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.

In book-tour lore—the author equivalent of urban legend—Jacqueline Susann is given credit for the idea that authors should not only write their books but also personally hand them out. She and her husband, Irving, showed up at stores all across the country to sign copies of Every Night, Josephine! (the one about her poodle). By the time Valley of the Dolls arrived, she was lounging on Merv Griffin’s couch and keeping up a publicity schedule that allowed her book to sit in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list for a record-breaking 28 weeks.

Signing books in a store is one thing, but book tour in its more advanced form is credited to Jane Friedman, until recently the CEO of HarperCollins (my present publisher). She had started out as a 22-year-old publicist at Knopf, where she was assigned to work with Julia Child for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two. Julia’s cooking show was doing well on public television in Boston, so Friedman decided to contact all the public-television stations in the major markets. After that, she scheduled appearances at the big department stores (which, in 1970, had significant book sections). “I said, ‘I’ll bring Julia to your town, we’ll work with the local public-television stations, we’ll get newspaper coverage, and then she’ll do an autographing in the department store.’”

What followed was a perfect storm of media and retail, the same gold standard that publicists still work for today. The stores were full of signs. The city was full of buzz. Nothing had been left to chance. At the first stop in Minneapolis, Friedman looked out her hotel-room window at 7:30 in the morning and saw a thousand women lined up outside the department store. “It was a Cecil B. DeMille moment,” she remembers. “We had parted the Red Sea. Julia made mayonnaise in a blender. We sold 500 books.” The formula paid off in city after city, Julia cracking wise and whisking eggs, while ladies waited in line to buy the merchandise. Any modern author short of Stephen King and John Grisham might feel a quiver in his lower lip to think of such large numbers. “Today you’re competing with six other authors on the Today show,” Friedman says, and suddenly she is speaking as the publisher of my books. The CEO who still has a publicist’s soul is shoring me up for my own next show. “What hasn’t changed is the connection between the author and the reader. If anything, it’s even stronger. The people who come out to your signings are real Ann Patchett fans. I’m glad I wrought that. It was always my intention.”

And yet I struggle with my own intentions. I can never get very far from the niggling belief that something about book tour is inherently wrongheaded, that the basic premise of authors selling their books is a flawed one. Most people who are capable of sitting alone day after day, year after year, typing into the void are probably constitutionally ill-suited to work a room like a politician (though I am not, in fact, afraid of public speaking, and I’m good at it). We’re a country obsessed with celebrity, and trying to make authors into small-scale Lindsay Lohans does nothing but encourage what is already a bad cultural habit. Reading, no matter what book clubs tell us, is a private act, private even from the person who wrote the book. Once the novel is out there, the author is beside the point. The reader and the book have their own relationship now, and should be left alone to work things out for themselves. “I love the way you read,” a woman in a signing line said to me recently. She told me about a favorite author whose books she had loved for years. But when she heard this author read, she couldn’t stand her voice. “She was awful. I haven’t touched her books since.” I told her with no small amount of passion that this woman, this author, wasn’t important and should be forgotten. “Keep on loving the books,” I said. “You don’t have to love her.” “I know,” the woman said, “I know, but I can’t get that voice out of my head.”

The author’s voice isn’t the only thing that can be misleading. Chances are I can explain, in the course of a Q&A, a novel’s dissatisfying ending or a character’s cloudy motivations, but who’s to say I’m right? Once the book is written, its value is for the reader to decide, not for the author to explain.

Not to mention the fact that a month of living in a suitcase, eating in airports, and cracking your forehead open against a wall in the middle of the night because you’ve forgotten where the bathroom is (I’ve done it twice) often comes to very little. Excepting the consistent success of Jane Friedman and Julia Child, selling books isn’t much of a science. Although you appear to be promoting your new novel, you never really tour for the book you’ve just written. You tour for the book before that, the one people have read and want to talk about. Unless, of course, you’re on tour for your first book, which no one wants to talk about. A column in my local paper, The Tennessean, recently reminded me of that. The reporter remembered my appearance at a Book & Author Dinner in Nashville in 1992, during which I sat alone at a signing table while huge crowds assembled for the other authors, Ricky Van Shelton (a country-music heartthrob who had written a children’s book), Janet Dailey (a best-selling romance author), and Jimmy Buffett (no explanation needed). The editor of the paper felt so sorry for me that he quietly instructed 25 members of his staff to buy my book, stand in my line, and get my autograph, something I never knew had happened until I read it in the paper 15 years later. All those dutiful employees were later reimbursed for the price of a hardback.

A few of the people who did eventually read The Patron Saint of Liars (whether they were paid to or not) came to hear me when I went out with my second novel, Taft. Then Patron Saint and Taft readers came when I was in town with my third book, The Magician’s Assistant. Magician’s Assistant people came to see me when I toured for Bel Canto. There was a great deal of weeping on that tour. I kept extra tissues in my purse. People wanted to talk about the death of Parsifal, the magician, and what had become of Sabine, his assistant. No one wanted to talk about Roxane Coss, a famous soprano held captive in a nameless South American country. They wanted to talk about her six years later when I went out with Run.

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