Book tours -- what are they good for?

Sara Nelson, whose book is in my "to be read when I finish the Stephen King and also have some time pile" wonders.

In an age of dwindling local-newspaper book coverage, formidable Internet, radio and TV outlets and—let’s face it—strained budgets and stagnant (at best) book sales, most authors shouldn’t spend thousands of anybody’s dollars to show their faces in Cleveland—unless, of course, they happen to have grown up in Cleveland. It’s simply not cost-effective, especially since even the author of a book showing modest to decent sales will likely end up in a Barnes and Noble in Berkeley with only three audience members, two of whom are homeless.

I've been lucky in my life as an author -- lucky to have a publisher that believed in my books, gave them gorgeous covers, great placement, and supported them with advertising, publicity, and major tours.

After two books, three nationwide tours, and one mini-tour when IN HER SHOES came out in paperback and Lucy was eight weeks old, I've had about every on the road experience you can imagine, from the large, loving, enthusiastic crowd of fans waiting patiently in line to just say Hi, to the crowd of zero.

Or, worse, the crowd of one, where the one sits patiently through your whole reading, your store of anecdotes, your song and your dance, and then declines to buy even one copy of the book, instead drifting toward the door with the vague promise of, "Well, maybe I'll try to get my library to buy a copy."

For the most part, I love being on the road. Writing's a solitary business, and I enjoy the part of the year where I get to travel around, hang out in bookstores and talk to real people instead of sitting by myself in a coffee shop having dialogues with people who exist only on the page, and in my head.

But even the best book tour can be an exercise in frustration, full of days where you shlep three hours to a bookstore in the middle of nowhere to sing for your supper in front of an audience consisting entirely of bookstore employees and ladies who lunch (but don't, they'll be happy to tell you, buy books in hardcover), or wannabe writers who'll pump you for every detail of the story of how you sold your first novel, up to and including your agent's social security number, and then leave without buying.

Given the world as it is, what else is a well-meaning publisher to do?

The problem is one of supply and demand: every author of any book wants to be on TV. The View, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, you name it, and we've had vivid, extended fantasies of Barbara Walters leaning toward us with a solicitous gleam in her eye, saying, "Jennifah Weiner! If you were a twee, what kind of twee would you be?"

Okay, maybe that's just me.

Anyhow, there are many, many, many more authors who'd love to get booked on television than there are television shows willing and able to accomodate us. The sad truth is, unless you've written some particularly relevant non-fiction (i.e., unless you are a partisan mudslinger who is either a very telegenic blonde or Michael Moore), or fiction with a particularly relevant non-fiction hook, or a diet book, or you're lucky enough to be a Today Show/GMA pick -- or an Oprah pick, which means you're dead and hence, not so lucky -- television doesn't want to know from you.

So given the dwindling number of media outlets that even cover books and publishing, what can a well-meaning publisher do to indicate her faith in/love of/passion for your book, and desire to increase its sales?

Why, ship your butt to Cleveland. Or Dayton. Or Nashville, or Birmingham.

Touring isn't cheap, but it's not as prohibitively expensive as full-page ads in Your Favorite Publication Here.

And touring can have a ripple effect, the kind an author might not see the night she's reading to an audience of two vagrants and a distracted-looking bookstore manager.

If a bookstore hosts a reading, it's got to buy a decent number of your books. If they buy them, they might be motivated to sell them -- to give them good placement, to talk them up to customers and put them in the hands of browsers, particularly if you've made friends with the managers and clerks, and signed every available copy of your book that you can find.

Sure, there are alternatives -- but they can backfire, too. Nelson writes that her publisher "brilliantly suggested that I send personal notes and signed books to booksellers around the country—some of whom I’ve met, thanks in part to my column in this paper—but also to many I have not."

I've done that, too . . . and had the horrific experience of walking into a small independent bookstore in Seattle to sign stock, only to find the book that I'd so lovingly, personally inscribed to the bookseller . . . on sale. ("It looks like I've signed this one already," I said sweetly, laying it in front of the sheepish-looking manager). The whole nice-note-to-the-booksellers didn't feel quite so brilliant at that particular moment.

Book tours might not be as clear-cut of a cause-and-effect proposition as authors would wish, but given the circumstances, they aren't likely to go anywhere.

And if they suck, I think that authors have to bear part of the responsibility.

I go to lots of readings, and too many of them feature an author standing uneasily at a podium droning through a chapter -- an entire chapter, which usually lasts fifteen minutes longer than the audience's attention span -- in voice leached of expression and emotion, sounding, for all the world, like an eighth-grader sulking in the back of the class who's been called on against his or her wishes.

Some of them are newbies. Some of them are big-deal bestsellers -- writers you'd think would know better.

They don't.

Writers who are lucky enough to be sent on tours owe it to themselves, and their publishers, to at least try to make an effort to be engaging, interesting, and entertaining.

And publishers preparing to ship their writers to Cleveland and points beyond owe it to themselves, and their authors, to make sure the writer is ready for his or her close-up, and offer constructive criticism if he or she isn't.