It’s your first book tour. You’re ready to face crowds of adoring fans, and you’re going to autograph books and body parts until your Sharpie runs dry. Nothing could be more rewarding, with your first book hot off the press.
His first novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS, was published by Simon & Schuster in February and is available wherever books are sold.
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That’s the best-case scenario, at any rate. What’s likely to happen is a different story. Talk to any veteran author or publicist, and they’ll tell you the book touring business ain’t what it used to be.
Back in the twentieth century, in-store book signings were a reader’s only opportunity to witness writers up close and personal—so bestselling authors could expect massive crowds, and even first-time authors could usually count on a decent turnout, if the book was getting the right amount of buzz.
These days, of course, every writer has their own website (and Facebook page, Goodreads account, and Instagram feed) …all of which have diminished the popularity of in-store events. After all, why leave the comfort of your own home to shake an author’s hand when you can sit on your sofa and trade tweets with her instead?
Booksellers admit that getting readers to events by first-time novelists can be an enormous challenge. I was well aware of the difficulties as I set out to tour my first novel, The Impossible Fortress, and I was determined to buck the odds. Sure, I was an unknown author … but I believed my novel’s subject matter had broad universal appeal. The Impossible Fortress is set in the 1980s and concerns two teenagers who fall in love while programming a video game. Full of nostalgia and romance and technology, I figured the novel offered something for everyone.
To entertain my audience, I created a Powerpoint presentation with colorful images of Tom Selleck, George Michael, Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, Apple II computers, and other pop culture treasures. I went on eBay and found a Members Only jacket to wear during events, and I bought a pack of Cyndi Lauper trading cards to give away as bookmarks.
And my first three events were great. The first night in Philadelphia was a terrific kickoff. We had a full house, mostly because I sent personalized invitations to all of my friends and neighbors (Pro Tip 1: you have to be shameless and force everyone you know to come). Night two in Brooklyn was good because my publisher showed up in force, my agent brought a few coworkers, and I was “in conversation” with a terrific author who attracted his own fans. The third night—in my New Jersey hometown—may have been the highlight of the tour; the venue was packed with my friends from high school, there were plenty of cocktails, and a 1980s cover band kept the party going long after I stopped reading. Clearly, the tour was off to a fantastic start.
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But sometime near the end of night three, my high school buddies started talking about the approaching snowstorm, and I realized my tour was in jeopardy. I was scheduled to fly from New Jersey to North Carolina the following morning. But when I logged onto the American Airlines website, I saw my flight was already cancelled.
By this point it was nearing midnight, and I decided to take a calculated risk. I would drive south to Philadelphia, hoping to stay ahead of the bad weather, and I would catch the earliest possible morning flight from Philly to North Carolina. After all, there were crowds of excited readers waiting for me in Raleigh, and I wasn’t going to let them down!
I didn’t get much sleep that night, but my gamble paid off: By noon the next day, I had arrived at my hotel in Raleigh. The manager at the front desk greeted me with a smile. “Here for the big game?”
This was not the greeting I’d hoped for. “Big game?”
“UNC versus Duke,” he said. “Tar Heels versus Blue Devils! Haven’t you heard? It’s the biggest rivalry in college basketball! Everyone is going to be watching tonight!”
My heart sank. “Wonderful,” I told him. “I’ll take the key to the minibar.”
I tried to stay optimistic. I reminded myself that my novel had received a starred review in Booklist and a one-sentence mention in Entertainment Weekly. Surely I could manage to pull a small crowd in a city where I knew absolutely no one … right?
My event was due to start at 7pm, and that night I arrived a few minutes early. The staff had assembled some thirty folding chairs, but only three of the seats were occupied—a father and his two teenage kids.
“We’ll give people another ten minutes,” I told them. “In case anyone’s stuck in traffic.”
No one was stuck in traffic. No one else was coming. One minute ticked by, then another. The teenagers slumped in their chairs, and I sensed they were getting impatient. By 7:08, I knew I was pushing my luck; I worried my three attendees would flee the store and leave me alone in a sea of empty folding chairs.
Now if you ever find yourself in this kind of situation (Pro Tip 2: you will), I suggest you try to make the most of it. There’s no reason to act like you’re addressing a crowd of hundreds. An audience of three allows for a different and more personal kind of conversation, so take advantage of the format. I switched off the microphone, sat across from the father and his two kids, and asked why they had come to the event. It turned out that the father was a fan of 1980s pop culture and video gaming. His son (a ninth grader) was an aspiring writer. His daughter (an eighth grader) was interested in graphic design.
I couldn’t have wished for a better three-person audience. I’ve spent twenty years working in book publishing and I love speaking with young people about writing and graphic design. So I gave a truncated version of my normal presentation, then asked about their favorite writers, shared some advice about breaking into book publishing, and showed off some rejected cover designs for The Impossible Fortress. We ended up chatting for forty-five minutes, and what could have been an incredibly awkward reading became a positive encounter for everyone.
In the weeks since my visit to North Carolina, I’ve described the event to a handful of authors, and everyone laughs with recognition. “Yeah, I’ve been there” is the most common response, and many insist that I got off easy.
Book Tour Blues
Here are just three ways it could have been worse:
- I could have arrived at a bookstore that didn’t have copies of my book. (This happened to the comedian and actor Judah Friedlander, while promoting his book How to Beat Up Anybody. He tells the story in a podcast interview with Greg Fitzsimmons).
- I could have been heckled by a drunk in an ill-conceived prank. (This happened to Kevin Wilson when he was touring for his terrific novel The Family Fang; he wrote about the incident for the Powell’s Books’ website.)
- I could have accidentally insulted the only people who showed up for my reading. (Which is exactly what happened to John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars. He tells the story in a video appropriately titled “Mortification.”)
And then there’s Lori Jakiela. If you’re heading on a book tour anytime soon, you must head over to Literary Hub and read her chronicle of the worst book-signing of all time (the story involves a case of mistaken identity at the grand opening of a Sam’s Club—and to say anything more would spoil a brilliant essay).
So now you’ve been properly warned. Sure, you’re likely to have one or two rocky events along the way, but hopefully there will be plenty of good ones to balance out the duds. I wish you a safe and healthy journey (Pro Tip 3: Pack plenty of Vitamin C, and don’t forget your signing pens)!
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