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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.)

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."

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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, BookVideos.tv 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."

The videos have another advantage: They eliminate the humiliation for an author of showing up at a bookstore event only to find the place empty. Joseph Finder, who toured Boston and the Midwest over three weeks in August for "Power Play," his most recent thriller, says store owners feel terrible about poorly attended events. And there's always an excuse: Either the weather was too nice. Or it was too foul. Or else a local football game drew away all the customers.

Finder has produced a book a year since 2004 – and toured for each. Still, he says, a perennial question among author friends is: "What's the point of the book tour?" He has even penned a short piece lamenting the downsides of the tour for Publishers Weekly, a leading trade publication. This year, for the first time, Finder experimented with a book trailer for "Power Play." But he says he'll keep touring as long as his publisher will send him. "You don't know what works or doesn't work," he says. "You have to do everything you can."

Publishing lore credits "Valley of the Dolls" writer Jacqueline Susann and her husband, Irving Mansfield, with creating the modern book tour in the 1960s. She is said to have doggedly pushed her books onto customers and even sweetened up the truckers who delivered them with coffee and doughnuts. But some form of book tour dates back at least to the 19th century. Between 1853 and 1870, Charles Dickens gave more than 400 readings across the US and Europe.

Reaching far-flung outposts

These days, a book tour by a well-known author usually travels to just a handful of cities. Chances are, even the most ambitious promotional treks won't reach a small bookstore in, say, Dubuque, Iowa. For that reason, those involved with online marketing suggest that virtual events are actually reaching people who wouldn't otherwise come into contact with big-name authors.

"It's an interesting paradigm," says Mr. Weich of Powell's Books. "People tend to ask, 'Isn't this just going to replace the author tour?' But most places in America don't get author tours, at least of [McEwan and Halberstam's] caliber."

As for the question of whether new media will supplant a centuries-old book-touring tradition, even critics of junkets say that meet and greets will survive.

"In a way, the author tour has suffered from its monopolist role in book promotion," says Weich. "It's a really tired format."

He believes competition from other types of marketing may encourage the book tour to be more imaginative, to reinvent itself.

Budget tours

Already, publishers are thinking more strategically. Morgan Entrekin, head of Grove/Atlantic, says he is sending about 20 to 30 percent fewer authors on tour, and those he dispatches are visiting 20 to 30 percent fewer cities. But this winter, Mr. Entrekin arranged for the authors of "Halsey's Typhoon," a nonfiction account of a treacherous World War II Navy mission, to visit naval bases and shipmate reunions. It was an author tour, but aimed at a niche audience.

In August, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine and author of "The Long Tail," launched BookTour.com to connect authors with potential audiences. The site is a way of using the Internet to improve the author tour.

"We're all authors, so we've seen the ugly side of book touring first-hand," says Mr. Anderson. "The reason we chose to start our company around the book tour itself, is we believe in face-to-face contact.... We believe in author tours. We just think they can be done a lot better."

Soon, they may be.

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