Speaking of having work left in you on a book: What's the touring/reading/promotion been like. Mike and Rachel, you guys are going to tour together this summer, right? Where are you guys going? What do you have planned? What about the rest of you? How was (or what do you plan to do) the promotional side of the experience?
Andrew Ervin: I'm grateful for this question, Jensen, because I'm really at a loss here. I'll get a little bit of money from my publisher if I want to do a couple readings in other cities and would be grateful for some advice from the people here about how to spend it wisely. Thanks!
Tom McAllister: Sorry, Andrew — I don't have any useful advice for you. I'm just jealous that you can get money to read in other cities. I've got some readings set up in the Philly area, but have found a lot of this promotional stuff to be DIY. I don't mean to imply that the PR people aren't working hard, but we've all read the many stories about not enough publicists, too many books, etc. Plus, the same office that's promoting my book is on the verge of launching a multimillion dollar vampire trilogy about two weeks after my memoir comes out, so I know I'm not top priority. That said, they have managed to get me well-publicized events at a couple of the big book stores: Borders in center city Philly, a big Barnes and Noble in South Jersey, etc.
As for the rest of the promotional stuff: I'm currently one week from book release, which means I'm just beginning everything. Mostly, this has involved me reaching out to every blogger and friend I know, having my editor and/or publicist sending copies to about 90% of the local media with fingers crossed, and checking my phone every 5 minutes just to make sure I didn't miss a monumental phone call about some PR breakthrough. Also, I did an interview on sports talk radio at 11:45 PM on a weekday, which wasn't nearly as bad as it may sound. This is a terribly disorganized answer, I think, which is maybe a pretty accurate reflection of my state of mind during this promotional process.
Laura van den Berg: The promotion was definitely a group effort. My publisher, agent, and I worked on a PR list for galleys and final copies and in addition to those mailing, Dzanc was great about advocating for the book and getting it into the hands of people who might be interested. They provided tour support, but there was a lot of DIY involved too. I did a fairly substantial tour, which was fun but involved a lot of planning. I also did things like contact media in the places I was visiting, e-mail bloggers with the offer to have a galley sent if they’d be interested, etc. The whole process can be a little consuming, in that there’s always something more that could theoretically be done, so I had to figure out how much I could do happily and then not worry about getting to the rest. Andrew, re your question, I think it makes sense to cluster events by area as much as you can, so if you’re doing a reading in Boston, maybe try to hit some places in the same region, as opposed to going to Boston one week and then going back the next week for a reading in New Hampshire or NYC. Also, for what it’s worth, I had really good experiences with reading series in respect to both turnout, since a good one comes with a built-in audience, and book sales, so I think they’re definitely a venue worth pursuing.
Holly Goddard Jones: I was pretty happy with HP's efforts to promote the book. In addition to the regular galley and review copy mailings, there were two direct mailings, one to southern writers and one to independent booksellers in the southeast, and a giveaway at AWP. The book was featured in some group advertising that appeared in venues such as Tin House, AWP Chronicle, and The Believer — I think that advertising of any kind is rare these days — and I was asked to do some guest blogging at Huffington Post, Book Club Girl, Book Reporter, etc. I also went on a regional book tour, with hit-or-miss results. My readings in Kentucky, Columbus, Ohio (where I went to grad school), and Tennessee all went well. My readings in North Carolina, where I moved in the summer of last year, were not so good. Kevin, I seem to remember you blogging about this subject, so maybe you can chime in on this, but bookstore readings can be the pits. People will tell you that the real value is in having your book on display in the weeks preceding the reading, and you also get the opportunity to meet book sellers who can be an advocate for you, but that's hard to remember when you're reading to two or three people. I've also done some book fairs and festivals, which can be awkward, but there's a benefit. At the Kentucky Book Fair, for instance, I met a person who ended up adopting Girl Trouble for his book club. Another arranged for me to do a reading at his city's public library. I think that the book business these days, especially when you have a collection of short stories, operates very much at the level of the hand sell, even if your press is commercial.
Laura van den Berg: Holly! I had the exact same experience re bookstores, save for the bookstore reading I did in Boston, which almost doesn't count since I used to live in Boston. For the most part, these were really wonderful bookstores that host readings frequently and I was usually reading with another author, but still they were by far the most challenging venue I encountered on tour. Sometimes there was an element of bad luck involved (i.e. torrential rain), but I have since wondered if other authors encountered similar issues, or if I had just made some sort of strategic error. There are for sure other benefits to bookstore readings, but I agree that it can be hard to keep that perspective when you have a super small turnout.
Kevin Wilson: The book tour, though I was excited to do it (my dad drove with me so we could spend some time together), was kind of soul-crushing in many ways. It had nothing to do with the publicity people at Harper Perennial (who were awesome and worked hard to get any notice they could for a book of stories by a first-time author) and it had nothing to do with the independent bookstores (the owners were always really cool and said they were pushing the book), but it was the sheer fact that most of the time almost nobody came to the reading. I don't blame anyone. I was a first-time author with a book of short stories. I was reading in places where I knew no one. But it was still weird. I have now learned what is worse, having no one come to a reading, or having one person. The answer is: one person. With no people, you can run back to the hotel and eat a pizza and watch tv in your pj's. With one person, you have to determine if they want you to read to them ("No, that's okay") and you have put a huge burden on that person to buy a book so you don't feel even worse. Over a hundred people came to a reading in Oxford, MS (where I read with another writer and there was music), and I felt like the greatest writer of all time. And then one person showed up the very next night in Blytheville, AR. I do think the tour helped in getting my name out to places that might not have otherwise considered pushing the book, and I hope I made an impression on the people who came to the reading, and I did sell some books, but it was a tough way to do it. My publisher helped me set up a few non-fiction things, and I had a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and I think that was really helpful in getting notice for the book. And my hometown newspaper wrote a nice article for the front page and I probably sold as many books that way than I would have doing a bookstore reading.
Holly Goddard Jones: I kept feeling, as I did my mini-tour, that the bookstore thing was this holdover from another time — a ritual we all keep persisting with because everyone assumes that everyone else wants to do it. As a first-time author, of course I wanted to do it, at first, though I'll be more hesitant if I'm lucky enough to get a second book out. I don't think that the bookstore events were a priority for the publisher, and the bookstores, though (as Kevin said) always friendly and supportive, seem sometimes to do more of these gigs in a week than they can adequately publicize. It's hard to get review or feature coverage as a first-time author if you're one of five events that a store is hosting in a week.
Tom McAllister: Did you all read Stephen Elliot's piece in the NY Times (back in January) about what he called his DIY book tour? Brief summary for those who missed it: essentially, he made personal appearances at book groups and in people's homes, very much in the vein of a Tupperware party (or any variation thereof), and found it to be fairly successful, especially in comparison to the traditional tour. I thought it was a pretty interesting alternative to the heartbreaking ordeal of doing bookstore readings for one person in a strange town, but I wonder how viable an option it is for first timers and relatively unknown writers.
Laura van den Berg: That was a really interesting article, and it's interesting to me the various ways in which book promotion, touring, etc, are being re-invented right now. I actually feel like it's a pretty accessible model for the debut author, although it certainly helps to have cultivated an audience of some kind beforehand. Kathleen Rooney and my Dzanc label-mate Kyle Minor did a joint book tour that took them all over the country for their books Live Nude Girl and In the Devil's Territory, which was Kyle's first book; their thing was to have a local author read with them at each tour stop. It seems like it's more of a question of how much time/energy you are able/willing to devote to organizing a book tour. For example, I think Kathleen look a leave from her job to do the tour with Kyle. To organize something so extensive seems like you'd have to be willing to give your life over to the thing for a few months.
Andrew Ervin: Is it just me, or does all this self promotion — "tweeting, facebooking, articles in newspapers up to big event-type readings" — feel kind, I don't know, dirty? I have the Facebook page and Twitter feed and I'm hoping that some cool magazines and blogs will interview me, &c. I want people to read the book, I guess, and so it's up to me to get the word out about it, and I'm totally doing that, yet it feels like self-promotion isn't what I signed up for when I started writing this thing. Are these qualms normal?
Kyle Beachy: There's definitely an egotism to the promotional process that has made me uncomfortable at times. I suppose it's not really all that different from the whatever's required to believe, hey these words I've written are worth your time — so sit down with my book and give me your undivided attention. But the avenues of promotion today are so wide and varied, with blogs and tweetfests and the universe of Facebook, that the task of self-promotion has achieved a new dimension, and it's constant. I admire the way that Stephen Elliot handled his tour, and I enjoyed his reading here in Chicago, but I frankly can't imagine the project of travelling the country and looking into all of these people's eyes and basically asking them to buy my book. Standing in living rooms and kitchens... I'd begin to feel like a vacuum man. There's a certain taint to activities that are based on commerce, and having a book out forces you to confront the fact of being a salesman. I wasn't ready for it. And this isn't to say Stephen wasn't making personal connections and reaching out to readers — which I bet most of us would agree is the whole point — but just that I worry how I'd handle such a sustained promotional tour. I'd get that tummy feeling. My favorite Faulkner bit starts with, "Read if you like or don't read if you like."
Mike Young: Wow, I have a totally different perspective on touring/readings than most people here, I guess. I've done plenty of shows—including lots of house shows—as a musician and a writer, and it's probably my favorite part of the so-called "creative process." Performance has always felt like a natural outgrowth of writing to me. If my work is talking at imaginary faces, then real faces are the mystical bonus round. Granted, I don't like hustling people to buy my shit, but I do like entertaining them. Entertainment comes from roots that mean "to hold among," to draw people in, to intertwine with somebody. That's why one of the nicest things a stranger can do is entertain us, because that means they're becoming less strange. Think of how you don't have to say anything when you and somebody else are both laughing, but how much you know about that somebody else that you didn't know before you laughed together.
I mean, maybe this is all just my weird taste. I'd love for The National to play in my livingroom, and I'd buy their CD if they did a good job. And, okay, I actually enjoy sleeping in kitchens and eating 7-11 jerky. I'd rather live in a snow globe than an apartment, etc. Which is ridiculous, sure. But I do agree with Kyle above that publication is, fundamentally, a very egotistical gesture. For me, readings—and other forms of direct contact with readers, but most especially readings—actually feel like (potentially) graceful manifestations of that gesture: here I am with this language I made. And I'll go ahead and make it again for you with my breath. That's always felt actually kind of amazing. Which is to say I try my hardest to be half as good as some of the really terrific readers I've seen. Plus, if the book sucks, I (the author) can be off on an island riding walruses while you (the reader) suffer with my sucky book. If my reading sucks, at least you have this warm human to hate, which is always more satisfying than hating a book.
Philosophy aside, the tour Rachel and I are doing with Natalie Lyalin is something we planned entirely ourselves, since all our books are out from small presses without PR people. I'm stoked for it. We're going to Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, Richmond, Durham/Raleigh, and Atlanta. One reading will happen in a warehouse, another in a church, a few in houses. Rachel and I both live in Northampton, Massachusetts, so we decided to plan a tour that didn't include stops too close to home—New York, Boston, local, and so on—since we could read in those places whenever we wanted. We do have a Boston reading planned for August, and we'll be in Ann Arbor in September. Honestly, for me, this shit is maybe the most comfortable part of "having a book," the same way that singing songs to people is the most comfortable part of having songs stuck in my head.
One more thing: Stephen Elliot's tour struck me as beautiful in its simplicity and gusto. He took an indie music convention—the house tour—and made it work for literature. His particulars fit, obviously: he was touring a memoir that people could relate to, telling stories from his life that made people want to share stories from their life. But I think the model could work for fiction and poetry as well. I guess maybe it does require that you somehow have at least one friend or friend-of-a-friend in a lot of different cities. And it also helps, of course, if you're not boring. But like Elliot said in the piece, people love parties. I've seen and helped to make happen plenty of musicians touring by Greyhound, hopping from house party to house party, etc, and I don't see why that couldn't work with authors too. Actually, there are communities of authors who already do this: slam poets, chiefly. And I'm sure people have opinions about slam poets. So there are larger conversations to be had, I bet, about performance and community, being an open node and practicing enunciation, but those are big conversations and probably too annoying to address in the scope of this interview.
Kevin Wilson: Mike, it's not that I don't enjoy reading to people; I like reading out loud and seeing how the work seems to change as you read it to people. What sucks is reading to no one. My official book tour, which was very small because I couldn't get much time off from my job and I didn't want to leave my wife with the kid for too long, was a series of readings at independent bookstores. And so, yes, it was nice to read to people, but when people didn't come, I was standing there in front of twenty copies of my books while the staff drank beer and wondered when I was going to leave. I think, as Laura mentioned, the traditional book tour probably isn't the best way to do things for first time authors. Since the official tour ended, and I'm setting up my own stuff, when I've read with other people, read at places where music was featured, or read at schools where the kids were fun to be around, it was awesome. And I sold a lot more books in these ways than I did on the traditional tour. I think the tour you've set up sounds wonderful, especially the variation of setting. But, at the bookstores, which were, again, run by really cool people, there was still this idea that I was coming in order to help both of us sell books. And so, when that didn't happen, it was awkward.
Mike Young: Totally agreed, Kevin. I've also done things where no one shows up, and it sucks. And I think the point you mention at the end about an event that's thrown under purely commercial auspices versus an event that has other things going for it—all of the alternatives you mention revolve around notions of community—is a really apt insight. This reminds me of an essay A.D. Jameson recently posted on the litblog Big Other: "Alternative Values in Small Press Culture," which is a terrific cheat sheet of how to pursue other ways of doing this stuff, especially the stuff that we've been talking about as making us feel uncomfortable. Okay, the part about how we should do more yoga is a little weird, but the post is otherwise quite practical and lucid and exciting.
Rachel B. Glaser: I have never done a reading tour before, so it's helpful to read everyone's accounts. It seems sort of crazy to do so many readings in a row, and I wonder if I'll get sick and doubtful of my work. But then again, maybe you reach a different plane after many readings. Maybe you gain a new confidence and control that allows you to really throw yourself into your story's dialogue without getting self-conscious. Like male-voice, female-voice!
Laura van den Berg: I enjoyed the public process as well. I liked traveling about and seeing new towns and cities and meeting new people, both in the real world and via web stuff. The whole thing was a big adventure, and I’m always up for adventuring.
That said, when it comes to the web—e-mail lists, Facebook, etc—I do think there’s kind of an art to striking the right note. I have wound up on author mailing lists and feeling spam-ed in a sort of relentless and impersonal way. On the other hand, I get semi-regular communications from other authors and I’m totally happy to receive them; they feel more like friendly updates somehow. So at times I worried over reaching out in a way that felt natural, about bothering people too much, etc, but I didn’t really have qualms about diving in
On the other end of the spectrum, my partner is a fiction writer and published his first book—Once the Shore—last year. He and his publisher did work together on building the review copy list, etc, and he was very involved in the behind-the-scenes goings on, but he completely opted out of the public promotion stuff. He didn’t build a website or a Facebook page, didn’t tweet or do events. He’s not into that aspect of the process and whenever people would push him to do these things, he would say, “That’s just not me.” And his book didn’t suffer from that approach at all. Not one bit. So, at the risk of sounding naïve, I think it’s really important to be yourself and to do what you think you will enjoy, or at least not actively dislike, and what you think will be most effective for your book. One thing that’s emerged from the current publishing landscape is that there are a lot of different ways for a book to happen.
Kyle Beachy: Those feel like extremely wise words, Laura. And Mike I'm interested in your performative approach, and could surely learn from it. But the big obvious difference between writing and making music is that music is made to be heard always, and only very rarely read. So there's gonna be a gap between how a thing we write exists on the page versus how it sounds through a microphone. Maybe part of my anxiety about reading and promoting is I fear it might somehow affect the writing itself, like syntactically. I always think of Blake Butler in this discussion, since his work strikes me as distinctly vocal and cadenced, the sort of writing I badly want to hear. But on the page the experience is totally different. I guess what I'm thinking of is an old distinction, between two forms of entertainment (reading v. listening), and finding them at least partially at odds. I think the slam poetry conversation probably overlaps here, somehow.
Roxane Gay: I don't really enjoy readings and I have a public speaking phobia so the face to face part of being a writer is really hard for me. I do it when I have to and am very pleasant about it but inside, know that I'm dying. But to answer Andrew's question, I don't find self-promotion dirty. We work pretty hard as writers (or don't) but I don't think there's anything wrong with bringing attention to our efforts. I like people knowing about what I do, and reading my writing, and letting me know what they think about my work. That said, I do think all the social networking and self-promotion can get out of hand. It feels like some writers send me an update every single day and that approach does not endear me. You really have to find that fine balance between getting the word out there about what you do and irritating everyone you know. I probably prefer the online promotion because of my speaking phobia. I'm glad the Internet can be my crutch.
Tom McAllister: I'm glad you said it first, Roxane — I'm not a big fan of readings either. I like talking to authors over a couple of beers, I like asking them questions, and I like the concept of being able to hear a great writer perform his/her work, but I often find that I like the theory of a reading much more than the practice. To be blunt, a lot of readings are boring. Whatever the reason — the writer isn't comfortable speaking, the reading is too long or not well-suited to that kind of performance, the room is hot and stifling and uncomfortable, etc. — I find myself struggling to focus, even I when I know I like the book. Maybe this is a negative reflection on my own merits as a listener, but I like to think I give every reader a shot; it's just that somewhere in the middle, I find myself watching the people in the room, or thinking about my own work, or wondering what I'm going to eat after the reading, and then I realized I've missed two pages of a nine page story. And I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. At AWP, I had about a dozen conversations along these lines: people wanted to support the readings, but people also didn't really want to sit through readings. All of which is a long way of saying this: if even writers and serious readers are ambivalent about readings, it's hard to imagine a casual reader caring at all. When I tell my non-reading friends about events like that, they struggle to even pretend they care. To them, it sounds like sitting in a classroom and being lectured.
Holly Goddard Jones: I'd like to clarify, too, that I'm not against readings wholesale, though I agree with Roxane and Tom that attending them isn't always a joy. I've been to some good ones, and I've been to some miserable ones, and if you teach, as I do, there's just the problem of volume. I have to go to a lot of them. But I've had some great experiences touring for the book. Just this weekend, I did a public library reading in Glasgow, Kentucky, and it was wonderful. I got to see my most influential high school English teacher for the first time in almost 13 years, and they'd laid out a spread of baked goods and little sandwiches and things to welcome me. The librarian gave me a gift bag with locally made wooden kitchen utensils, soap, and cheese. How great is that? In the best case scenario, you get to meet great people who make you feel welcome and who remind you that the book has a life outside of your own mind. You just have to brace yourself for the opposite.
Tom McAllister: I would read pretty much anywhere, any time, if they were giving out free cheese and baked goods.
Caitlin Horrocks: Amen, Tom and Roxane, and thanks to everybody for helping me to clarify some of my own thinking about readings and promotion while my book’s release is still a ways out. I genuinely enjoy giving readings, but as an audience member, I’m often one of the people fidgeting and realizing they’ve missed the middle of a story. Just as a few of you commented that the traditional bookstore tour is a convention that isn’t that successful, I feel like the traditional model of a reading is set up for failure as often as success. Some writing has cadences that come alive out loud; some authors are naturally dynamic performers. But then some prose is quiet and dense and suited to slow, private reading; some authors read like they’d much rather be back at the computer and not in front of these strangers. They can be a lot like sitting in a classroom and getting lectured.
At their best, readings are a new way to experience the work, to feel a different kind of connection to the author, but also just to be entertained. And I really appreciate the individual writers and event organizers who help to make sure that happens, whether that involves just a really fantastic delivery, pairing a visitor with a local writer, with a non-writer performer, or providing baked goods!
A friend who’s had two books come out in the past year invited me onto the bill at a couple of his readings. I wasn’t sure I should horn in on his spotlight, so I sort of pooh-poohed his suggestion with the comment that since my book wouldn’t be out for another year, I didn’t have anything to sell. He gave me a look like I was a moron, and he was completely right: I’d been thinking of book promotion so balefully that I’d lost sight of the fact that performing my work and meeting readers shouldn’t actually be about moving product.
Kevin Wilson: I used to love going to readings when I was in college and the years just after I graduated. It was a way to feel connected to something that I desperately wanted to do myself. And I think it did help, when I was thinking about how to get better at writing, to listen to other people read their work. I heard Ben Marcus read in a tiny room with seven or eight other people and it was amazing. What he was reading and how he read it made me want to attempt something that seemed impossible. Same with Barry Hannah. Same with Christine Schutt. It was just exciting to listen to people read their work. Now, I'm a secretary for a writers' conference and so, for almost ten years, every summer I end up sitting through almost thirty readings in twelve days. It's exhausting; I have very little desire to attend readings the rest of the year because I'm burned out.
Jedediah Berry: I'll admit that reading in public didn't feel natural to me at first, but over time I've found ways to make it work for me. Rather than just read from my book, I've also been reading from something with a performative element to it: in one case a short story printed on index cards that gets shuffled into a new order each time it's read. This keeps me on my toes, keeps me guessing, and (I think) keeps the audience engaged as well. I eventually edited and added to that story based on reactions from the audience, and the readings became part of the writing process in a surprisingly satisfying way.
Call it gimmickry (no, call it gimcrackery!), but I think it's worth keeping something handy that breaks the usual narrative mold if you're going to stand up in front of people and talk for a long time. Writers—if they want to make the public reading a genuine point of connection with readers—should speak more, interact more, invite audiences in. Recently I saw Lily Hoang have people roll dice to determine which section of her book she would read from. At a reading I attended in New Hampshire last year, they passed around a hat to collect questions for the writer to answer. These gestures made the most of the format, and prompted some meaningful discussion. The readings became more than a way to promote something: they became an artistic exchange in their own right.