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.

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.

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.

Perhaps I should put my novels in a sample case, the expensive new hardbacks on one side, the smaller, friendlier paperbacks on the other, and go door to door through some neighborhood in St. Louis with my wares. If someone wanted me to stand on the sidewalk and read to them, I would read. If somebody wanted his or her book gift-wrapped for the holidays, I would wrap. If they wanted to cry in my arms, I would hold them. The door-to-door sales perfected by Fuller Brush and various encyclopedia companies seem to operate on a more reliable formula than the schemes of publishing houses. Even as my audiences got a little bigger, most hovering in the 15-to-25 range by the Magician’s Assistant days, I could still fly halfway across the country to a room full of empty chairs. Who knew that I was scheduled to read in Chicago on the night of an NBA playoff game (back in the days when that meant something substantial), or that Ethan Hawke would be reading from his new novel in the room across the hall from me at the Texas Book Fair? I never minded reading to three people. I had plenty of experience. The key is that all of you must sit very close together.

All this raises the question: Why don’t I just stay home? Believe me, I’ve asked myself that many times, mostly in dark hotel rooms when the alarm goes off at 4:30 in the morning because I have a flight to catch. Partly because touring is in my contract. Selling is part of the job. But more important, I really do believe Allan Gurganus. Watching a book wither on the shelf would be worse than never having the chance to fight for its success. The market out there is big and crowded, full of noise and hype demanding your attention. The book, weighing not much more than a pound, with no jack to plug it into, can use all the help it can get. I know a lot of writers whose publishers, because of lack of funds or confidence, don’t send them out. I don’t know any writers who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go.

And then there’s this: if my house were burning down, the one thing I’d rush in to save would be my copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, which I had signed at the first author reading I ever attended, the year that I was 16 and the author was 70. I could discourse endlessly on why my books are in no way improved by my signature, and my words are just the same on the page whether or not I’ve read them aloud. And while I know better than anyone that I am no Eudora Welty, I know how profoundly I was shaken to see her, how I felt that my book had been transformed by the touch of her hands.

Late one night, I was reaching the end of my signing line for Run after having given a talk at Washington National Cathedral. A woman came up to the table with a girl who might have been 16, though I doubt she was as old as that. “You’re up awfully late on a school night,” I said to her.

“And it’s going to be a lot later before she gets to bed,” the mother said. The daughter was looking at the floor. “We’ve got a four-hour drive back to West Virginia tonight.” She beamed at me. She was a mother, after all, and very proud of what she had accomplished for her child. “I knew you would tell her something she needed to hear, something she’d always remember, and you did. You’re her favorite writer, you know. She’s going to be a writer, too.”

I wished to God I had something to give that child, an amulet or a golden compass, something that would have proved just how completely I believed in her. She didn’t say a word to me, and I put my arm around her and let her mother take our picture. I wrote her name and my name in her copy of my book. I thanked them both for coming, but there was no way to thank them enough. It was late, and people were still in line behind them, and they had a long drive ahead.