Years ago, when David Baldacci was setting out in the book-writing business, he received an invitation. A woman in Nebraska called and asked him to fly out and visit her book club. It had three members. “I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ She goes, ‘I’ll have pot roast for dinner.’ I said, ‘Terrific!’”
Baldacci told me his philosophy on book tours was pretty basic, back in the ’90s: “If anybody called up and said, ‘Would you come?’ I said yes.”
But what about now? I pressed him. When you can reach zillions of readers lounging around tweeting from your living room sofa? What’s the value of crisscrossing the country in person? We were at a packed event for Baldacci at Politics and Prose here in Washington, D.C.; I was one of the considerably-more-than-three people who turned up last autumn to hear him discuss his novel, “The Escape.”
“I don’t have to be here on a Saturday night,” he replied, eyeing me sternly. “I’ve sold all the books I ever have to sell. But…it’s far better to go out on book tour than it is to sit and tweet. I lament the fact that publishers don’t send out novelists as much as they used to. It’s expensive, but it’s money well worth it.”
Days after our exchange, “The Escape” hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, so let’s assume the guy is on to something. The book tour ain’t dead yet.
I had an ulterior motive in quizzing Baldacci. My second novel was about to be released, and I needed ammo to persuade my own publisher to send me on tour. The campaign worked. I’ve spent the last few months delivering book talks from Atlanta to Seattle to Damariscotta, Maine. Some of the travel has been on Simon & Schuster’s dime; some has been on mine. Has it been worth it? In short, do book tours sell books? Well, yes and no. Yes, I’ve sold books to people who wouldn’t otherwise have bought them. No, I almost certainly haven’t sold enough to recoup the plane and hotel bills.
Personally, I share the view that it’s preferable to meet readers in person than to tweet at them from your sofa. Writing a book is a rewarding but lonely affair. Every few years it’s good to have an excuse to change out of your pajamas, emerge blinking from your cave, and interact with actual human beings. So mark me firmly in the camp of those who hope the institution of the book tour persists. Whether it will depends on market forces larger than any of us writers, or our readers, can predict: whether the remaining publishing giants figure out how to turn a profit, whether indie bookstores find ways to prosper, when some tech whiz will get around to inventing a way for authors to sign people’s Kindles.
Meanwhile, traipsing around the country this summer, signing and shaking hands and chatting with readers at events large and small, I learned a few things. Tips, if you will, for what makes a good book tour.
We might as well enjoy the party while it lasts.
1. Don’t read aloud from your book.
It may be called a book reading, but people do not want to spend an evening listening to you stumble through prose they’re perfectly capable of reading for themselves. Instead, tell the story of how you found your agent. (Everyone secretly wants an agent.) Tell the funniest story you heard this week, book-related or no. If you absolutely must read, pick a provocative bit. I favor a seduction scene from late in “The Bullet.” My protagonist — sheathed in tight jeans, lips painted ruby red — is whispering to a man about car engines and guns. She leans against a pickup truck, talking fast, letting his eyes trace her curves. “Keep reading,” moaned a man in the back at my San Francisco reading. “Please don’t stop.” He bought three hardcover copies.
2. Give your event a killer title.
If you can work in the words “wine,” “coffee” or “doughnuts,” so much the better. A Texas friend hosts signings with fellow female writers under the banner, “Wine, Women and Mystery.” Count me in. Or, take KramerBooks in Dupont Circle, which recently invited customers to crime-fiction readings headlined “Noir at the Bar” and—more alluring still—“Dames at Dusk.” They could very well have titled this last event, “Seven Women Read Excerpts from Their Books.” Which one would you make time for?
3. Embrace your inner traveling salesperson.
Schlepping suitcases of books around in rental cars is not the most dignified aspect of the literary life. Get over it. Being an author today means writing books; it also means selling them. Publishing lore has it that “Valley of the Dolls” author Jacqueline Susann and her husband, Irving Mansfield, perfected the modern book tour back in the 1960s. “The invasion of Normandy was child’s play compared to the way Jackie and Irving orchestrated a media blitz,” sniffed a former publicist, in a Times piece that ran after the author’s death. “Nothing escaped them, nothing was an accident.” The couple even sweetened up the truckers who delivered Susann’s books with doughnuts.
4. Implore the vendor to stock twice as many books as you could possibly sell.
Because you just never know. The first time I spoke at the Atlanta History Center, they sold out of my book before I set foot on stage. Interns were sent scurrying to Barnes & Noble to procure more copies. It was sorely tempting to pronounce the evening “mission accomplished,” scrap the talk and escape with my brother for a celebratory cocktail. In hindsight, this might have been a good call, because it was at this same reading that my four-inch stiletto pierced through a seam in the stage, pitching me forward, nearly knocking me off the stage, and requiring a dramatic rescue by a family friend in the front row. (Thank you, Dan.)
5. Don’t wear stilettos.
6. Don’t say yes to every invitation.
Another writer once forwarded me this headline from the Onion: “Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It’s Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People.” I giggled. It’s a funny article, right up until the moment it becomes your life. For me that moment came in the city where I now live. I have friends here, dammit. I had promoted the hell out of the event on social media. Five people showed, one of whom I am married to. Why? Sometimes there is no why. But in my case, the signing in question was my fourth in D.C., and that might have been one too many. Fans and friends—even really good friends—get tired. So pick and choose wisely. And should it happen to you: Take a deep breath, deliver a storming book talk and then let your spouse steer you to the nearest bar for a double martini.
7. Say yes to every invitation.
The counter-argument comes from Jenny Milchman, who found time to write three mysteries while pulling off the self-proclaimed “World’s Longest Book Tour.” When Milchman published her first novel in 2013, she and her husband rented out their house, yanked their kids out of school to “car school” them for seven months and scheduled nearly 200 signings. “I’ve done plenty of events where there’s one person in the room,” she told me cheerfully, when I called to check how the latest leg is going. “But maybe that one person turns out to be the book reviewer for the Miami Herald.”
Here’s the bottom line: unless your last name is Grisham, you’ll have events where the only folks who show are your mother and your agent. You’ll have events where not one person buys a book. (There is a special circle in hell for people who turn up at readings with a library copy and ask you to sign their bookmark.)
And then, the very next night—some mysterious alchemy, stars in distant galaxies aligning—your book sells out before you step onto the stage.
I pondered all this the other day as I bought my ticket for Salman Rushdie. He’s in town next month to promote his new novel. The venue is on track to sell out, 800 tickets, a crowd packed to the rafters.
Do book tours sell books? I’ll ask him.