The Not-Quite End of the Book Tour

6 a.m. flights, three-person audiences, and “escorts”: inside the 21st-century reality of a storied institution.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

As I was flying from my home in Slovenia to New York for a week-long tour to promote my new book in June, I fantasized about the knishes and bialys I would consume during my travels. Even while daydreaming, though, I was acutely aware of what a rarity it is these days for an author to be sent on a book tour at all. In recent years, and especially since the recession of 2008, when author advances shrunk and publishing had to tighten its collective belt, one of the first things to go were book tours (not to mention the all-but-extinct beast called the “book release party”).

For publishers, sending authors on tour is expensive—they have to cover transport, meals, and nice hotels. And perhaps more importantly, touring doesn’t necessarily translate into better book sales. It’s hard to tell, in fact, what effect they have at all, as sales records don’t show what prompted someone to buy the book, only where the book was purchased. With the publication of my two books, most recently The Art of Forgery in June, I’ve found myself part of a lucky group that still gets to partake in this somewhat fading institution. I’ve witnessed firsthand how publishers have adapted to a changing industry—by becoming more selective about which authors to send on tour, which promotional appearances to secure, and how to make the dollars stretch.

The editors and publicists I spoke to for this article explained that, back in the day, publishers would send authors out on tour fairly regularly—the more events and cities covered, the better. But in this new, more austere era, publishers only regularly pay to send authors who are compelling public speakers, authors with large established audiences who are guaranteed to sell well and therefore cover expenses (the James Pattersons, Gary Shteyngarts, J.K. Rowlings, and so on), or authors with a high profile that extends beyond books (such as actors, athletes, comedians). Publishers might send the odd debut writer, in hopes of more media coverage, but it’s no longer a given.

Obviously not falling into the second or third category, I’m more the kind of author who gets a kick out of the times I’ve been able to go out, meet people, and talk about my books. For me, writing is a great but solitary activity, normally undertaken in a dark room, alone, while I’m in my pajamas. I enjoy the adrenaline of performance; the bigger the audience, the better. I’ve spoken for audiences ranging in size from 700 to three (more on that later), and been interviewed by everyone from local blogs with a readership in the low hundreds to the BBC. But I’m aware that being offered these opportunities is a huge privilege, and not the norm—for most authors the publicity process involves phone or email interviews, with maybe a single local bookstore event.

In order to swing sending authors out on tour, publishers today have to make compromises. Previously, authors would get a company credit card and sort out their own travel arrangements, accommodations, and meals without supervision—often a wasteful approach. Then publishers began to experiment with sending publicists out with authors to serve two functions: as a fixer (with a theoretically more measured use of the company credit card) and chaperone. But this meant double the expense: twice the plane and train tickets, twice the meals, twice the hotels. Then arrived another solution that I only learned about on my first tour, back in 2007 for my novel The Art Thief. It peeled back the veil over this quasi-legendary concept of authors on tour (I imagined groupies, whiskey, cigarette smoke, typewriters), and exposed me to a new, and completely fascinating, role that I never knew existed: that of the awkwardly named “escort.”

Author escorts are local residents of the cities visited by those of us on tour, and are subcontracted by publishers to meet and guide authors who come into town. (You can spot them at airports and train stations, because they’re always carrying a copy of your book.) Most in my experience have been elegant, middle-aged women with pearl necklaces and SUVs and husbands in banking, women who read vast numbers of books, know their cities inside out, and are thrilled to show visitors around. They do have the company credit card, and anything you do while they’re with you is paid for (free food is the siren song for writers, impossible to resist). In all, the escort system is a more cost-effective way to get authors where they need to be: Because escorts live in the city in question, the publisher doesn’t need to fly them in or spring for their hotel.

Escorts, for their part, make hectic book tours exponentially easier. On my first tour in 2007, I ping-ponged around 12 cities, and not in any order that made geographic sense (for some reason San Francisco was scheduled for the day between events in Austin and Houston). I’d get up each morning around 6, groggily pack up my bag at another hotel, and be driven to the airport for an early flight to the next city. There I’d be picked up by the next escort, who’d be smiling and brandishing my book. My escort would bring me to interviews, radio stations, TV studios, press junkets in hotel rooms, to meals (they always know the best places to eat), and then to the book event.

Blurry-eyed authors, uncertain of the day of the week, their current location, or just who is president of the United States, require handholding to maintain such a packed schedule. My most recent tour for The Art of Forgery, which ended in June, included five cities in seven days, with three of the cities featuring in a single day: up at 5 a.m. in Boston, a flight to New York to film an interview for CBS This Morning, then a train to New Haven for an event.

Escorts are often the most interesting person an author will meet on a book tour. In Chicago for The Art Thief, my escort was an aspiring writer planning to pen a memoir called Super Jew, while my San Francisco escort was a novelist who had a hit about Beat vampires back in the ’70s. Authors can go a bit stir crazy, repeating roughly the same presentation night after night, and answering the same questions interview after interview, so a bit of spontaneity and company can be refreshing.

By and large, book tours mostly entail maneuvering to get on radio shows or TV programs, and less glamorous elements, like attending bookstore readings where hardly anyone shows up. At one reading, I had only three people in the audience—including my escort for that city ... and my dad. At the time, I didn’t understand why my publisher had flown me all the way out to play, essentially, to an empty house. But then the store manager wheeled out hundreds of books to sign for the first-edition mail club, and I understood: Book events are not just about selling to the people who attend them, which even for prominent authors can mean only a few dozen copies sold. They’re about getting authors local media attention, getting bookstore staffers face time with authors so they can promote the books, and signing copies. While signed books do sell better, they also can’t be returned to the publisher if they don’t sell—a win-win for publishers.

The national end of things can be even trickier to navigate. From my publisher’s perspective, the main selling point on my U.S. tour in June was my appearance on Fresh Air, a nationally syndicated NPR radio show that’s considered the ne plus ultra of book-selling radio. The host Terry Gross is mistress of 4.5 million regular listeners who consume books like Tic Tacs and who are the target audience for all American publishers of non-fiction, and anything literary.

So many interviews these days are by phone or Skype or email that it’s not strictly necessary to have Author A in Location B in order to get media coverage, but Fresh Air is an exception, preferring guests who can appear in the flesh. And while I did major live events in Washington, D.C. and in New York, each event only reached a few hundred people, at most. My NPR appearance alone justified the considerable cost of paying my way to, and around the U.S. on this tour, because it was bound to offer a boost in sales. While touring alone may be expensive and rarely leads directly to better book sales, Fresh Air alone can launch a bestseller.

Programs like Fresh Air can take on an outsize influence given the tenuous state of book reviewing—the practice has been purportedly dying since at least 1959. On the TV end of things, this year marked the departure of two major promotional platforms for the book industry: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, where renowned public intellectuals and authors from small presses alike could get national attention. As Alex Shephard of the independent publisher Melville House noted, “an appearance [on those shows] couldn’t guarantee a book would become a bestseller, but it was about as close to a sure thing as you could get in an incredibly uncertain marketplace.” He added that the loss of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should serve as a reminder that the book industry has long relied on third parties such as critics for promotion and that it should think of new, better ways to market itself. It’s unclear whether publishers will see tours as part of the future of book-selling—but for the sake of readers and writers alike, they should.

With the exception of the recent movie about David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour, there are few recent examples of book tours in popular culture, making the institution a hazy myth in most people’s minds. Which means few are aware of the unfortunate changes that have befallen the tradition. Book tours for the already-famous will always continue, but there’s a real danger that publishers will decide that the rest of us authors are no longer worth sending on tour at all, a trend that is well under way. This would be a great shame: Tours are often the only chance for writers to spend time with the actual people who read their books. There’s already a big disconnect between readers and authors, who often exist only as an abstraction, as a name on a book spine, or perhaps as a Facebook “friend” you’ve never seen in the flesh.

Tours bridge that gap. The TV appearances may be the shiniest of the trophies on publicists’ walls, but there’s no feeling as good for an author as shaking the hand of someone who genuinely loved something you wrote. And as a reader, I can say that I get a jolt of endorphins when I meet a favorite author in person; it’s a surreal event that all but guarantees I’ll remain a devoted reader for years to come. In a world this big, it’s a wonderful thing that encounters like these help keep people’s love of books alive. So it’s my sincere hope that the publishing industry won’t let the book tour die, not just as a writer, but as a reader. As flawed, fatiguing, and unreliable as it is, it is also undeniably special.