Famous writers like Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling will always draw a crowd. But I think book tours are dead for everyone else. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Nonetheless, first-time authors still feel a lot of pressure to do readings and signings. Why? Foremost, your publisher probably blew smoke up your ass, and the sound of a tour makes you feel important. You’re a professional, godammit, and you’re finally doing a book tour just like the authors on TV talk about. More practically, a book signing used to help ensure that local newspapers would review your book, or at least acknowledge your existence. It’s too bad that nobody reads newspapers anymore. Frowny face. These days, you have to do something extra special to catch people’s attention. There’s just too much competition. To sell a book, you’ve got to have the magic fairy dust. Or a sex tape. But if you have a sex tape, you probably won’t care if your book sells. You’re getting at least a two-season contract for a Reality TV show. That’s way easier than writing.
My goal’s to persuade you against a book tour if you’re a young writer. Especially if you’re self-published. Don’t bother. You’re better off drinking at home. Financially. Emotionally. And every other way.
My very first novel (not Artificial Bitch) came out a few years ago under a different name. I was so excited about my 20-something city whatever book tour. Things quickly went to shit though. For starters, I couldn’t convince my high school and college friends to attend my book launch. In hindsight, I don’t blame them. Who the fuck wants to sit down for 30 minutes and listen to someone read out loud, especially something you plan to read later anyway? Here’s how I’d try to explain book readings to an alien:
Me: So a reading is when an author reads from their book to a live audience, in order to convince them to buy it. They last for about an hour, maybe two hours if you include the signing.
Alien: Why don’t people just read the back jacket?
Me: Because you get to meet the author. And they’ll sign your book.
Alien: Is the signature valuable?
Me: Usually, it’s not.
Alien: Will the author have sex with them?
Me: Nine times out of ten, I don’t think so.
Alien: Is there food, and adult beverages?
Me: Yes! That’s the main reason people come.
Alien: I do not understand. Why don’t they just throw a party and not make people listen to the author read their book?
Readings. We had enough of that shit in grade school. You see, not doing a book tour has opened my eyes to how much readings suck. Even if they have wine and cheese, the cheese makes you fat and the wine makes you so groggy you’re falling asleep halfway through the reading. Trust me, I’ve been to like a hundred readings. Poetry is okay. Poems are short. Most poets can read their work. Even a bad poet’s fun to watch. A bad novelist just stands behind the lectern and suffers. I actually fell out of my chair one time I was so drunk–I mean–bored.
You’re wondering: Why do people even go to readings if they’re so boring? I’ll tell you! There’s a few reasons: If you’re a graduate student, you hope they have finger food substantial enough to make a meal of. More importantly, you want to impress your professors or maybe that agent over there, or whoever. Essentially, you’re feeding and networking. You don’t give a fuck about the author or their book. Hello, you’re a graduate student. There’s no way you can afford to buy the visiting author’s hardback first edition for $22.95. You can barely pay your rent. Yesterday, you contemplated dipping a cockroach in chocolate syrup left by the last tenant. Mmm, crunchy.
The thing I hated most about my book tour? Sure, I was moderately funny. I was sexy. So what? Guys would flirt with me at my signing table and still not buy my book. Or they would buy it and not read it, and definitely not post reviews on Amazon.
One time I had a big reading at a Barnes & Noble. The newspapers interviewed me. I was on local TV and radio. You know what happened? The bookstore manager forgot about me, and left two cases of my book in the back supply room. She took a weekend off. Meanwhile, the cashiers had no idea why people were coming by asking about me and my book every 5 minutes. Maybe they had the wrong bookstore.
So, I showed up 20 minutes beforehand. One clerk’s eyes bulged from his skull, “Wait, you’re Jessica Wilder? Fuck. We had no idea you were coming. People’ve been asking about you all day.” Yeah, life’s a tragi-comedy.
Imagine the awkward conversations writers have with people at book signings. Here’s a typical book signing: You drive to a mid-size down with an independent book store. You show up and read to a crowd of maybe 20 people. Half those people only show up for the wine and cheese and elbow-rubbing. Maybe 5 people actually buy my book. Three more people do this:
Potential buyer: So what’s your book about?
Me: It’s a coming of age story where–
Buyer: Is there sex?
Me: Sure, a little.
Buyer: Oh, then…I don’t know if that would be appropriate for my 16-year-old daughter. Is the sex underage?
Me: My protagonist just turned 18.
Buyer: Hmmmm I don’t know. That sounds a little pornographic.
The woman picks up a copy of my book and leafs through it. My heart begins to race. C’mon you stupid bitch, buy the book! I need this $1 in royalties to pay for my coffee on the way home!
But nope. She doesn’t. Instead, she asks me why my book wasn’t reviewed in the local paper today. They always do that if the book’s any good. I explain to her: Actually, the paper’s book editor loved my novel, but he was busy and “ran out of time” to do a piece on it. No, seriously. He really said that. Of course, maybe he says that to every shit novelist to make them feel better. Who knows? I offer to this woman that my book did get reviewed in Booklist and Publishers Weekly. She is not impressed. In fact, now it sounds like I’m bragging, and readers don’t like that. The woman shrugs and walks off. And I’ve just spent 15 minutes doing life-support on awkward conversation for no reason at all.
Actually, the worst thing about book tours? I wind up spending too much money on other people’s books. Let’s say I’m booked for one of those fancy banquet/readings with three other authors. It draws a crowd of about 200 people. Awesome. I buy the hardback edition of their books for about $20 a piece. A total of $60. Why? Because I’m a first-time novelist and want to look like a good person. They sign my copy and compliment me: “You’re such a class act, Jessica.” They give me they’re card and say they definitely want to host me at their university this fall. Actually, they don’t. A week later, I follow-up and they say their events list is full. Sorry.
So one time, this best-selling novelist gets me drunk and starts crying. “I’m sorry,” she tells our small group in the back of the hotel bar. “I’m just remembering what it was like to be Jessica, just starting out. It was so rough.” Everyone coos her her. A new friend of mine, a mid-list author and a decent person to boot, pulls me aside and whispers, “She’s doing it again.”
“This is her act. She wants everyone to tweet about her.”
This post’s starting to sound whiny. Let me tell you about my car accident. That seems fun. So, I’m driving to three book signings in one day. The roads are slick with rain. An SUV starts to tailgate me, and I cross the speed limit into 85 mph. It just so happens that I lose control of the wheel on a highway bend. My car flips and rolls three times. It’s a miracle I survive. I climb forth from the wreckage and sit zombified in the median, bleeding from cuts on my wrists and arms as a highway patrol officer writes me a ticket for “driving too fast for conditions.” The wreck has turned my car roof into a triangle. Or maybe a rhombus more accurately describes it. Anyway, things could’ve been worse. So much worse. I thank my stars as my car is towed. Then I check into a hotel and sob myself to sleep around 5 pm, wake up at 9 pm, drink gas station wine until 12 am, and then fall back asleep until dawn.
There were upsides. I did happen to meet and fuck two hot guys on my book tour. But that’s two hot guys out of about 20 different readings/signings. My book sold about 2,000 copies total. If you forget about my car accident, then I probably broke even. The car thing though. That put me in the hole. I had to get a second job tutoring online for $12 an hour. Towards the end of my mediocre book tour, a writer friend of mine joked, “You can always do porn if the author thing doesn’t work out.” I shoulda done porn. So what’s the lesson here? Buy Japanese. Those tiny cars can take a fucking pummeling.