Here I go again, off on book tour—the aspect of the writing business I like least. I know, I know. "Ingrate," you're thinking. "There are 5,500 adult trade fiction titles published every year, and a tiny percentage of those books' authors get sent on tour, and you're griping?"
Well, bear with me for a moment. Of course I love meeting booksellers and my readers. I'm a ham: I actually enjoy talking in public. (Yeah, I do get a little tired of being asked where I get my ideas. Alloy Entertainment, of course.) So I'm complaining... why? Because book tours really aren't about selling books. They're about selling the writer. They've essentially become political campaigns.
But most of us writers aren't professional politicians. We tend to be solitary beings. We sit alone in a room in front of a computer making up stories. No matter how social we were to begin with, no matter how often we leave our desks to have lunch with friends, after a while that social muscle begins to atrophy.
Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, who's said to have an almost physical need to be around other people, after a day of intense schmoozing we writers need to go back to our hotel rooms and crash. This has got to be the reason Margaret Atwood invented the LongPen, her remote, robotic book-signing machine. Even those of us who enjoy meeting new people are not cut out to network 12 hours a day. And frankly, some of us just shouldn't be allowed out in public. If politics is show biz for ugly people, book tours are political campaigns for the impolitic.
So why do book tours still exist, now that we have author Web sites, blogs and podcasts, "virtual communities," online chats and video "book presenters"? How come publishers still put pasty-faced authors on the hustings for what Webheads disdain as non-scalable "meatspace" encounters? Are author tours really worth the publisher's investment?
Not if you run the numbers. Assuming that an average 10-city tour costs, say $25,000 (toting up airfare, hotels, escorts and co-op advertising), most book tours are far from cost-effective in terms of the number of copies sold at signings.
Are they about getting local media? Well, local TV has dried up, given the growth of cable and syndication and the demise of "lifestyle" segments. It's true that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer isn't likely to do a piece on you unless you visit (or live there). But it's not clear that any of these things have a marked impact on book sales anyway.
Then there's the "mavens and connectors" theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell: turn a few hundred of the right sorts of people on to your books, and they in turn will tell their friends, and pretty soon the growth of your fan base will be exponential. "Yeah, well, it's a theory," as the homicidal nurse Annie Wilkes says ominously in Stephen King's Misery.
The main reason, it seems, that publishers pay for tours is to demonstrate to the bookselling community that they're supporting their author. Nothing boosts orders like the phrase "national author tour." It's what economists call "signaling": bookstores order more copies because the author is touring, so the publisher sends an author on tour, whether or not tours themselves actually sell more copies.
So if book tours mainly exist to advertise that there is a book tour, why not be creative about it? Jacqueline Susann, who perfected the modern book tour, didn't just do the grip-and-grin. She plied truckers with coffee and doughnuts. My brilliant publicist at St. Martin's came up with a cool idea to lure my readers away from Desperate Housewives: since my new novel is set in a company that makes plasma screens, he persuaded the NEC Corporation to give away a 42-inch plasma TV at each of 10 book signings.
Then again, once you've got that big flat-screen, how many novels are you going to be reading?