The Hard Sell

In the middle of a 20-city book tour, E. Lynn Harris is getting just a mite frayed. At the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore in Atlanta, he has read from his new best seller, "Any Way the Wind Blows," his seventh novel full of racy bisexual romance. He has answered questions from the 300 adoring fans, some from as far away as Alabama and North Carolina. Now he is signing books, and he lays down a few ground rules for the customers who hold copies not just of the new book but of his previous novels as well. "I will sign all of your books," he says, "but I'll only put your name in one, you decide which one. And don't expect anything deep. I'm on tour, so I'm brain-dead. I'll do good if I get your name right."

In the three days Harris spends in Atlanta in early August, he seems to be everywhere at once--up at 6 to make appearances on morning radio and television shows, reading and signing books at auditoriums and bookstores and then hitting more bookstores to visit with store personnel and sign whatever books they have in stock. This is a pace the author has kept his whole career, ever since the early days when he self-published and sold books out of the trunk of his car. It is a grueling drill, and for Harris it pays off. His novel is currently in third place on The New York Times best-seller list. But the most amazing thing is that there's nothing unusual about any of it.

Almost every best-selling author is out there on the promotional trail these days, signing, reading and eating lots of bad airline food, all in an effort to give their books just that little extra bump that will ensure a best seller. And the writers who aren't touring wish they were. "The hard part of my job isn't telling an author he has to tour," says Tom Perry, publicity director at Random House. "The hard part is explaining to a writer that he won't be touring because his sales don't justify it."

Two decades ago, the author book tour was almost a novelty. Today it can be the deciding factor in a book's success. Touring has always been as much about selling the author as the book. Turn the author into a traveling salesman, and those personal appearances generate real sales--important when a few thousand books can make a best seller--not to mention media attention on local radio and television and reviews in the local press. With hundreds of authors crisscrossing the country every year, touring has become as commonplace in the publishing landscape as book clubs and movie deals. At a time when publishing is under increasing pressure to compete with everything from movies to videogames--and forced to do it with minuscule ad budgets--book tours are among the few reliable sales tools.

"Author tours pay off," says Michael Selleck, Simon & Schuster vice president for marketing, "before the authors come in and after they leave. The residual effect is very strong." Selleck says it's "difficult to nail down percentages" on the success or failure of a tour. "We don't keep those numbers," he says. "Nobody does." What is known, he says, is that "there are certain markets, like San Francisco and the Southeast, that are excellent tour markets. Authors go there, and their books go on the local best-seller lists." Likewise there are certain authors, the more personable the better, who tend to shine brighter on the tour circuit. Selleck singles out suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark. "Her entire career is built on touring," he says.

Ten years ago, authors went everywhere. Tours of 25 and 30 cities were common. Today, with budget constraints and savvier marketing, it's more likely to be 10 or 15 cities even for the biggest writers, because publishers have learned to concentrate their efforts on the cities with the most--and the biggest--bookstores. Huge independent stores like The Tattered Cover in Denver or Elliott Bay in Seattle schedule more than 500 "in-store events" a year. "There are so many benefits to touring an author," says Margaret Maupin, who schedules authors for The Tattered Cover. "Even if you only get 25 people at a reading, the author has signed books all over town, gotten on the radio, in the paper. It just works. It creates excitement." Some stores have two author readings and signings a day. And in its chain stores, Barnes & Noble sponsors an astonishing 100,000 events a year.

"The author tour has become a new form of entertainment," says Debra Williams, a Barnes & Noble spokesperson. "In cities like New York, some of the same people show up in the audience at three or four events a week." And when the author happens to be a celebrity, attendance really jumps. "When Paul McCartney appeared at our midtown Manhattan store," Williams says, "we had 6,000 people."

For writers who don't happen to be ex-Beatles, however, the experience can be a lot dicier. When Jacquelyn Mitchard went out in July to promote her latest novel, "A Theory of Relativity," she encountered big crowds one day and almost none the next, a reminder that while publishers may have touring down to a routine, it is hardly a science.

Mitchard has a particularly tough time as a touring author. Her first novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean," was the first book selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. But while it was a major best seller, her next two novels--lacking Oprah's endorsement--have not enjoyed anything like the first book's success. "Oprah's readers," Mitchard says philosophically, "are loyal to Oprah," not the writers she selects. Still, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the midpoint of her 16-city tour, Mitchard has a good day. At 7 a.m. she and her HarperCollins publicist meet their escort, Isabel Keating, in the hotel lobby. Keating is one of several hundred driver/valet/nannies around the country who are hired to ferry authors to their appointed rounds. In the words of Emily Laisy, the grande dame of this mini-industry (she's been at it for 19 years), author escorts will do "anything that's not immoral or illegal."

For Keating, that means her first job of the day is calculating the time necessary to find a coffee shop and still make the first appointment, a morning television show in a Minneapolis suburb. Keating makes it look effortless, putting her passenger at ease with horror stories of her worst-behaved clients. Thriller writer Jeffrey Archer leads the list. A dark legend among book escorts, "he insisted that we never speak unless spoken to," Keating says, "and that we address him as Lord Archer."

Mitchard arrives at the studio right on time, and by 11 a.m. she has already done two television shows. The routine is unvarying. She plugs her novel, the wrenching story of a custody fight in an adoption case. And she talks about being the first Oprah pick ("I thought I would be the first and last Oprah Book Club selection. I was sure people would rise up as one and turn off the set"). No matter how often she is asked the same questions, her answers never sound canned and nothing ruffles her, not even the middle-aged rock band led by a man in a panda suit that follows her segment on KARE.

That night Mitchard reads before a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 at the Ruminator Book Store in St. Paul. She takes questions (first question: how do you get an agent?), signs books for half an hour and then bolts for the airport to make a 10:29 p.m. flight to Portland, Ore. And the plane is delayed. The next evening's reading at Powell's, a huge independent with a massive events schedule, is a bust. Only 17 people show up. Mitchard is undeterred, reading and answering questions with the same verve she had for her huge audience the night before. Only when she's out the door and headed for the next late-night flight does she slump a little. But she doesn't take it personally. "In cities where my syndicated newspaper column runs, there's a built-in audience. In cities like Portland, where nobody knows me, the embarrassment is acute. The only solace is the chocolates on the pillow back at the hotel."

The most bizarre moment? "Definitely signing at a Costco, where I was ensconced behind a plastic fern in the linen department. Twelve people bought books, but four asked me the relative merits of the foam versus the down pillows." So it goes for the rest of her tour. In some cities she draws 100 people, in others only sparse crowds. And her novel, with a first printing of 125,000, sells well, but never quite well enough to make the top spots on The New York Times best-seller list.

There are no sure things when it comes to book tours. On that much, book publicists agree. Newspaper reviews and interviews almost always help, and so does public radio. But commercial radio and local television are such iffy components in the mix that some authors simply refuse to go on the air. Even humorist David Sedaris, who jokes that he writes his books so that he can tour, flatly refuses to do morning television. "I hate local TV interviews," he says. " 'Good Morning, Dallas!' Or 'What's Up, Atlanta?' 'So this is a book about humanlife,' a host once said." Sedaris is no fonder of commercial radio, particularly "those interviews done by Craaazy Bob and Mike! It's on at 6:30 or 7 a.m., and 'We're nuts! We're insane!' And they don't allow you to talk. It's just humiliating."

Faced with the $2,000 a day it costs to send an author on a tour, publishers have gotten very savvy about targeting the audience for a tour long before the author goes near the first airport. When Knopf wanted to send Sarah Bird out this summer to promote "The Yokota Officers Club," a bittersweet novel about an Air Force family stationed in Japan, she could remember only her last tour, a fumbled affair in 1993 (for another publisher). "It got so bad," she recalls, "that in a mall in Portland, I read for the security guard. And he didn't buy a book." This time Bird was sent out to dine with booksellers and her store appearances were scheduled in cities near military bases. The publisher even contacted organizations of military brats to pull in exactly the kind of people the book is about. "It was a totally different experience," she says.

For all the fine-tuning, the basic rationale behind the book tour has hardly changed since it was invented four decades ago by Jacqueline Susann, who tucked "Valley of the Dolls" under her arm and went around the country sweet-talking the truckers who stocked the paperback racks in drugstores and magazine stands. The number of tours has skyrocketed, and so have readings and signings, but as publishers will admit, a successful tour is still more about chutzpah and glamour than literature. "In private, we all admit we're selling mystique," says freelance publicist Sally Anne McCartin. "You have to look an author up and down and ask yourself, does this person have what it takes to warrant an evening out?" That means that for crowd-pleasing authors like E. Lynn Harris and Frank McCourt and Mary Higgins Clark, there will always be standing room only. For everyone else, well, there's always the security guard.