conversation.
"If you want to talk about making cupcakes," Parkhurst told me, "but the interviewer asks you about capital punishment, all you have to do is say, 'Well, I don't know about that, Frank, but let me tell you an interesting thing about making cupcakes,' and he has no choice but to go with you." This proved to be a great comfort to me on many occasions.
Parkhurst's great virtue was that not only had he worked in television and radio, but he's also an author and has been on book tours himself, so he knows exactly what it's like. And I've never met anyone better at conjuring up hypothetical situations. He would say: "Okay, now we're going to do a three-minute interview with a guy who hasn't looked at your book until 10 seconds ago and doesn't know whether it's a cookbook or a book about prisonreform. Also, this guy loves the sound of his own voice and will interrupt you frequently. Okay, let's go."
He would click his stopwatch and we would do a three-minute interview. Then we would do it again. And again. By the end of the second day my tongue was hanging out. "Now you know what you'll feel like at the end of the second day of your tour," Parkhurst observed cheerfully.
"What's it like after 21 days?" I said.
Parkhurst smiled. "Don't even ask."
In the event, it wasn't so bad. As Parkhurst had predicted, most of the interviewers had never even looked at the book. One or two were wondrously underprepared, considering this was what they did for a living -- notably a young lady in Milwaukee who ran out of prepared questions halfway through a 30-minute television interview and ended up asking me things like the names and ages of my children and whether we had any pets, which I expect the viewers of Milwaukee were just gasping to learn. Toward the end we had long periods of just smiling at each other. I half expected her to say: "Have you got a little song you could sing for us?"
Afterward, I asked her when the program would be airing. "Six a.m. on Sunday," she said. Clearly this was not going to be a big career move for either of us.
That the interviewers seldom read the book isn't so much a reflection of their intelligence as of their workload. One disc jockey in San Francisco told me that he interviewed 1,500 authors a year, so it is hardly surprising if he isn't thoroughly acquainted with each writer's work. Most, however, are impressively proficient at winging it. By far the two best interviewers I came across were Tom Snyder and Larry King, neither of whom, I am pretty certain, had read my book, but who both managed to ask pertinent, intelligent questions. You soon come to appreciate that asking good questions is even more of an art than answering them.
The repetition of answering the same questions in the same way perhaps 20 times in a day is literally mind-numbing. You begin to lose track of what you've said to whom. Again and again I found myself launching into a lengthy anecdote only to be struck by the sudden unnerving thought: "Did I just say this?"
Often interviews are given in unpropitious circumstances. I particularly remember doing a lunchtime radio interview from a pay phone in a hotel in Philadelphia. The phone was just outside the men's room, so the interview was conducted against a background of flushing toilets and alarmingly candid conversations.
Throughout much of it I had a man tugging at my sleeve saying, "Hey, buddy, how much longer you gonna be?"
But the most unsettling experience by far came late in my first tour in Denver, where, for reasons that will always remain a mystery to me, I was required to rise at 5:30 in the morning, descend to the hotel lobby and do a remote interview with a TV station across town. Why they didn't have me go to the studio I do not know. Instead I had to sit for 45 minutes in an armchair, barely awake, with a tiny microphone in my ear, while a cameraman and sound man stood sleepily watching me. Suddenly, without warning, a bright light was shining in my face, the cameraman was gesturing vigorously at me, a manically cheerful but barely audible voice was speaking somewhere deep inside my head and I realized I was on the air.
Trying hard not to look like someone who has just woken up in a strange place, I stumbled doggedly through the interview and actually felt, as the lights faded and the sound man plucked the microphone from my ear, that I had handled it well. For the first time, I felt like a veteran. Afterward, as I was going into the snack bar for a well-earned cup of coffee, a man came up to me and said, "Hey, I just saw you on TV."
I was quietly delighted. "Oh, really?" I said. "What did you think?"
"Put it this way," said the man, laying a friendly hand on my shoulder. "I wouldn't give up the writing job."
Bill Bryson is an American who lives in Yorkshire.