Sitting in the Denver Airport one morning in January, waiting for a plane to take him to Los Angeles, Jim Fergus could have passed for a traveling salesman, right down to the carry-on and the frazzled look of a man who was out late entertaining clients. And that's exactly what he had been doing. But Fergus is not a salesman, at least not usually. Most days he's a novelist. And his "clients" were booksellers who met him for dinner at the Tattered Cover bookstore's restaurant, the Fourth Story. His merchandise was his latest novel, "The Wild Girl"--and himself.
Fergus had just finished the first leg of what publishers call a presell tour, the latest weapon in the never-ending campaign to persuade readers to buy something besides John Grisham and Dan Brown. The idea is to send writers out months before their books appear. They dine with booksellers and try to persuade them to help the book when it comes out. It's usually not an easy gig, says Robert Miller, president of Hyperion, Fergus's publisher, because "most writers are introverts." But if Fergus is uncomfortable in the role of Willy Loman, it doesn't show. "Writing the novels, especially in this age, is only part of the job," he says. "Selling them is the rest of it. What's the point of being a prima donna? So I'm out there pounding the pavement, shamelessly hawking my wares."
Presell tours began in the '90s--"Cold Mountain" 's Charles Frazier was one of the first writers to get such treatment--but they didn't get real traction until the last few years, when conventional book tours, where authors read and sign books for customers, began to fade. Ken Wilson, a Los Angeles author escort, says he drove 245 authors on tour in 2000, his record high. Last year it was 160.
In "The Wild Girl," a literary but accessible tale written by a personable author, Hyperion saw the perfect combination for a presell tour. Fergus's adventure story is built around a haunting kernel of history: 50 years after Geronimo surrendered, a remnant of Apaches still survived in the mountains of Mexico. Beautifully told, "The Wild Girl" might have found a sizable audience on its own. But in a climate of flat book sales, Hyperion decided to give Fergus some help. "Booksellers knew of Jim," Miller says, "but a lot didn't know him personally."
With "The Wild Girl" hitting stores next week, Hyperion is happy. "We expected orders of around 20,000," says Miller. "We've got around 30,000 so far." But, he cautions, "advance orders are not the main reason we do this. We want to create enthusiasm that keeps growing down the line." Elaine Petrocelli, who runs the Book Passage stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended one of the Fergus dinners. After meeting him, she hiked her order from one case of books to five and made "The Wild Girl" one of her Elaine's Picks. Petrocelli says she's currently inundated by presell invitations--"I'm invited to five dinners this week. I'll go to two"--and worries that publishers will flood the market. But when these tours are done right, she says, there's no better way to introduce an author. What's doing it right? Here's a marker: she remembers Fergus well. As for what she ate, "it's all a blur."