To borrow from the title of Orange Prize winner Suzanne Berne's latest novel, Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., is trying to find A Perfect Arrangement for marketing midlist books. Although none of Algonquin's author events involve the same transportation issues as, say, Ann Mariah Cook's 1998 tour, for which she dogsledded between the Meredith and Lincoln, N.H., Innisfree Bookshops to promote Running North: A Yukon Adventure, the house's present efforts are in their own way just as unusual.
In April Diana Hollingsworth Gessler painted her way through bookstores in California to promote her sketchbook/ travelogue, Very California: Travels Through the Golden State (see sidebar), and presented a watercolor to each store she visited. In May, novelist Larry Brown did a three-city tour for his essay collection, Billy Ray's Farm, in conjunction with musician Alejandro Escovedo, who was promoting his new CD, Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot).
This spring 19-year-old Algonquin, which was acquired by Workman Publishing in 1989, launched its Algonquin Reading Series to promote both the house and its books by touring groups of three or more authors. From mid-May until the end of June, a rotating group of authors read in five cities above and below the Mason-Dixon Line. A representative from Algonquin introduced each event and talked about founder Louis D. Rubin Jr.'s vision for the company. According to marketing director Craig Popelars, the vision holds true today: "Though we hope and expect that our books will gain their share of book club adoptions, mass paperback sales, and movie and television adaptations, it is their quality that will be our foremost consideration, for we believe that it is still possible to publish worthy fiction and nonfiction that will also be financially profitable."
For bookseller-turned-author David Gessner (Return of the Osprey: A Season of Birds, Flight, and Wonder), who stopped at three cities on the Algonquin tour, it was "kind of fun. It's like the little rebel band against the Death Star, if you're outside of New York. It seems like a good way of establishing identity for the press." Berne also had kudos for the group tour, especially for her double reading with novelist Anita Rau Badami, author of The Hero's Walk, at the Tattered Cover in Denver. "There was a collegiality that's nice," said Berne. "After the reading people asked questions, and it was very companionable. We have two very different types of books, but we have some of the same ideas about the process of writing. People most frequently ask, 'Where do you get your ideas?' 'How do you get started?' and 'Do you work on a computer?' These questions get answered more thoughtfully when there's more than one person."
"The idea of pairing up a couple authors is nothing new," acknowledged Popelars. As he sees it, though, it's an opportunity "to introduce the house and the authors at the same time," and it also gives Algonquin's staff a chance to meet booksellers and the media outside New York. Although attendance hasn't always been strong—in Minneapolis the Algonquin tour competed with the season finale of Friends—Popelars plans to remedy that. "One thing we're going to do the next time," he said, "is spend a lot more time on the phone to special interest groups like bird watchers or the Indian community. That's going to have to come from Algonquin. That's why we're going to do three or four instead of five readings. We know the model's right; it just needs to be refined."
Jim Behrle, events director at Brookline Booksmith, in Brookline, Mass., which hosted an Algonquin evening with neighbor Newtonville Books in Newtonville, Mass., thought that the three readers gave listeners a sense of "the variety of books that Algonquin's putting out there. I think people who attended that event will look at the spine and say, 'That's an Algonquin Book.' " Working with Newtonville, he added, "underlines our role in BookSense and shows that independents can really work together."
Newtonville owner Tim Huggins concurred: "I thought the idea about the Algonquin series was great. It's such a nice, small literary press." Like most of the participating booksellers, Huggins put up both a window and an in-store Algonquin display to tie in with the series. So as not to compete with Brookline's reading, he invited the authors to do a brief store signing and then walk down the street to a nearby restaurant to participate in the store's meet-the-author series of Books & Brews. "The idea," said Huggins, "is for the authors to have a good time and for people to get to know them differently than just through a Q&A."
While Chris Hubbuch, program coordinator at Ruminator Books in Minneapolis, was happy to have three Algonquin authors read at the store, he questioned whether the event would actually have a branding effect. "I'm convinced that very few customers pay any attention to the publisher," he said. "They're much more influenced by books that have been recommended to them by friends or Oprah."
To the contrary, John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., believes that "the readings may increase the awareness of the publisher. Customers may pay attention to other Algonquin books." Of course, Lemuria is in the South, where Algonquin is best known, and Evans is planning for what Popelars characterized as "a shit-kicking honky-tonk evening." It will bring together Southern writers Tony Earley, author of Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True; first-time novelist Silas House, author of Clay's Quilt; and Larry Brown. The reading will be held at the bar next store, and, in addition to beer and chicken wings, there will be live music supplied by Blue Mountain, which is promoting a new CD. "I think it'll be fun," said Evans. "As far as I'm concerned, finding ways to promote music and books together is a great way to compete with Borders."
According to Popelars, Algonquin is not just limiting itself to the Algonquin Reading Series to find new ways to bring attention to its books. The Brown/Escovedo tour, for instance, was especially appealing, because, said Popelars, "that was the first time we blended music with literature. We thought it was a great way to bring together two art forms. We're trying to find ways to break out our authors more, and [with music] we have more angles for publicity." In late June, House, whose novel features a fiddle player, teamed up with real-life fiddler Caitlin Cary, whose first solo CD, Waltzie, had just come out from Yep Roc. The event, held at the Regulator in Durham, N.C., was introduced by Lee Smith and cosponsored by No Depression magazine, Yep Roc and Algonquin.
That's not to say that Algonquin is getting rid of solo readings entirely. Algonquin has some strong authors on its fall list who will go the solo-tour route. Robert Morgan, whose Gap Creek was an Oprah Book Club selection, has a new novel, This Rock, and Jill McCorkle's new short story collection, Creatures of Habit, will both merit traditional tours.