Jenny Milchman, author of Cover of Snow (Ballantine), has embarked on what may be the longest author tour ever. This is the third installment of her notes from her trip:
When we first set out on this book tour/family odyssey, I was filled with the most combustible mix of emotions. Excitement, doubt, hope and worry. I don't think I'd felt that particular blend since giving birth.
It took me 13 years to get published, and the idea for this trip grew during that time. Although I'm a writer and spend many waking hours inside my head, even I know there's a difference between fantasy and reality. Once we set out, how would the fantasy version meet with the reality of empty roads--and possibly empty rooms?
Publishers tend not to tour debut novelists for good reasons. The dollars and cents just don't make sense. But there are other means of measurement. There's the dream-come-true factor. And there's the long-term investment that arises when the right bookseller or reader discovers a book he or she may otherwise not have.
Because, crazy as it sounds, selling books isn't the only reason to go on a book tour.
Where have we been in the last month? And what other truths about launching a career are we learning?
Myth #1: The success of an event is tied to how many people attend
At Books and Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., nobody attended my event. Well, no readers anyway. This wasn't because I am an unknown (although this can often be a factor). It was because this leg of the journey was planned suddenly, and there wasn't enough lead time. But I didn't want to miss such a widely beloved bookstore, so my publicist called the store to ask if I could stop in to say hello. No fewer than nine booksellers gathered round, serving wine and a luscious combination of nuts and dark chocolate. The conversation was rousing and fun, proving you don't always need attendees to have an event.
Mystery 1 in Milwaukee, Wis., demonstrated the same thing. The weather was gruesome. We seem to bring bad weather with us--it even snowed in Mississippi--hence the suggestion that I title my next book 75 & Sunny. But the white stuff didn't prevent proprietor Richard Katz, of Katz Delicatessen heritage, from picking me up and driving me door-to-door. He also led a discussion as heated as the outside was cold. I learned more about the history of mystery from two booksellers and Jon Jordan of Crimespree magazine than I'd learned in 13 years. And the conversation continued over a Mexican dinner to which Richard and Jon treat all visiting authors.
Myth #2: There is an unbridgeable divide in publishing today
There are certain words--one in particular--most of us know not to say in bookstores. And yet, as much as I am devoted to bricks and mortar, as an author I value every distribution stream that brings books to readers.
|Packed room at Schuler's.
Schuler Books in Okemos, Mich., was able to bridge the yawning chasm in one startling event. Rick Murcer, self-published author of the Manny Williams thrillers, rose to bestseller status on both the New York Times and USA Today lists. He and I were invited to discuss our very different publication paths. And in the hallowed halls of a bookstore, print-loving readers found books they never otherwise would have--just as the author found new fans.
At the Book Cellar in Chicago, Ill., I was paired with a self-published author at the start of his career. Michael Curtis has a strong commitment to print, going so far as to produce a hardcover version of his debut novel. While it's not clear whether this is a viable approach to publishing--POD hardcovers are expensive--this event did confirm that multi-author events are often more robust for a new author than one done on your own.
Legend #1: Authors
|Buckley and Milchman
The authors I've been lucky enough to meet on this tour are legendary, or should be. In Ohio I got to appear beside Carla Buckley, whose thrillers about science and family are terrifyingly real. Bookseller Suzanne DeGaetano at Mac's Backs in Cleveland, Ohio, structured an intimate conversation between me and Les Roberts, who writes a retired PI series about the city. And at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vt., Jennifer McMahon, an author to whom I had written a fan letter years ago, took part in a conversation called "Dealing in Darkness."
Myth #3: New authors don't get publicity
Sometimes on nights when I get to doubting, I replay the words my Random House publicist said when she first discovered my book. (Although I realize this is her job, my publicist truly seems to feel the books she works on are discoveries, precious and rare.) My in-house publicist has garnered national media attention for my debut, attended events and stood by my side at a bookseller dinner gala. Still, a tour of this, um, scope, requires extra support, which is where an independent publicity firm can help. And if the head of the firm throws a dinner party before your event at one of the most illustrious bookstores in the Midwest, the Book Stall? And all of the guests go on to attend your reading, which is hosted by Javier Ramirez, the aptly nicknamed Mayor of Books? Well, let's hear it for all publicists.
Myth #4: Crickets
All new authors are familiar with the event where they walk into an empty room. One way bookstores avoid this fate is to have the author at a table of books, to which browsing customers can wander up. An event at Learned Owl, the coziest bookstore in Ohio, and another at Better World Books in Goshen, Ind., were structured this way. Each contained their share of quiet moments, some of them pleasantly spent in conversation with Kate Schlademan, the passionate new owner of Learned Owl, who set up a ramp herself in order to accommodate one wheelchair-bound attendee. But each also each contained an encounter to go in any author's memory book. At Better World Books, the sole attendee had traveled three hours to see me. And at Learned Owl, three readers gathered round to ask questions about my book with an eye for detail that I would have expected only from my editor--and maybe myself. Maybe.
Myth #5: Genre fiction is less serious than literary fiction
|Memories & memorabilia at Aunt Agatha's
Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., has a museum-worthy collection of memorabilia, including a miniature safe that Steve Hamilton's publisher sent out when The Lock Artist was released. Lines are blurred between booksellers, book club members and browsers when Robin Agnew hosts an event.
Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., has a bathroom signed by all the greats. It's hard to go about something as mundane as hand-washing when you're surrounded by their signatures. This legendary store recently was sold, and new owner Laurie Stephens seems to have accomplished the magical act of breathing new life into a place while retaining every single iota of its established greatness.
|Signing the Wall of Fame at Mystery Lover's Bookshop.
Myth #6: Barnes & Noble doesn't care about books
I am greatly saddened by the dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, which is keeping readers from so many wonderful writers--Randy Susan Meyers, MJ Rose, Jamie Mason and dozens of others. I hope that the differences are settled soon so that everyone can get back to selling books.
This conflict may reinforce the perception that B&N is more of a corporation than a bookstore, but I can report that we've visited over a hundred B&Ns between New Jersey and Denver and found great passion in the people and stores.
Jill Folden of the Easton Towne Center B&N in Columbus, Ohio, has been known to track an author down after reading his or her book and host a lively event for them in the store. She includes titles she loves on a staff picks shelf, and customers routinely ask her what she's reading. Victoria Snoddy of the Creeks at Virginia Center B&N took me aside when I came in to sign stock, urged a cup of coffee on me and embarked upon a discussion of great thrillers.
We've also seen some intensely creative things being done at B&N. Mystery lover and emerging writer Nikki Bonnani started an outfit called the Killer Coffee Club, whereupon Nikki's local B&N gave her a space in which to meet as well as an end cap to feature the books her club is reading.
Myth #7: It's impossible to debunk myths
If there is one thing we're learning on this trip, it's that there's no such thing as truth. I don't mean to go all Foucault on you, but bookstores are as varied as the people who inhabit them, and any author's mileage may vary on a tour. Literally and figuratively. Three recent events prove how hard it is to wrap what we're doing into a neat package.
At Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vt., attendees wander in off the pedestrian mall from which cars are blocked, and author events are recorded as part of a new arts television series. Bookseller Tod Gross's introduction makes his guests feel like movie stars.
At Northshire Books in Manchester, Vt., I appeared two days after legendary author Jodi Picoult. You can bet I was expecting... well, myth #4. But bookseller Amy Palmer was so warm and welcoming, I wouldn't have minded spending the whole night touring this magnificent store with her. I didn't object, though, when a nice (if not Jodi-sized) crowd came out and filled my night with questions, laughter and words.
|State of the industry address at The Book House
Susan Novotny of the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., put together an event was supposed to be a private panel discussion about the state of the industry. But when word got out, 50 people came to hear a seasoned veteran of this very publication, Robert Gray, along with the publisher of a small press, four established authors and two debut authors, bat ideas around. Luckily, Susan provided plenty of cordial. And cookies.
The biggest elephant--or myth--in the room is that bookstores are less relevant today. The opposite is true. As we engage in vast swaths of our lives virtually, the face-to-face conversation becomes more necessary and more valued. Bookstores fit perfectly into the community that locavorism is seeking to preserve or reestablish.
Next stop: Florida. It can't snow there. It just can't. In any case, thanks to the book lovers we are meeting all over, I even suspect something legendary may happen.