In the abstract, a book tour looks like it might be tremendous fun: packed houses of adoring fans, expense-account dinners in fancy far-flung restaurants. I’ve now promoted three books across a couple dozen states and 10 countries, and my experience has looked much more like bleary-eyed airport breakfasts at one end of the day and modest register tallies at the other, which begs the question, was this worth it?
But that depends on the answer to a different question: what’s the goal?
A dozen years ago, before I’d started writing books and was still publishing them, I asked my brilliant boss, Peter Workman: Why do we expend such a huge effort producing seasonal catalogues? Why do we run around like lunatics to finalize covers, on-sale dates, point-of-sale promotions, and everything else—such a frenetic outburst of redesigning, numbers crunching, consensus building, and decision making—all just to produce this printed marketing item? Who cares?
Peter put things into perspective. All that work, all those decisions—that was the real point; the catalogue was the impetus to get it all done.
I look at going out on the road through a similar lens. I do, of course, want to achieve the obvious immediate goal of selling units of the new title, just as we did, of course, need to get the catalogue to sales conference. But selling those hardcovers is just one component of my goal and my publisher’s too, and the booksellers’ too—we all have bigger long-term priorities: the next book, the one after, all the future books in all the years ahead, keeping the lights on.
For my part, I want to write better and better books, published better and better, making for a satisfying and successful career. And I think it’s the lessons learned, the experiences had, and the people met on the road that can make this achievable. On book tours, I go places I’d otherwise never have visited, I’m introduced to readers I’d never have met, and I make friends and fans and important contacts who’d otherwise be strangers.
I’ve learned about contemporary bookselling over dinners in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Austin, Tex.; about the evolving roles of libraries in Stamford, Conn., and Rockport, Mass.; about the terrific mystery conferences in Albany, N.Y., and Toronto; and about honing elevator pitches for radio in Amsterdam and Dublin. I’ve invented characters at a library fund-raiser in Grand Rapids, Mich.; during a film-industry lunch in Beverly Hills; while recording a promotional video in Paris; and after a q&a in Zurich. I’ve answered eye-opening questions from readers in San Diego and Chicago and Houston—questions that forced me to examine the way I write, and for whom.
At a hotel lounge in Arizona, I learned that something I thought I really wanted to do—create a TV show—was in fact not something I wanted to do, saving a year or two (or more) of my life. At a hotel bar in Florida, touring for a novel that features a blonde spy taking a seat next to the protagonist of my book, a blonde spy took a seat next to the protagonist of my life and set me straight about some things.
I’ve spent immense amounts of time with other writers over lunch and dinner and many, many drinks, and it’s from these people that I’ve learned how to do the very odd job of being an author. At conferences in Raleigh, N.C., and New Orleans and at festivals in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Hong Kong, I’ve shared panel tables and bar tables with the novelists I want to be when I grow up.
Touring has been my MFA plus my MBA, too—establishing a professional network, understanding the marketplace, polishing creative output, and even inspiring me to generate an entire book. Because in Las Vegas and Manchester and New York City, I met three very different writers whose Paris books made me want to write my own, and then in a Left Bank bookstore I envisioned the specific Paris book I should write, which is the one for which I’m about to hit the road. The Paris Diversion is a novel that wouldn’t exist if not for the unanticipated lessons learned out there and the ineffable benefits of just showing up.
Chris Pavone is the bestselling author of The Expats. His new thriller, The Paris Diversion, will be published in May by Crown.