I’ve seen a number of movies the last couple of years that end with one of the main characters sitting at a table, behind a huge pile of brand new hardback books, while a line of eager young men and alluring young women wait for a personally signed copy of their very own. It seems that the book signing has become a movie payoff moment, like birth, marriage, death, and loss of virginity.
In truth, most writers claim they hate book signings, book readings, and book tours. Personally, I get a kick out of them. I wrote every day for twenty years before I met another writer. I don’t even recall talking to a reader. So, it’s fun once every couple of years to meet people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.
Now, I have the Jackson Hole Writers Conference (send a Message if you might want to come. It’s an inspirational hoot) but before that, all I had was the occasional book tour. I lived in a hovel, back then, and I still carry my food stamp card at all times to keep myself humble, so sleeping in high-end hotels and eating without regard to costs made me feel like a kid playing dress-up. There was the fear of my mom bursting into a reading and shouting, “Tim, you are a fraud.”
Mostly they’re entertaining but even when the worst that can possibly go wrong goes wrong — no one shows up, the store has no books, someone hoists their unpublished memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family on you — the traveling author goes back to the hotel room to watch pay per view over a mini-bar cocktail party.
Book tours come in two sorts, with variations. The categories are air and car. When Honey Don’t came out I flew fourteen times in sixteen days, media escorts in each city, no entourage, no groupies. As a contrast, after Sorrow Floats was published I spent eight weeks driving around America, passing out t-shirts and reading the same chapter over and over. I gained twenty pounds.
I’ve learned better now. Garrison Keillor says the worst thing that can happen at a reading is for someone to read. I’ve watched the old pros — Chris Moore comes to mind — and most of them have worked up an act. They read less than three minutes out of thirty. I’ve heard Chuck Palahniuk sometimes throws body parts at the audience.
I used to think the media escort was purely an ego massage provided by the publishers to make us writers feel pampered, until I got one. A good media escort will help an author hit fifteen bookstores in an afternoon. These are called drive-by signings. You sign stock and tell the booksellers you can’t live without them. I do love people who sell books.
If you go on tour, I would advise against behaving like a jerk. The media escorts gossip. First, they tell you they aren’t supposed to talk about other writers, then, with a minimum of prodding, they dish the dirt — the women who meet up with extracurricular boyfriends, the men who drink themselves into a coma and refuse to leave the escort’s car. Jeffrey Archer is a legend for his bad behavior. He insists every escort address him as Lord Archer. Next most arrogant, rude, and demanding are the editors from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Think about that.
While it’s cool to meet fans who know my books better than I do and think I’m okay, every tour has at least one moment of crushing humiliation. Try driving 1,800 miles to Davis Kidd in Nashville and arriving to find out the events guy is off today, no one has ever heard of you, and no one can locate any of your books. I went to a Barnes and Noble in Kansas City and shyly said to the pretty girl at the information desk, “I’m Tim Sandlin. I’m supposed to be here tonight.” She disappeared for ten minutes and came back and handed me a job application.
I had a huge crowd, by my standards, at the old Hungry Mind in St. Paul. Halfway through the reading a bus pulled up and everyone but my wife and one other guy got up and left. Turned out they were an English as a Second Language group learning about American culture by attending my reading. (If you’ve read my books, you may find that appalling.) the bus came and they left.
George Singleton ended a book tour in jail. He badmouthed George Bush on a Mississippi radio station and they busted his ass. The actual charge was being drunk and saying fuck on the air, but he claims he was arrested for trashing Bush in Mississippi.
Wherever two or more writers come together, they inevitably trade book tour horror stories. The worst (or best, depending on your attitude) story I’ve heard was told by Nancy Pearl. She’s the model for the librarian action figure, you may have seen. Has a TV show in Seattle where she interviews writers. She told me about a Canadian writer named Ian McSomethingoranother (this would be a better anecdote if I could remember his name). Anyway, no one showed up for Ian’s reading, which is okay when you’re not in your own hometown. Better than one or two coming because then you have to go through the motions while shoppers look at you with pity in their eyes.
But the bookstore owner wouldn’t let Ian leave. She hustled around the store, begging customers to listen to the reading and finally one old guy who looked like he’d come into the store to get warm agreed to sit on the first row.
Ian started the reading. His audience leaned forward, fell out of his chair and died. Repercussions were about what you would expect.