Author readings and book tours are not an essential component of the writing or publishing processes, and so these events have long been associated with a kind of miasmic purposelessness. Go to your basic reading and sit in the back row, where if you squint, you will see above the head of almost everyone involved—the writer(s)/reader(s), the audience, the publicist, the bookseller, the sales clerk(s) who set up the chairs and must wait around to take them down before heading out to an indie-rock show, the local reporter doing a trend piece on the decline of readings—a clump of thought bubbles bumping up against each other like trapped balloons, all imprinted with slight variations of the same theme, namely: “Why are we here?”
Writers (and to varying extent, their publishers) have long struggled to justify the relevance of readings, both to themselves and to prospective audience members. In 450 BC, for example, when Herodotus (a.k.a. “The Father of Lies”) published his nine-volume epic The Histories and soon after announced his intention to read from his work at an outdoor café/independent bookstore in Halicarnassus, he sent out the following message by runner: “You guys, I’m reading on Tuesday night—hope you can make it!—there’s going to be free booze ☺” To which his best friend nevertheless responded, also by runner: “Sorry, I’m going to be out of town ☹” which (although the record is unclear) we can assume was a lie, given that the event in question conflicted with a much-anticipated television broadcast of Sophocles’ Ἠλέκτρα.
Yet writers continue to promote their events, with or without the help of their publishers—and occasionally, the stars align and the event in question is deemed a success, or at least not a complete disaster. Here with advice, lessons learned as well as horror stories of readings and book tours past are authors Shane Jones, Laurie Weeks, Charles Yu, Tao Lin, Sheila McClear, Jon Michaud and myself; publicists Lauren Cerand and Brian Ulicky; and event organizer Jennie Portnof.
After my first novel, Light Boxes, was picked up by Penguin (it was originally published by the incredible Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius), one of the first questions my parents asked was, “Are you going to go on a book tour?” This question seems like a kind of knee-jerk reaction, because I’m not sure what people outside of publishing and writing would ask other than this or how much money you’re going to get. It’s nice to be able to say, “Yes, I’m going on tour.” And if your family ever asks about book money always tell them, “One million dollars.”
I’ve disliked giving readings in the past. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I always wanted to go on a book tour. When you’re submitting flash fiction to Kitty Fart Face Review and you see another writer going on a twelve-city tour with a novel, you too want that. You kind of crave it, even if you deny yourself in expressing it. The basic idea of readings connects to the ego in all of our little writer bellies. We want to be read and heard. After spending so much time fucking around alone, forming words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into a novel that someone is willing to publish (they believe in you!), it kind of feels good to stand up and let people see you.
I did a solo six-city tour for my first book that was paid for by the publisher (I believe the budget was $5,000, which, thinking about it now, seems incredible and reckless that they would do such a thing). I live in Albany New York. Here are the cities I read in, in the order I visited, how I got there, and the most memorable thing I can remember without trying to think too hard:
• Albany (drove myself; made eye contact with my mom in the audience).
• Boston (plane; before reading sat in a bar alone and ate a hamburger served on an English muffin).
• New York City (train; was 100 degrees outside).
• Portland (plane; during the Q&A a man asked if I was surprised when Spike Jonze bought the film option. I said no, that I expected it. Not sure he picked up on the sarcasm, felt like an asshole).
• Seattle (train; read in what was possibly the basement of the bookstore).
• Los Angeles (plane; drinking three cups of coffee—not a good idea before a reading)
• Back to Albany (plane; last person to board the plane, sat between two massive dudes reading James Patterson).
My publisher was supportive during the publishing process and tour. There’s a weird vibe for a debut novel: this build up a few months prior to publication, where everyone wants you to do well, visions of solid sales numbers and great reviews. But the reality (and I’m trying hard not to be cynical sounding here) is that the publication day comes, the first tour date lands, and it’s just like every other day except you have a book to hold and read from. Which makes the “we’re sending you on a book tour” such a crazy hopeful thing for a publisher to do and I’m pretty grateful for it.
The single worst experience I had on tour was my reading in Albany. No one showed up besides my family and a few friends. When I say my family showed up I don’t mean my mom. I mean my mom, dad, grandmother, sister, aunt, uncle, three cousins, etc. It was great (they were there to support me) but also embarrassing because no one else was there. Where were my fans? To make it worse, the bookstore did no introduction (the clerk told me: “Go ahead, whenever”) and I had to slowly walk up to the podium, introduce myself to my family, and read. The best way I can describe this experience is to picture having a dream where you’re reading some fiction you wrote while standing on top of the dining room table in your parent’s house during your little brother’s birthday party.
As I’m writing this, one big question looms: are readings worth it? That is, do people buy books and connect with the author and all those things the publisher wants to happen, do they actually happen? Yes, people buy books. On my tour, I believe I sold books to people who normally wouldn’t have bought the book. Does it make up for the expenses paid by the publisher? No way. I can’t see how, and maybe that’s why for my second novel Penguin won’t be sending me on a tour. Did I connect with people? I don’t know. Maybe? It’s a hard question to answer. I think I connected with a few people who thought I was a decent real human being and the connection (not just lonely reader and invisible author) maybe gets a little deeper, changes in weird and cool ways.
I’m glad I went on my book tour. It’s kind of a dream scenario for writers (especially having everything paid for), but it’s also humbling. The largest crowd I had was maybe thirty people. The others I averaged between 10-15, and who knows how many of them were bookstore staff or distant family relatives.
Here’s some advice I need to say in relation to book promotion and readings: don’t take it too seriously. Book publicity in general is complete chaos. From my experience, it’s a guessing game and no one has any idea what’s going to sell. Face it, not many people are going to care about your book. Worry about writing a book that you love. Why 50,000 people buy a book compared to 5,000 people for another book is anyone’s guess. So, if you’re going to go on a book tour and give readings, remember to have fun. I think I took myself too seriously. When signing the few copies for “fans” I looked toward the registers to see if people were buying my book. That’s silly. I feel embarrassed for doing that. I wish I would have relaxed more, maybe took some pictures.
Next: Laurie Weeks explains her freeing Theory of Total Humiliation.