This Writer’s Life: Jodi Picoult: On the Road Again

This year, I was 40 cities into a 50-city book tour when I called my husband. “So where are you?” he asked, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember. I knew the name of the radio station I was heading to and the carousel number where my luggage had been, but not my actual physical location. I glanced out the window, flummoxed, and saw the Washington Monument piercing the sky.

Oh, right.

Welcome to the world of book tour. It’s an odd combination of hand-selling and performance art that subscribes to the belief that you’re the best salesman for your own product.

And I admit it—when I was a starry-eyed novice writer, I would’ve traded my firstborn for the chance to tour. I was convinced it was the difference between being a New York Times bestseller and languishing in midlist hell. When I was first invited to do a minitour—a constellation of regional cities-I couldn’t have been more excited. After all, I’d seen “Sex and the City.” A book tour was one continuous party, right? Champagne and witty banter and throngs of people lining up to get their books autographed?

Um, no. For the first five years I went on tour, the question I was most likely to be asked in a bookstore was: “Where’s the bathroom?”

I’m not saying that a book tour is unimportant. I’m just pointing out that I’ve never had a tour that looked remotely like Carrie Bradshaw’s. In the interest of full disclosure, let’s separate the myths from the facts.

Myth #1: You get to visit exciting places! Although you have to do your due diligence in towns like Holland, Mich., and Blytheville, Ark., you do get to swing through Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. Here’s the catch: You’re too busy to actually see anything. (The inside of a Barnes & Noble looks identical whether you’re in Madison or Miami.) This, in a nutshell, is your schedule: You take a 7 a.m. flight. When you land, you hit the ground running—doing radio, television, print interviews or a luncheon event, followed by more of the same and an evening signing. Then you go to bed, get up, and do it all over again in a new city. Publicists are either geography-challenged or just plain sadistic, because a tour is rarely planned for your travel convenience. (On my last tour, I flew from Los Angeles to Miami via Anchorage.) Far more time is spent in transit than in residence—it wasn’t until I checked out of my hotel in San Antonio, for example, that I realized I was literally across the street from the Alamo. For this reason, you’ll have to schedule your downtime. Asking your publicist to budget in a visit to Graceland while in Memphis isn’t frivolous—it’s downright all-American.

Myth #2: You’re the master of your own domain. Thank goodness this is false—as any author who’s had to drive himself from Denver to Boulder to Colorado Springs can attest. The existence of book tours spawned the curious birth of media escorts—who are nowhere near as sexy as their name implies. They’re men and women whose job it is to get you through your schedule. They meet you at the airport, take you to stock signings, drive you to interviews, wake you when you oversleep and open books to the title page while you’re autographing. However, they also provide a shoulder to cry on when you’re having a breakdown, cheer when you find out you’ve hit The New York Times bestseller list, find dry cleaners who can fix a stained skirt in less than four hours and figure out where to buy your son that Avalanche hockey jersey when you literally have only 10 minutes between scheduled appointments. Because I see the same escorts every year, many of them have become good friends.

Myth #3: You accumulate frequent flier miles! Yes, but on a variety of airlines, so it never seems to add up. Also, because you’re taking a flight nearly every day, you’ll be more intimately acquainted with the Transportation Security Administration than anyone should be. And don’t get me started on what it’s like to lose your luggage and never have it reach you because you’re moving from city to city.

Myth #4: You’ll be mobbed by adoring fans. Entirely possible. Also possible: Your audience will consist solely of the event coordinator at the bookstore and the homeless guy who’s come in from the rain.

Myth #5: You get to stay at swanky hotels. Publishers fork over lots of money to get you a decent night’s sleep. But in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, a nice hotel room goes over budget. On my first tour with Atria, I was put in a “boutique hotel” in Boston, only to take the elevator to the fifth floor and find a rat running across the hall. (The manager’s comment: “Oh, it’s back?”) That same hotel room had no bathroom—just a toilet set between the beds, like a special sort of nightstand. Needless to say, that experience stands out—but many others are simply a continuous blur. In fact, I’ve been near tears more than once because my key card won’t work, only to have a manager gently tell me that I’m trying it in the door of the wrong room (I’ve taken to writing my daily address on my hand).

Myth #6: Finally, some time to yourself—you’ll get a ton of writing done! If I can write a single chapter in a six-week period while on tour, it’s a huge accomplishment. On a book tour, it’s also a huge accomplishment if I can brush my teeth twice a day.

Myth #7: You’ll get on the “Today” show/”The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. Or the Radio Network for the Blind or Granny Wasserman’s cable TV book show, which has a viewership of 15 households.

Given all these caveats, why go on a book tour? Well, for most authors, it’s a bona fide way to tell folks that your book is available for consumption. If you can read dramatically, leave ’em hanging and interact with your audience—they’ll buy the book. (It’s important to note that there are just as many authors who should never go on book tour, because they can actually lose sales…this includes writers who are shy or uncomfortable in front of people. It also includes writers who, while in their bedclothes, are fragile enough to be thrown by rodents.) But most important, a book tour provides critical information—the knowledge of who’s really reading your books. Sure, there’s Nielsen BookScan and sales figures, but that doesn’t compare to hearing an eager crowd’s questions and realizing the characters are just as alive for them as they are for you. A book tour is a transaction: You provide your story, so readers can provide you with theirs—like the woman who told me she’d finished my book on a plane and was sobbing so hard that the flight attendant asked if she needed medical attention; or the commuter who missed his stop while engrossed in my novel; or the pregnant woman who decided to bank her baby’s cord blood after considering issues my fiction raised. Reading a book is a partnership between a reader and writer; a book tour lets you finish the equation.

The magic of a book tour is that at some point in your career, you don’t need to build your audience; they’re already begging for you. Touring becomes less about spreading the word and more about showing appreciation to those who’ve been telling their friends and relatives and book clubs about you. My role model for this is Mary Higgins Clark—a writer so popular she never has to leave her house to sell a book—but who, in her 70s, tours annually so that she can say thanks to her many fans. When I grow up as an author, I hope to be just as gracious.

Touring isn’t glamorous by any means—but it’s critical for sowing the seeds of awareness about your writing. If you tour the West Coast, you still may not get a review in the Los Angeles Times, but you could get a mention of your bookstore event—and any PR is good PR. Meeting a book lover in person can turn a casual reader into a lifelong fan. I’ve been touring 15 years, and I’ve gotten better at it. Overcoming my Yankee thrift, I now allow the hotel to launder my underwear, though it costs more than buying a new pair. I keep M&Ms from the minibar in my purse so I don’t go into anaphylactic shock when my schedule’s too tight to grab a meal.

Just don’t make me sleep with a rat.

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