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Why book tours are passé

Author readings and signing sessions, once the staple of publishing publicity, are being usurped by virtual encounters and promotional videos.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2007

The author tour, with its accompanying readings and signings, has come to be the quintessential tool for promoting books. It is a chance for writers to charm their readers and for readers to glimpse the person behind the words. At its best, the meeting can be electric. (At worst, nobody shows up.)

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But in the past five years or so, observers say the traditional author tour has been in decline: Fewer writers are being sent out, and those who do tour make fewer stops. Among the many reasons for this shift are marketing tools that have made it possible to orchestrate a virtual encounter, without the hassle or expense of travel. Publishers and authors are now touting books through podcasts, film tours, blog tours, book videos, and book trailers. In fact, it's unusual for a book not to have some sort of Web presence. (Blue van Meer, the fictional main character in the 2006 novel "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl, even has her own MySpace page.)

Publicity departments used to be places where wacky ideas originated but languished, says Carol Schneider, executive director of publicity for Random House. Now, with the Internet, she says, "they are really able to carry [those ideas] out."

Each is a small experiment, an incremental move, as the publishing industry has begun to embrace the Internet and other new media. It's hard not to wonder, though, whether their cumulative effect will one day render the face-to-face bookstore meeting between writer and reader obsolete.

An author's emissary: a short film

Man Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan opted not to take his 10th novel, "On Chesil Beach," on the road this past summer. In his place, a short film was screened by bookstores in 54 US cities. On Veterans Day, the second in the film series "Out of the Book," by Powell's Books, kicked off its tour. The movie features commentators including Joan Didion and Bob Woodward discussing the late David Halberstam and his book about the Korean War, "The Coldest Winter." Meanwhile, a company called TurnHere has launched an ambitious project to create an online book channel with short Internet videos – the founder likens it to an MTV for books. So far, has exclusively aired Simon & Schuster authors. But it recently announced plans to expand coverage to 10 other publishers.

Both video ventures promise a few things bookstore appearances can't always deliver. They offer insight into a writer's inspiration and process – back stories that may not come through by simply listening to a writer read his work aloud.

And now, the video

To promote her memoir, "The Glass Castle," Jeannette Walls enlisted her once-homeless mother, Rose Mary, a captivating character in the book, to appear in a three-minute video. Rose Mary shows off a few of the paintings she created that are mentioned in the book. Just imagine an author trying to tote her mother's artwork – not to mention her mother! – on tour.

Such films are polished and packaged, which certainly cannot be said of every writer.

"Some authors are really engaging and some authors, frankly, are not," says Dave Weich, marketing director of Powell's Books. Video offers a way around that. "There's a lot of editing that takes place," admits Sue Fleming, vice president of online marketing at Simon & Schuster. "We can forgive a certain lack of mediagenic-ness."