By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
Then came the book tour.
We all have horror stories about the road. Authors love to confide them to each other, like trauma victims in a support group, though even there we don't tell quite the whole truth. That audience of five becomes 10; that night no one showed up at all becomes three people, or two, anything . . .
No matter how bad it sounds, don't believe us. It's worse. I once read in a bookstore where the entire staff stood around quietly weeping because the place had just been sold and no one was sure who was going to keep their job. I read in a bookstore where there really wasn't a place to read, but they invited me anyway, the audience stretching or hopping on tiptoes to peer into the aisle where I was standing. I read in a bookstore where nobody bought a book, even though I moved a full house to tears. Selling books is, of course, supposed to be the purpose. The writer is told, over and over, by publicity and marketing types, not to worry about the turnout—the main thing is to meet the bookstore owner or manager and establish a relationship. Then you get there and shake the hand of the second assistant night manager, working his way through college, who gets the name of your book wrong and stands in the back of the room, yawning and shaking his head sadly at the sparse turnout.
Indeed, from the writer's point of view, the entire book tour is one that seems curiously designed by publishers and booksellers to diminish you and the product you're all supposed to be selling together. No one takes responsibility for publicity—so, usually, there is none. Beyond this, there seems to be little recognition that reading is generally a solitary practice in 21st-century America. It's something done at home, or in a library, or on the subway—an activity designed to withdraw you from the crowd, not join it.
I first met and became friends with Darin at a joint reading in a vineyard on Long Island. A small audience listened to us affably, then went back to browsing through bottles of wine—not our books. But this is what an author's reading is now, too: something to garnish a vineyard, or an ethnic fair, or a street festival with a little class, a little color. We are become parsley.
For Strauss, the 22-city tour for More Than It Hurts You began in L.A.—with an audition for the chance to go to still more readings. Darin joined 200 other writers at a cattle call for the popular Jewish book fairs that are held throughout the country. Each author was given a number and two minutes to make his or her case, while a timer held up signs reading "30 Seconds" or "One Minute" as they made their presentations. It was a surreal scene, with Strauss slotted in between a kosher-cookbook writer and a Holocaust survivor.
"You're supposed to look in the camera, and say your number and the name of your book. I said, 'I'm number 98, which is kinda funny, because people always tell me: "That's funny, you don't look 98ish." ' "
Crickets—though Strauss ended up being invited to a number of Jewish book fairs, which meant still more trips to still more cattle calls, vying for attention between the concentration camps and the prospect of a really good potato kugel.
The next event after the book affair audition drew only three people, and then no one showed up to hear Strauss read at Denver's superb independent bookstore the Tattered Cover—despite the fact that More Than It Hurts You was number three on the local bestseller list. That night, back at his hotel, he went online and was informed by a fan about a couple of websites that were abusing him for things like his author photo. It was not a wise thing to tell a new father, already tired and strung out on the road, away from his life and his work and his loved ones.
"I thought, 'I should see what they're writing about me,' " Strauss recalls—a bad move for any writer alone in a hotel room, and particularly one packing his own blogs, the literary equivalent of a pumped shotgun. Strauss was guest-blogging at the time for both Newsweek and Powell's Books, another great independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and after checking out his Internet slams, his frustration bubbled over and he dared to write about the vagaries of the book tour.
Big mistake. Though we all violate it, the unwritten rule for all writers is, "Never let them see you bleed." The author and journalist Allen Barra likes to relate how, whenever he complains, his wife repeats Lee Strasberg's words from The Godfather II to him: "This is the business we have chosen." Above all, there is no dissuading the unpublished, who are looking in. A free trip around the country, good hotels, nice restaurants, adoring fans—what could be better? I remember reading about such excursions myself before I was published, with an avidity that made me salivate. (But that was before Arkansas.)