Essay Fiction 2008

My Life In Sales

A month of living in a suitcase, eating in airports, and cracking your forehead open against hotel-room walls in the middle of the night often comes to very little. But the only thing worse than going on book tour is not going.
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Illustration by Ben Gibson

This is a story about traveling salesmen, and so it begins in a bar at the edge of a hotel lobby in Mobile, Alabama. The hotel may or may not have been a Hyatt. My memory can only separate hotels into categories: those that are disgusting, those that are very nice, those that may have been Hyatts. What I am sure of is that I was sitting in that bar with Allan Gurganus and Clyde Edgerton on the last day of the Southeast Booksellers Association conference. We were drinking, and we were talking about book tour. We all had books that had recently been published, or were about to be published, and now was the time for us to go out into America and sell them. None of us felt particularly energized by this prospect.

“You’ve got to drink plenty of water,” Clyde said, and pulled a bottle of Evian from his bag to make the point. He had decided that the reason his last tour had been so hard was that he had gotten dehydrated along the way (all that flying). He believed the lack of water had led to his prolonged post-book-tour despair. Post-book-tour despair, that surprising companion to the despair one feels during book tour, was then discussed at length. Of the three of us, only Allan was sanguine. “The only thing worse than going on book tour,” he said, “is not going on book tour.”

Last week I e-mailed Allan to ask him if he remembered this conversation, and, if he did, was I right in thinking it had taken place in 1994? He wrote, “I think our meeting must have been in 1992, when I was out on tour with White People. War stories, those many miles. I didn’t drink till Book Tour.” Clyde said he also remembered the conversation, “tho I was thinking 1997 or 8 was the date of the tour when I drank so much water and walked so much and meditated so much to avoid depression.” The fact is, I was on book tour in 1992 and 1994 and 1997 (and 2001, 2002, and 2007, for that matter), so anything is possible. Like the hotels, the tours all start to blend together. The books, the cities, the stores, the airports, the crowds or lack of crowds all fall under the massive heading of What Happened While I Was Away. What I always remember clearly are the times I saw other writers, the way pioneers rolling over the prairies in covered wagons must have remembered every detail of the other settlers they passed, cutting through the tall grass from a different angle. “How was it back there?” you shout out from your wooden perch.

“Rough,” your fellow homesteader calls back, and raises his bottle of Evian in warning. “Be sure to drink your water.”

And I do. The reason I have so assiduously followed Clyde’s advice (I drink it by the bucketful whenever I’m out on the road) and chanted Allan’s words like a mantra in my head (It is worse not to go. It is worse not to go) is that these are pretty much the only guidelines I’ve been offered on what is a very important subject in my life. Even the ever-professional Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was a student in the middle ’80s, doesn’t have a seminar on book-tour techniques, though the thought of them having one is more chilling by far. Sometimes in life you’re better off not knowing what’s coming.

When I published my first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, in 1992, I was told I wouldn’t have much of a budget for publicity. Of course, I was free to stretch that budget, to drive rather than fly, go cheap on motels and food, keep the collect calls to a minimum, and therefore get to more stores. As green as a soldier first reporting for duty, I practically leaped to my feet. “Oh, yes!” said I. This was my book, after all, the rock-solid embodiment of all my dreams. I wanted to do anything I could to help it make its way in the world. My publicist at Houghton Mifflin set up my itinerary. I covered about 25 cities and kept my expenses under $3,000. With one good dress in the trunk of my car, I would drive to Chicago, find the McDonald’s closest to the bookstore, change clothes in the bathroom (say what you will for the food, they have the cleanest bathrooms), go to the bookstore, and present myself to the person behind the counter. That has always been the hardest part for me, approaching the stranger at the cash register to say that I am the seven o’clock show. We would look at each other without a shred of hope and both understand that no one was coming. Sometimes two or three or five people were there, sometimes they all worked in the bookstore, but very often, in the cities where I had no relatives to drum up a little crowd, I was on my own. I did freelance writing for Bridal Guide in those days, and more often than not there was a girl working at the store who was engaged. We would sit and talk about her bridesmaids’ dresses and floral arrangements until my time was up; then she would ask me to sign five copies of stock. This, I was told, was a coup because signed copies cannot be returned to the publisher, so it was virtually the same as a sale. (Please note: this is not true. I have pulled seemingly brand-new copies of my novels from sealed cartons and found my signature in them. Somebody mailed those copies back.) But none of that mattered, because my publicist told me that the success of book tour wasn’t measured in how many books you sold that night. What mattered was being friendly, so that the girl at the cash register, and maybe even the store manager, would like you, and in liking you would read your book once you had gone, and in reading your book would see how good it was and then work to hand-sell it to people for months or even years to come. And I believed this because if I didn’t, I had no idea what the hell I was doing out there. After saying all my warm goodbyes, I would leave the store in the dark, drive the two blocks back to the McDonald’s to change out of my dress, and put in a couple of hours on the road to Indianapolis, where I was scheduled to appear the next night at seven. I was exhausted and embarrassed, and yet I told myself the experience had been worthwhile because I was friendly and would be remembered for that.

And who knows, maybe that’s what did the trick. While I was out with my last novel, Run, I routinely had audiences of 200 people a night. As those patient readers stood in line and waited for me to sign their books, I realized for the first time that book tour really is more than a goodwill gesture. It’s about selling books.

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