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.