For more than 35 years, author escort Isabel Keating has chauffeured writers around the Twin Cities, taking them to their bookstore events and other local spots. Keating, who is retiring this year, talked to PW about the challenges and quirks of the job, which, as budgets tighten and author tours diminish, has evolved dramatically.
What is your most memorable experience as an author escort?
After 30-plus years I have such an variety of memories, that it's hard to name a favorite. There is one that comes to mind at the moment, though: a couple of days I spent with John Updike in the mid '90s. It turns out he lived close to where I grew up, and that we took golf lessons from the same pro. I was just so taken with his pleasant nature and unpretentiousness, and we had these great discussions that would pause as we arrived at his appointments and pick up again later in the day. Memories of working with other literary legends and celebrities also tend to stand out, too. [I recall] being with author Carol Shields when she learned she won the Pulitzer Prize. Sometimes memories are triggered when I walk through a book store, or someone's home, and I spot the books of the authors I've met over the years; it's kind of a secret honor to know I've gotten meet so many accomplished authors.
How has author escorting changed in the past 35 years?
In the early days of the trade, many firms sprang out of casual connections with bookstores and publisher's reps, and the firms in the larger markets became more prominent and professional. Many author escorts began consulting on media and events, and the level of service evolved into more of a collaboration with authors and publishers. Cookbook tours compelled many of us to become food stylists for live TV appearances, and doing live food became a skill author escorts specialized in. [I'd estimate that] the number of author tours peaked in the late 1990's at around 400 a year, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. Since then, tours have gradually scaled back by about a third, with the last significant downward shift following the 2008 recession.
I think publishers are planning smarter and more effective tours these days. And, with fewer authors getting to go on the road, everyone seems to make the most of it. [Now], a lot of author escorts are working in non-trade markets like media and lectures, so at some point we also became "media escorts," working with all kinds of artists, performers and speakers.
What is one of the main things you want an author to know, when you're escorting them?
When I first meet an author I want them to know that they are competently being taken care of, without being "over-handled." Book tours are largely about performing and repetition for authors, so I want to provide an atmosphere that's engaging, but also one in which they have some personal space and don't feel like they have to be "on." I want the authors to know that I have a knowledge of the people in the media and in the book community, and that I can help them prep for their appearances. Mainly, though, I want to provide good company and a calming presence, since the highly social aspect of touring is not always natural for many authors.
Have any of the authors you've escorted become friends?
I've become friends with many authors, on different levels. I've gotten to know most authors from visit to visit over the course of [my career], and you could say this familiarity becomes part of our "product." I'm a friendly face in a strange city. Some authors have become fast friends on the road, and we've stayed in touch. On a few occasions I've visited authors I've become close with, in the U.K. and New York.