The Peripatetic Scribe

by Zoë Sharp

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when I start to think about The Tour. Last September, with SECOND SHOT fresh out in hardcover and FIRST DROP gleaming in a brand new coat of mass market paperback, we undertook what felt like the Mother of all Tours. Andy and I covered just over 17,000 miles by land and air in 23 days, taking in twelve states, and visiting thirty libraries and bookstores for events and drop-ins, hooking up with nine other authors along the way. Including, of course, our very own JD Rhoades.

And in October, with THIRD STRIKE due out in the States, we’re contemplating doing the whole thing again. Oy vay

Whether it’s worth doing something on quite this scale is always going to be a debatable point. Yes, FIRST DROP hit the top spot on the IMBA paperback best-seller list for September, and SECOND SHOT, from memory, placed in the top five jointly with Stephen Hunter and Kathy Reichs. But it meant 23 days away from home – and therefore work – and an enormous logistical exercise, planning hotels, flights and journey times.

Yes, there were some cock-ups along the way. Avis – who, it seems, don’t always try harder – let us down badly almost on the first day, and we ended up missing one event in Vermont. (We wrote Avis a heartfelt letter of complaint on our return, and have since had a refund on our car rental for that trip and a very nice hamper, thank you very much. But still …)

We didn’t realise we’d lose an extra hour crossing Indiana, and therefore turned up for an event at Jim Huang’s The Mystery Company with two minutes to spare, instead of the hour and two minutes we thought we had in hand. Then, climbing back into our rental car at the end of that night, the door swung back on me in the dark and I managed to dislocate a finger, though I didn’t find out that’s what I’d done to it until some weeks later. And the traffic in Chicago just sucks.

Of course, however extensive you think you’ve made such a trip, the first comment anybody makes when you post the itinerary is, "Oh, but why aren’t you coming to X?" The thing is, it would be wonderful to do the thing in fits and starts, a week on the road at a time, perhaps, followed by a few days back at home to catch up and do laundry, if nothing else. But, coming from the UK we have to travel 3000 miles just to reach the east coast, never mind any further, so we have to take an all-or-nothing, one-hit approach.

So, this time around we’re looking at possibly trying to get to thirteen states, and maybe – just maybe – a quick hop over the border into Canada. Starting after Bouchercon in October, covering the east coast from New England down to Florida, and making our way slowly westwards in a kind of broad zigzag according to the routes flown by good old cheap-but-definitely-cheerful Southwest Airlines.

I have to say that I enjoy meeting and talking to people. I like doing events and conventions, and speaking in public doesn’t faze me. I was the after-dinner speaker for the local Magistrates’ Association last week, standing up in front of a hundred dignitaries, including the local Member of Parliament and the Lady Mayoress. No problem. I even managed to find a suitable rude joke to finish off …

But sometimes it’s hard work. I mean, I know that bookstores have huge calls on their time and resources, but there were times when we travelled hundreds of miles to be met with no clues that anyone knew we were coming, and maybe half a dozen books to sign. We arrived a little early at one bookstore on the first tour a couple of years ago and were asked if we’d like a coffee while we waited. When we said yes please, they pointedly directed us to the coffee shop further down the block. We couldn’t have felt less welcome if they’d added, "And close the door on your way out …"

On the other hand, last year I seemed to be following one particularly well-known author round the country, and bookstore after bookstore told me how arrogantly rude and objectionable this author was, both to customers and staff. There is, as always, a happy medium.

Predominantly, however, last year’s tour was filled with delightful memories. That barbecue at Jim and Donna Born’s place in Florida, out by the pool in the lanai, and ‘helping’ with a bit of DIY. (Did you ever get that kitchen back in, Jim?) Having dinner with Meg Chittenden and her husband, also Jim, at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. (So sorry to hear you’ve been so ill, Meg, and all best wishes for a speedy recovery!) Being given a whistle-stop tour of Industrial Light and Magic by John Billheimer’s son, Wayne, who just happens to be a producer there. The view from Janet Rudolph’s hilltop home in Berkeley. The lady who bought a full set of Charlie Fox hardcovers from Mystery Mike’s, including the incredibly difficult to get (and expensive) KILLER INSTINCT, spending a small fortune in the process. Bless you!

I could go on, and on.

But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll pose several questions. How do you feel about authors touring? As an author, a reader, or as a bookseller? Do you like to meet the people behind the words, or do you wish that’s exactly where they’d stay? Do you have any horror stories from your own tours, or been present at an event where it all went horribly wrong? And do you have any advice or tips to make it as painless a process as possible? I have one or two of my own.

Bags_for_trip_lores 1. If you’re taking a number of internal flights, pack so as to take carryon bags only if at all possible. We managed this and it saved us an enormous amount of time and frustration every time we landed. Of course, on an extended tour this means having to do frequent laundry, which leads me to my second tip:

2. Pack clothes that are similar colours, or that can be washed together without causing a disaster. Also, pack clothes than either dry real quick, or can be tumble-dried without something dire happening to them.

3. Take sat-nav. I have all the North American maps on my cell phone, with a cigarette-lighter charger and a stick-on bracket for the front screen. Tap in the zip code and it takes you to the door, almost without fail, regardless. The only glitch was that if you asked the system to take you to an airport, it tended to try and direct you to the freight terminal, so eventually we either keyed in the street address of the rental car return, or just let it get us close enough and then Followed The Signs. How quaint.

4. Take eye drops. Horribly early starts, airplane air-conditioning, and equally horribly late nights, do not make you bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed. The latter I can’t help you with, but the Visine certainly cured the pink eyes for me.

5. Don’t try and persuade a bookstore to have an event if that’s not their thing, or they don’t think they’ll get enough of a turnout to make it worth their while. Just dropping in, signing stock, having a cuppa and being amenable, puts far less strain on everybody concerned, and can often be just as good for you as an author.

6. If you’re planning this yourself, rather than your publisher, make sure you have it absolutely straight with your PR person – preferably in writing – who is doing what as far as publicity is concerned. It’s no good having a post mortem after the event that’s filled with, "But I thought you were going to …" It’s too late then, the opportunities have already gone by.

7. If you’re very kindly invited to stay with friends along the way, take them up on it! Not only does this save you another night in a soulless chain hotel, but it makes you feel even more welcome – particularly as strangers in another country. But, if someone says they’re remodelling their kitchen, don’t help them tear it out. You never know when Home Depot will actually turn up to refit the new one, and then you’ll feel bad for weeks afterwards. We’re still feeling guilty about that, Jim …

And finally, this week’s Word of the Week is peripatetic, meaning an itinerant; walking about; a teacher who is employed to teach at more than one establishment, travelling from one to another; an Aristotelian. Hence peripateticism, the philosophy of Aristotle, as he was said to have taught in the walks of the Lyceum at Athens.

19 thoughts on “The Peripatetic Scribe

  1. Catherine

    I once went to an Author night event accompanying a friend mostly to be sociable, and the Author was a well known actor here. The Author was perfectly charming, witty and warm, well spoken.Nice bloke. Most people had a fantastic time.

    However I realised that I really should not go to author events where I’m socialising. For me I get value out of listening where I really want to know more about the book, the writing of the book, the sound of the author reading a passage and explaining something that relates. There has to be a deeper desire than wine and cheese and a bit of witty conversation.

    A much more rewarding experience was when I attended an author evening, of a local to Queensland Author, Nick Earls. This was an Author I’d read before.This time he was taking a bit of turn outside his normal material.

    He spoke this night about his book,’The Thompson Runner’. Although the main character was female, I really gained a deeper understanding of the novel and author as he shared the impact of growing up in Northern Ireland and then migrating to sunny Queensland at about the age 7.Listening to how this gave him a unique perspective to add to this novel.

    I’m not sure if I’ve been able to explain the difference between the two events well enough here. What I am trying to get at is that as a reader if I want to enjoy an Author event to the fullest ,I also have a responsibility to be ready to engage with the novel, the Author and the event.

    Oh and Zoe, I’ve found that living out of carry on luggage gets you some really strange looks as customs but I think it’s worth it to be assured of clothes et al.

  2. Louise Ure

    Zoe, I wish I could pack like you do! I need one suitcase just for shoes.

    Hey, I got to close down the bar here in NYC with our Ken last night!

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Great post Zoe. As a frequent business traveler, with some LONG international trips ocassionally, the actual traveling part is second nature.

    A few tips:

    Pack synthetic fiber clothing, they wrinkle less and are easier to deal with than 100% cotton. For us guys, the new polo shirts made with new breathable fiber, are fabulous. You can pretty much wad them up in a ball in your suitcase and they don’t wrinkle.

    Pack a travel bottle of Downey Wrinkle Releaser. It actually works pretty well. Also some of the fabric spot removers. Careful though, some contain bleach and you’ll have funny white spots on your red shirt.

    Leaving on a jet plane? Watch those carry-on liquids and now they limit the number of rechargable batteries with an impossible to figure out formula. I go to Walmart, etc and but the 3 OZ travel bottles and fill them with shampoo etc. Make sure you keep the label that says it’s 3 oz in tact.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Zoe,Boy, I wish you’d posted this at the beginning of the year! I just finished touring until the fall.

    I’m going to visit this discussion often today because my post on Monday will probably explore another side of this subject.

    Thanks for all the excellent travel tips, too.

  5. Stacey Cochran

    This is a very timely post for me, Zoe, as I’m currently setting up what will be my very first “national” workshop tour: Phoenix May 31; Rancho Mirage, CA June 3; Sacramento June 4; Detroit June 19. This is being set up with an arrangement between Borders Books, AARP, and

    Up until this trip, I’ve been learning bookstore events with a bottom line mentality. Because I’m self-published, I’ve been forced to meet a bottom line. That is, if I do an event in Charlotte, NC or Washington, DC or Raleigh, Wilmington, Richmond, etc., and I don’t sell enough books or DVDs to pay for gas and food, I don’t usually make it a regular stop.

    Self-published authors receive a lot of negative feedback (primarily from critics and reviewers – you know who you are), but not having the financial backing of a publisher is actually a blessing in disguise…. in that it teaches a writer very quickly what he/she needs to do to break even on a book.

    More and more major publishers are looking towards DIY authors like Seth Harwood, Scott Sigler, Jeremy Robinson…. in large part because they’ve built an audience on very little (or no) budget.

    I think it would be smart business for a first-time author to do a spreadsheet and budget for a book tour. It just makes sense that we should sell enough books on a tour (and draw big enough crowds to do so) at each stop to justify the expense.

    I advocate filming a book tour and broadcasting it on national TV (or YouTube at the very least) in order to reach a larger audience.

    Dusty and Alex know this. They’ve seen me do it. It makes more sense to me that if you draw 75 folks to an event, you broadcast that event via television and reach an additional 90,000 (or more) folks.

    Can you tell I’m a fan of mass communication?

    Here’s what I mean:

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    I know what you mean about author events. It’s a very fine line between talking too much about the book, and talking too much about anything else apart from the book!

    When I did the Magistrates’ dinner speech, I purposely kept it light – mainly anecdotes about doing the research for the books, rather than the nitty gritty of writing. But when I asked if anyone had any questions at the end, I got a lot of the usual kind of ‘how do you go about the process of writing’ questions I’d expect from a bookstore, reading group or library audience. So there you go.

    I think Dusty mentioned it in an earlier post, that you need to be entertaining and hope that, if people like you, they’ll give your book a try. Then it’s up to the writing to do the job it’s supposed to – pull them in and hold them.

    However, I went to a bookstore event by a very well-known author, talking about her new book, and she talked quite a lot about the actual reality behind the story, and how much of it came from truth. Unfortunately, this had the effect that when I was reading the book afterwards, I could still hear her explaining the research and it make the writing seem clunky when it really wasn’t. Does that make sense?

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I hope you gave Ken a big hug from me!

    A case just for your shoes? Wow, I don’t think I own enough shoes to fill a whole case. I took a pair of cowboy boots and a pair of trainers with me on the last tour, and that was about it.

    I’m heartbroken at the moment because I think I’m finally going to have to throw my Rockport work boots away. I’ve had them re-soled countless times since I bought them in ’96. Things just don’t last like they used to …

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Wilfred

    Good advice – thank you! We had all our regulation-size liquids ready in a zip-up clear plastic pouch so we could put it through the X-ray machines separately.

    It’s one of my requirements with posh frocks that they crumple well, as I’m far more likely to need a posh frock at US conventions than I do at home.

    And I managed to find a lovely dress that was actually reversible, so the lining was another dress entirely. Two frocks for the price (and the packing space) of one! Bargain!

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Sorry not to have got this out sooner ;-]

    I’m impressed that you plan your posts so far in advance. I thought I was going to be writing something completely different this week, but this kind of cropped up as we’re planning the tour at the moment. And occasionally I have what I think is a really good subject, and then someone else covers it (so much better) a few days before. Rats!

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stacey

    I don’t think it’s so very different when you’re more ‘conventionally’ published.

    I have long since given up looking at the actual sales on the night as a guide to the success of the event. If you are polite and good humoured, the effect of your visit will have a far longer-reaching effect. The bookstore people will remember you – and hopefully continue to handsell your books – long after you’ve gone.

    I did a library event in the UK a while ago with several other authors, where the audience was very sparse – they were just putting up the posters announcing we were coming as we actually walked through the door. So, not much advance publicity, then …

    Understandably when the act outnumbers the audience, it’s tempting to mutter under your breath, but you just can’t do it. One of the other authors did just that, however, and not particularly quietly, either. Complaining about what a waste of time it is, in earshot of the staff, is unkind at best, and unwise at worst. What are they going to say about you after you’ve gone if you’re rude?

    I love the idea of doing a video, though. Trouble is, my speciality is stills!

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Please excuse me if I can’t get back to the internet to answer any more comments until tomorrow evening. We’re on the road at the moment doing photoshoots, and I’ll be dragging my elbows on the blacktop round Anglesey race circuit all day Friday shooting a race-spec Mitubishi Evo.

    What a way to spend your birthday …

  12. Stacey Cochran

    Well, I should mention that if you can make it down to North Carolina when you’re in the U.S. I’d love to interview you for my TV show, Zoe. I have an author-interview program, and we broadcast in Wake County to 90,000 viewers.

    Maybe we could put you together with Dusty…

    And I still would like to set up a panel at QRB with J.T., Tasha, Alex, and Dusty for the fall!

    Anyone still interested in that?

  13. Fran

    Of course some authors are going to sell even if they sit in a dark room and talk only to their cat. Or their computer monitor.

    However, from a bookselling point of view — and admittedly a small one, since I can only speak to our shop — having you guys in there to sign and schmooze does help. While there may be few people in attendance on the day (although we do try to get folks in, we really do!), we have a huge tourist trade, and they’re mighty impressed by the fact that we have signed books, and that we don’t jack up the price because you’ve graciously defaced them!

    And honestly? We as booksellers are more likely to read and promote your books if we’ve met you and you’re charming and kind. There’s so much to read out there, it’s hard to pare it down, but knowing that an author is making time in their tour schedule to visit us is incentive to get that book read, preferably by the one of us who will most appreciate it. Or two. Or most of us. So we love authors to come in, if we can work around the scheduling glitches and have enough time to spread the word.

    My two cents, anyway.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Stacey – thank you for the lovely offer. We started out saying this year’s tour wasn’t going to be as extensive as last year’s, but it’s not looking as though it’s going to turn out that way, so you never know … and I had a great time speaking with Dusty in Madison at Booked For Murder last year, so that would always be cool!

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Fran

    It’s always a pleasure to revist the places that made us welcome!

    I think you’re absolutely right. All I can do by touring is get people to give the book a chance. After that, it’s down to the writing, plain and simple.

    And since you speak from your position as a bookseller, your two cents have added value ;-]

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Gawd, I re-read that last comment just as I posted it and hope that nobody thinks I mean their comments have less value because they’re NOT a bookseller.

    Sorry, just finished taking 500 shots today and my brain has turned to mush …

  17. Catherine

    Not sure if you are still checking in on this post Zoe, but in answer to ,if does it make sense that someone’s talk of background actuality, interferred with the fictional writing? Yes that does make sense. I guess it depends on how strong her voice and written voice were.

    When I was working at the local library I soon found how much event management and promotion happened. As a consequence I diverted my business degree into a minor in communications with subjects like Creative Event Management, Campaign promotion…

    Apart from functioning electronics, adequate promotion, a pleasant space, and interested people what makes an event easier for you from an Author’s perspective?

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    Sorry to be so slow getting back to you on this one. Yes, I do check the post but we’ve been away a LOT over the past few days – all work, sadly.

    What makes an event easier from an author’s perspective? Just a warm welcome and no guilt transfer if, for whatever reason, the event isn’t as well-attended as you would have liked.

    No author likes to hear the words, “Well, we had 500 people lining up right around the block last week when X was signing here …” as though trying to emphasise that a poor turnout must be the author’s fault for not being more popular.

    Ah, what fragile egos we all have ;-]


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