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Rethinking the Familiar Book Tour

30 November 2011

From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Vivien Jennings had long noted the people fidgeting in their chairs, staring at their watches, playing with their smartphones—the silent scream of “when will this be over?”—as novelists, memoirists and historians stood behind a lectern and read a chapter or three from their latest work.

“We were just losing our audiences,” said Ms. Jennings, the owner of Rainy Day Books, an independent bookstore in Kansas City, Kan. Finally, several years ago she made a decision: The shop would sponsor only author events that featured a conversation or a minilecture, a PowerPoint presentation or perhaps a slide show, all followed by a question-and-answer session and—at most—the recitation of a paragraph or two from the book to illustrate a point. “I tell publicists ‘it’s no longer a reading,’” Ms. Jennings said. “If they want their authors to come here, they’ll go along with it.”

For decades, the bookstore reading was a given. It gave fans a chance to hear the cadences and inflections of a beloved author, and to decide if they wanted to lay down their plastic right then and there or maybe wait for the paperback. “When I first started, it was readings, readings, readings. Nobody considered that you could do anything else,” said Evan Boorstyn, the deputy director of publicity at Grand Central Publishing.

. . . .

Americans’ ever-shrinking attention span and an ever-shrinking number of leisure hours are also issues. “We’re asking for people’s time and we’re competing with other experiences they could use the time for. We want them to leave the event saying ‘wow,’” said Ms. Jennings, who’d like to say something similar when she looks at the cash register receipts after one of these events. One recent example: a visit from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, who spoke about the foster-care system—a theme of her debut novel, “The Language of Flowers”—and who gave a PowerPoint presentation about the significance of particular nosegays in the Victorian era.

. . . .

For his part, Brad Meltzer, the best-selling author of thrillers like “The Book of Fate” and “The Book of Lies,” stopped doing readings two books ago. “Jim Dale,” he said, referring to the voice of the “Harry Potter” audio books, “and all the audio-book stars made most of us authors look like a bunch of misfits. We can’t compete.” Mr. Meltzer instead regales crowds with background stories about his books, with tales of the 24 rejection letters he received at the beginning of his career and film clips of him folding his arms in assorted tough guy poses from his History Channel series, “Decoded.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire after a few days) and thanks to Abel for the tip.

Having suffered through about two trillion lame Powerpoint presentations, Passive Guy has his doubts about their attractiveness for today’s audiences. (Is there anyone outside of the publishing world who thinks they’re innovative?)

Unless someone is paying him to sit through a presentation, about three seconds after he begins fidgeting in his chair, staring at his watch or playing with his smartphone, he exits the premises.

Advertising-Promotion, Book Signings, Bookstores

19 Comments to “Rethinking the Familiar Book Tour”

  1. I hate PowerPoint presentations. Urgh. Next up is listening to a novelist reading her own work. It’s painful.

    If fiction writers want to learn how to perform their work, attend poetry slams. I once watched a girl (and she was only 17!) reduce a roomful of people to tears with her poem about her dead brother. Incredible.

  2. I’ve done book tours. It’s fun staying in nice hotels and eating at nice restaurants on the publisher’s tab, but other than that, generally not worth the time away from one’s desk and word processor.

    With this exception: If you’re such a “big name” writer that it makes headlines in the local paper when you show up in town, then it’s probably worth doing bookstore events. Otherwise, as much fun as they can be, you’re almost always better off staying at home and grinding out another book.

  3. I personally use the “Street Beggar” technique whenever I appear ‘live.’

    I tell ‘em, “I sing, I dance, and I tell jokes … which would you prefer?”

    p.s. I once used a PowerPoint presentation in the following way … I began with a title slide which read, “Author Gerard de Marigny – My Life on Screen” … then I proceeded to trash the projector like Pete Townsend/The Who used to do to his guitar.

    I sold a few paperbacks but ended up -$600 on the night, as a whole. c’,)

  4. Oh. I thought you were talking about blog book tours. lol

  5. You know, I don’t do readings, but as a reader, I love to attend them. Yes, the author has to be a good and entertaining reader, or keep it short, and a Q&A session helps.

    But you know, at these big store events, very often the customers are there as a social event — to be seen in the right intellectual venue. They are the sort of people who only read what Oprah recommends or what their book club is doing. That’s the crowd that big bookstores cater to, as well.

    The kinds of events you see at conferences and small bookstores — even just signings, where there is no presentation, just something casual — are more interesting, and I wonder if they do more good overall for publicity. (My favorite of such events was when Harlan Ellison would sit in the bookstore window with his typewriter and just write. Not schmooze, not sign. I think he had a basket where people could write ideas on a slip of paper and he’d use those for inspiration on story twists.)

  6. I mostly only attend ‘readings’ for authors I know. The last one was for a vampire author who did drawings for bottles of wine and threw devil ducks to people who asked questions. It was fun and I walked away with a copy of all of his books.

  7. I, too, have sat through several authors’ readings, some of them internationally known. I admit, I sat out of politeness, rather than out of interest.

    When my debut novel was published (self-published) I had a book launch PARTY. My novel was an adventure story set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies, so the theme for the night was Pirates. Invites to all businesses went out as a scroll rolled up inside a corked bottle.I had music (rowdy sea shanties), rum grog, real hard tack biscuits(this was just to make a point – there were also much tastier bits served to eat), the room was decorated with treasure chests, skeletons, pirate flags and swords,and my MC, hostesses, myself, and several audience members came in pirate costumes. Everyone attending was given a “gold doubloon” at the door with which to “purchase” their mug of grog.

    I talked about my pirate research facts, how-to and why to self-publish, and when it came time to do the reading, I read one chapter (my chapters are 3-5 pages long) and then a group of rowdy pirates exploded from a room off to the side and re-enacted the next (very active) chapter of the book.

    Party lasted 3 hours. Sold 160 books. One traditionally published author came up to me and said, “You have changed book readings for me forever.”

    I can’t wait to hold another one for my next book! :-)

  8. Ha Ha! You bet – you’re ALL invited to the next one. My next book in the series is very nearly done. Since Book Two takes place on a tropical island (yup – shipwreck), I’m thinking a tropical island themed book launch party in Jan. or Feb. would be just the thing! (You DO kow I live on the Canadian prairies, right?? Last winter we hit -47F).

    Just another thought on the traditional reading and signing (not exactly a book tour but still …)I managed to get Chapters to carry my book in exchange for them asking me to do a signing in their store. Again spent 3 hours, this time mostly sitting at my lonely table. Made 1 sale. Ouch. Hard on the ego.

    Look out for the next book launch party invite on Twitter! (@diannegreenlay). Would love to meet all you wonderful bloggers over a mug of grog!

  9. Dianne Greenlay has got it just right! In fact, over here in Europe, several bookstores have realized the standard presentation doesn’t work, that it has to be a party, with some good wine offered etc. My publisher used a series of really neat and fun trick when presenting my book (that was in Sicily in 2007): one, he got a couple of actors to read a dialogue out of my book; two, sentences from the book were printed on slips of paper and distributed in the audience at random,then the actors walked around to pick them up, a couple at a time, and try to make sense of them. Some of it turned out to be very unexpected and funny!

    In other words, it worked because, yes, it was turned into a PARTY and that day, as people streamed out, I sold a lot of books.

  10. I am not fond of readings unless it is authors I really like, and then only if it’s a sneak peek at their upcoming book because most of them (at least that I’ve seen) don’t read particularly well. I did go to one reading for the name, Chuck Paluzniak (sp??), and he was an entertaining reader and speaker, although my mind did wander for a bit. I think the key is to read less than 10 minutes and then do a big Q&A if you structure it on the old style. Dianne’s pirate party is much better.

    I think the reason most writers struggle with readings has to do with many writers being shy and retiring. I can’t think of a worse way to try and showcase that kind of person’s work than by asking them to read in public. For some it might be better than speaking, but reading aloud takes a certain flair. If you’re a writer with a theater background instead of a wallflower background it probably helps…. I’m actually fascinated to see if there is a change from the shy writer to the showman writer in the coming years thanks to the new world of self-promotion and have-to-keep-their-attention-over-tv-on-the-iphone realities. I think it’s time we got back to the big personalities of the past who went all in for drunken shenanigans and scandals. :)

  11. I don’t get this at all. I’m crazy about readings by good writers. Why should authors cater to the lowest common denominator, and try to please the few people in the audience who don’t really want to be there? And how in the world do those fidgety people who don’t like readings actually sit down and get through books; i.e. READ? Maybe next we should tell the authors that they should only write novellas from now on. Someone call Rick Russo; I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

    • The sad fact is, DB, at the readings I’ve been to, the writers have not taken the time to learn how to perform their work. Reading aloud is a different skill set from writing (which is why most audio books are NOT read by the author, but by a professional). It’s painful listening to someone lapse into a monotone, mumbling and stumbling over words, eyes fixed on the page and never addressing the audience. They manage to make beautiful passages clunk and exciting bits sound dull as dirt.

      Like I said in an earlier comment, if fiction writers intend to do readings, attend some poetry slams and learn how poets bring life to their written words.

      • As I read your comment, I realize that I probably feel the way I do because I’ve actually never been to a really bad reading (other than student readings). I’ve been to dozens of them, by poets, fiction writers, essayists, and others, and most have been just fine. Many have been superb. Maybe I’ll change my tune if I happen upon one that’s not very good.

  12. I used to be involved with a local small press and we always took care to turn our readings into events. We always had drinks (sometimes, if the venue did not offer drinks, we dragged beer crates around ourselves) and music, sometimes we had stand-up comedy or short plays as well. And we always drew a regular crowd at our readings.

    Of course, the reason we were able to do all this was because we were affiliated to a university and therefore had access to a pool of talented students who were willing to perform for free entry, free drinks and a free copy of the book or magazine as well as exposure and a chance to sell their CDs. None of us were paid either, by the way, the entire operation was volunteer run.

    In the realm of big publishing, the most interesting reading/performance was given by German writer Frank Schätzing. Schätzing writes SF and technothrillers, but is marketed as a mainstream writer, so he gets asked about technical and scientific details of his novels all the time. So instead of a traditional reading, Schätzing does a whole multimedia presentation which includes information on the technical and scientific background, fake news clips from the future in which his books are set, brief film clips of his protagonists, played by very well known German actors, etc… Oh yes, and he does read a bit from his book, too. It’s a good show and Schätzing is a good speaker and presenter. Of course, he can only pull of something on that scale, because he is a huge bestseller and has an advertising background.

  13. I live in a city where the bookshop round the corner (literally!) from me does author appearances quite regularly, so a friend and I go quite often to support the authors- we’ve even bought a couple of books! The best ones for us have always been ones where the author is clearly trying to make a connection with the audience, not just pushing their product. One YA author we went to see played games with prizes- all revolving around his book (I wish I could remember his name!)

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