by Tess Gerritsen
I am just about to wrap up my national book tour for THE KEEPSAKE. It’s my twelfth book tour. Over the years, I’ve noticed a number of changes in the book tour scene, some of them specific to my own career. But other changes reflect what’s happening to novelists across the country.
And some of those changes are discouraging.
In 1996, my first hardcover thriller, HARVEST was published. My publisher planned a substantial marketing effort, including quirky giveaways (a little igloo cooler, to go along with the theme of harvested organs), a ton of advance galleys, and a national book tour. Being a debut author has its definite advantages: you have no prior bad sales figures to live down, you’re a fresh face on the scene, and advance publicity about a major book deal always stirs curiosity. (Landing a major book deal, however, is a double-edged sword because it also seems to bring out the nasty side of reviewers. "He got paid how much? Hell, I could write a better book!" seems to be the all-too-common response when a debut author gets a big advance. I’ve seen that backlash happen to many authors, which may be why some now choose to play coy with the size of their advances.)
As the new thriller gal on the block, I did get attention. An AP reporter wrote a nationally syndicated article about the M.D. who switched careers. Reviews (good and bad) came in from multiple newspapers. Bookstore chains, not having any prior sales numbers to judge by, ordered substantial quantities of HARVEST. I set off on my first book tour with fantasies of speaking to huge crowds.
Which of course never materialized. In store after store, I would often sit completely alone at the signing table with only an embarassed bookseller to keep me company. Occasionally, a half-dozen people would turn up, and I’d be ecstatic. The best events, I generally found, were in independent bookstores — places like Poisoned Pen or Mysterious Galaxy, with loyal customers who make it a point to show up at author signings, even when they’ve never heard of the author. Discouraging as some of the poorly attended events were, however, I knew that a tour surely had to make a difference. My media escorts would drive me around to local bookstores and distributors’ warehouses to sign stock. At every airport I landed in, I’d sign whatever was in the airport shop. Even though most booksellers had never heard of me, they all seemed happy to have me sign their copies. And there seemed to be a lot of copies out there.
While I was on the road, HARVEST hit the New York Times bestseller list.
For the next eleven books, my routine was pretty much another year, another book tour. I got to be an old hand at trudging through airports, now wheeling only a carry-on. I learned to carry "Signed by Author" stickers in my purse so I could label the airport copies. For radio interviews, I learned to distill my plot down to only a sentence or two, and focus instead on the interesting nonfiction aspects behind the stories. II started seeing larger crowds at signings and I’d recognize repeat customers. But even as my sales were growing, the tours themselves were getting less bang for the effort.
The media was harder to get. Even if I had some cool new nonfiction hook (corpses who wake up in morgues in VANISH. Or the how-to of shrinking human heads in THE KEEPSAKE) the TV and radio spots weren’t there as they used to be. I’m not the only novelist who faces this dwindling of interest; it seems to be a problem for all of us. The publisher pays to fly you into a new town, puts you up in a hotel, all to speak at a bookstore where you end up selling maybe thirty hardcovers. Without any TV or radio or print coverage, does that make economic sense?
Another discouraging trend is that bookstores now seem to be ordering stock "just in time." Although my sales have grown over the past decade, I simply don’t see the tall stacks of copies that stores used to bring in to last them through Christmas. So drop-in signings make less and less sense, considering the price of gas and the time it takes to drive from store to store. My media escorts tell me that they’re doing fewer drop-ins with all their authors because of this.
And I’ve pretty much stopped doing drop-ins at airport stores. I don’t know if it’s because of distributor consolidation, with more centralized management, but it’s now just about impossible to get approval to sign airport copies. The clerks are terrified of losing their jobs and they won’t let an author touch the books until they get approval from some manager. I told one clerk that the books would sell much faster with an autograph sticker, and he said, "We had an hour-long argument with Kitty Kelly over this just last week. She wanted to sign her books, and we wouldn’t let her do it, either."
If Kitty Kelly couldn’t manage to persuade him, I sure wasn’t going to try.
Finally, there’s the ever-worsening hassle of airline travel. When I started going on tours, I don’t recall having to suffer through cancelled or delayed flights. Nowadays, when I manage to get to my destination on time, or even on the same day, I consider it a miracle. Since they don’t feed you on planes, you arrive at a hotel late at night, starving, after room service has shut down. Forcing you to binge on potato ships from the mini-bar. And since airline reservations for book tour are sometimes made close to the travel date, you end up too often flying cross-country while wedged in the middle seat.
Airline travel has become such a nightmare that one thriller author recently chartered a private jet to fly her to all her midwest stops. (It had to be on her own dime, because I can’t imagine a publisher ever paying for that.) That’s an extravagance that I (an old Yankee) would never consider, but I understand completely why an author might resort to it.
Are these difficulties leading to fewer book tours? In some parts of the country, media escorts tell me that their tours are down 50%, even 75% since last year. Perhaps publishers are re-thinking the economics of tours. Perhaps authors are finding tours to be a costly distraction from their writing.
While I acknowledge that their value-to-cost ratio seems to be diminishing, I still believe that book tours are important to building your readership. I also happen to love doing them. I love meeting readers and visiting stores across the country.
I just don’t know how much longer it will make sense.