Charles Dickens barnstormed the country in 1867—1868, did 423 readings and made £45,000 from ticket sales—a huge sum at the time. It was the paid equivalent of today's author tours—but on a much bigger scale. He sold a lot of books, too. Novels.

Flash to the 1990s, with the rise of the national chains and bookstores fighting over author bookings. By 1998, B&N alone is doing more than 20,000 author events a year. The independent stores are keeping pace at their own scale. The readings are free, but books are for sale. Fiction is right in there.

That was before. Before September 11 and the end of the boom. Before the bottom fell out of the market for fiction.

All of this is on Farrar, Straus & Giroux's collective mind when getting ready to tour Christopher Sorrentino in support of his second novel, Trance (July). Sorrentino, the son of poet-novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, published his first novel, Sound on Sound, with Dalkey Archive in 1995. FSG is happy to have him—even if it doesn't expect big numbers. "The thing about publishing sophisticated literary novels by writers who aren't yet household names," says editor Lorin Stein, "is that you have to find a new market for each book." Serious readers, Stein finds, are like any other consumer: "They need to be convinced to try something, or someone, new."

What might help is that Trance contains an instant hook: it imagines, in brilliant, thinly veiled fashion, the dismal last chapters of the Patty Hearst abduction, from within the minds of almost everyone involved. And it spirals out into the culture of 1970s Los Angeles and San Francisco, where many of the Symbionese Liberation Army's exploits took place, in a manner not unlike Boogie Nights. Brooklyn-based Sorrentino already has East Coast support, so FSG has decided a marketing budget of about $5,000 is best spent on a West Coast tour, to put Sorrentino on the book's turf. It's a rare move for an who author doesn't yet have major name recognition, but the 13 years Sorrentino lived in San Francisco may help draw.

Yet even though Trance turns on a big, familiar story, the novel is not an easy sell. It's long. It takes a lot of stylistic and factual liberties. There are a lot of characters, some of whom are peripheral to the main narrative. And it treats the entire Symbionese Liberation Army as a kind of comic grotesque.

So that's the scenario: second-time author, difficult book, a tour off home turf. Here's what happens.

Sunday, July 24, landing in Los Angeles

When we arrive at the hotel, we're impressed. Sorrentino is booked at the Grafton on Sunset, about midway up the Hollywood Hills, down the block from the Chateau Marmont. It's Sunday night, but it's charged. Several black Mercedes pull up to be parked as we exit the battered cab. It's late; Sorrentino has had a Song Air sandwich, but is hungry and wants to go to the hotel restaurant, Boa. We have a celebratory blow-out dinner: oysters and pinot noir, steak and fabulous mushrooms. The hostess, blonde, is in stunning espadrilles; the waiter is boyish and cute—and offhandedly knowledgeable. Everyone dresses down but radiates power, just like on HBO. Even if it seems familiar, it's way different from New York. It totally works on us.

Monday, July 25, Los Angeles

The woman who picks us up is driving a Camry. It's as if she's holding a hand-lettered sign: welcome back to Earth, publishing people. Her name is Marilyn Townsend; she is our media escort. As a representative of Diana Faust's D2 media services, she will drive us to Santa Monica Community College, where Michael Silverblatt's NPR radio program Bookworm is taped, in the studios of the school's station, KCRW 89.9 FM. The studios are in the basement. We're met by associate producer Melinda Siegel, who walks us over to Silverblatt. He is tall, intense and pale. He takes Chris back outside, where they smoke and talk.

It's a peculiar interview. Silverblatt offers Sorrentino extraordinarily detailed critical appraisals of the novel, with fully worked-out terms and a driving sense of what the book is about, and how it does what it does. His comments are blazingly smart, but leave Sorrentino with the choice of either agreeing or disagreeing, and that's about it. Sorrentino does really well with it, and even negotiates a 20-minute set of questions from Silverblatt that basically try to get Sorrentino to say: I am, in fact, not rebelling against my poet-novelist father.

Later, we head over to Book Soup, a big, clean, well-lit, extremely well-stocked independent, with a theatre-like marquee out on the strip announcing impending visits from Francesca Lia Block and Aimee Bender, and doing a David-and-Goliath with the bright, highly pixelated digital billboard of Tower Records across the street.

Event coordinator Robert Tyson Cornell, young and relaxed, takes us over to the large annex next door, where there are remainders and many other books, 25 chairs and a sophisticated Carver sound system. There are about five people at 7:05 p.m., with a designated start time of 7.

There hasn't been a profile or a review in the L.A. Times or in any of the three or four free weeklies. By the time Sorrentino takes the microphone at 7:15, a few more people have come in. As he reads from the section where the SLA briefly kidnaps the young Dan Brown—who is masturbating to thoughts of Flip Wilson as Geraldine when the fleeing fugitives spot the "For Sale" sign on his parked van—more and more people come in. There are 10 when Sorrentino finishes, and maybe 15 total who have seen parts of the reading.

Tyson leads the question and answer session. Tyson: "I'd be blown away if you haven't sold this to a major studio." Sorrentino: "Get ready to be blown away."

Sorrentino speculates that the Hearst story, for the West Coast, is "a commodity of which there is an oversupply." It gets a laugh. People are really listening, and everyone, including Sorrentino, starts to relax.

Tuesday, July 26, San Francisco

The San Francisco leg of the tour takes us into the territory of the book with which Sorrentino is most familiar. He lived in various apartments in and around the Mission district city for 13 years. In the last of those years, he and his pregnant wife, Nelle, were on public assistance. He hasn't been back since 1999.

In the evening, at Booksmith, the store has prepared for Sorrentino's visit—the 772nd reading, events coordinator Thomas Gladysz notes, in the store's seven-year history of the series. Despite the novel's local angle, the turnout is the same as on the previous night: about 10 people. Three are friends. Again, five books sell; Sorrentino signs 20 more.

The lack of a profile in the weeklies is again probably to blame. FSG's Cary Goldstein, reached by cell in New York, tells me that things have been in the works, and that the timing doesn't always happen, but that everything's coming together for Portland and Seattle, the last two stops. I can't help thinking that if there were a West Coast Holtzbrinck office, everything would have been lockstep; getting the coverage, and getting it when you need it, depends on the kind of relationships that got Sorrentino a page at pub in Time Out New York.

Wednesday, July 27, Berkeley

An interview with Robert Pollie, of the KUSP Santa Cruz variety show The Talk of the Bay, begins with something that's been on Sorrentino's mind since we arrived on the West Coast: "Patty fatigue." FSG sent Sorrentino here thinking that familiarity with the Hearst story would help break the author and sell books. The opposite seems to be true; what feels like a news blackout is dogging Trance in L.A. and S.F.

Sorrentino did six readings in New York in and around the book's July 17 pub: the one at Barnes & Noble's Astor Place was packed; a group reading at KGB was standing room. At Cody's, the big, airy bookstore on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, there are seven people in the audience. One is Robert Pollie. One is Paul Yamazaki from City Lights books, whom we visited earlier in the day. One turns out to be Amy Wilson, the media escort we didn't know was coming when we got on the BART, the Bay Area subway. There are nine if you count Jonathan Callard (the third white, male, 30ish host in a row) and another store representative. It's not unusual for a lesser-known writer to draw small, but Sorrentino is something of a Bay Area ex-pat, so it's disappointing. The q&a is lively, though, and several copies sell as Sorrentino signs under the reading area's skylight, from which a cool breeze blows down.

Thursday, July 28, Portland

We tell the cab driver to take us to Powell's, and when he looks perplexed, we give him the address: 3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Hawthorne is a Haight-Ashbury—like strip, but recently gentrified and still scruffy. We get out of the cab, and see a store: Powell's Cookbooks. That can't be it. Two stores down is a storefront sign for "Powell's on Hawthorne." It doesn't look like it could possibly house a "City of Books."

We walk in. There's a nice display of Trancesup front, and the store is big, but not nearly big enough to justify the lore. Puzzled, we pick up one of the free weeklies by the door, looking for listings for the 7:30 reading. We find the Powell's ad. Aimee Bender will be reading in a week or two at the City of Books. Sorrentino is booked at Powell's on Hawthorne. We get it now: we are in an annex, one of five satellites of the main store.

As the time approaches, I count chairs: 26. Michal Drannen, who is based at the City of Books and who does all the bookings, is nowhere in evidence. Cute, early 30s white male John Alkek, a used-book buyer, second level, at the store, gives a brief introduction that basically consists of Lethem's blurb. (It's a great blurb.) Chris reads the Congreaves section.

Five people attend the reading. Two more drift in for the q&a. Three books sell; Sorrentino signs 15 more. One attendee works at She saw an in-store product (can't remember what) touting the book and came because she was curious, and because her partner (also here) is writing her master's thesis on real people in fiction.

One woman says: "The reading was a bit much, but he was so articulate in the question period." She says she would buy the book, but has to "devote the money to other areas right now."

We take a cab across the river to the City of Books. It's enormous and completely horizontal. It goes on and on. It's also extremely clean. We look for Trance among the "100 New Arrivals." It's not there. We go to the info desk. The person there says it is in regular fiction only. Chris: "You mean where they stock the backlist?"

We go to regular fiction. Trance is under S, seven shelves up. Chris, who is six foot one, has to reach his arm straight over his head in order to take one down.

Friday, July 29, Seattle

Cab to Sea-Tac for a 7:05 a.m. flight in order to be on time for Don Riggs's live show Introspect on Seattle's KMPS at 9:30. Deirdre Devlin, of Joy Delf Media Services, meets us at the baggage claim, and we get into her green Passat wagon. It's still very early, and we haven't eaten. She offers us snacks from a basket in back.

There has been a review in the Seattle Weekly and one in the Seattle Times this morning; the latter has plugged tonight's reading at Elliott Bay books. (They list it as 7:30; Chris's itinerary says 7.) Deirdre has brought the clippings.

Don Riggs shakes hands quickly all around and hustles us into the cramped studio. He talks amiably, shuts the door, plants Chris on a stool next to his, swings the mike around like an X-ray machine, punches a few buttons, says we'll do eight or nine minutes and, like a dentist who doesn't tell you what he's about to do so as to get in without the trepidation or reassurances, starts a quick intro and asks the first question.

Chris startles, recovers and answers. What does he think of the SLA's politics? Not much: they had slogans, not politics: death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people. Riggs presses on: Do we have a society today that can spawn some of these groups, maybe ones that do a better job? This is probably not a time when radicalism is going to gain entrée into the popular imagination. Do they have an "I told you so message" vis-à-vis the current administration? (Meaning, if the SLA's program had succeeded, would we be in a different place now politically?) No, because what they tried was not worked out enough to tell us anything.

Don hasn't come anywhere near the book. Chris ends a sentence. Don thanks him, mentions the book's title and pushes us out the airlock. Seven minutes, 12 seconds.

That evening, we arrive at the Elliott Bay Book Company. It is easily the most impressive store of the trip: huge, intimate, beautifully laid out. There's a hand-lettered sign on the door announcing Chris's reading and a nice display for Trance up front. Friends of Chris's arrive. As readings team member Meghan Helsel and Chris chat, more and more people arrive. By the time he begins, there are 24 people in the room.

Meghan is brief; Chris is relaxed and gives the best reading of the tour. He times his phrasing; the room gels. He gets laughs. The q&a features the tour's first discussion of race. The audience consists of clusters of twos and threes. Of the six clusters I get to, four report that they found out about the reading through the piece in the Seattle Times.

Meghan works a special register set up to the side. Seven copies sell; Sorrentino signs 20 more.

Saturday, July 30, Seattle to New York

Over breakfast before the flight, Chris and I take stock. Patty Fatigue was probably real. Events coordinators can save a flagging reading by asking good questions during the q&a. Try not to show up in a city unless a profile of you and your book has run. Don't expect to sell a lot of books.

On the way home from the airport, I call Cary Goldstein cell-to-cell. He tells me, "For us, what follows in an author's wake is half the game: after a visit, booksellers often move the book up front, and staffers hand-sell; editors run the piece they've been sitting on, and producers finally book that interview. Because your author's name has begun to resonate for them. We drew modest crowds, to be sure, but the book's presence in these cities has definitely been increased as a result of the tour. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

The following Sunday, the L.A. Times runs its review, San Francisco's KQED calls to schedule an interview with Sorrentino and the Chronicle soon after runs its review (a rave). Sorrentino's agent, Ira Silverberg, isn't surprised. "The book business is a fragile ecosystem. You may not see it in the moment, but showing up has a real, long-term effect."

It's nevertheless hard to generalize from Sorrentino's experience. When asked how often the house tours its authors, Goldstein, in turn, won't put numbers on it, and says "there's not an arithmetic for us that demands a certain number of book tours, or stores. Every book we publish presents its own opportunities." Sometimes that means three Midwest cities with flights; sometimes it means 12 along the East Coast, with the author driving him or herself.

It was hardly barnstorming, but Sorrentino says he would do it again. Touring may not make anyone immediate money, but it makes connections, ones on which author, bookseller and house will draw again.