30 November 2007

Authors as Rock Stars

There is an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor today, called "Why book tours are passé". It claims the traditional promotional book tour by an author is going the way of the dinosaur, partially because of technology.

"…in the past five years or so, observers say the traditional author tour has been in decline: Fewer writers are being sent out, and those who do tour make fewer stops. Among the many reasons for this shift are marketing tools that have made it possible to orchestrate a virtual encounter, without the hassle or expense of travel. Publishers and authors are now touting books through podcasts, film tours, blog tours, book videos, and book trailers."

The article goes on to point out the advantages of the technological 'book tour', and sums up the feeling as "Each is a small experiment, an incremental move, as the publishing industry has begun to embrace the Internet and other new media. It's hard not to wonder, though, whether their cumulative effect will one day render the face-to-face bookstore meeting between writer and reader obsolete."

I hope not.

I like to meet writers face to face, to have a brief contact with the person whose writing I admire, whose vision I envy, who I may hope to emulate one day. I want to know there is a living, breathing person behind the cardboard covers of a book I respect.

I understand this video makeover might be what authors want, no traveling, no hordes of wide eyed fans ready to ask potentially embarrassing questions. "Some authors are really engaging and some authors, frankly, are not," says Dave Weich, marketing director of Powell's Books. Video offers a way around that. "There's a lot of editing that takes place," admits Sue Fleming, vice president of online marketing at Simon & Schuster. "We can forgive a certain lack of mediagenic-ness."

I've seen the look in the eyes of kids meeting an author at our local library. A video clip is just not the same. Television, YouTube, the Internet, they're all one step removed from reality. "podcasts, film tours, blog tours, book videos, and book trailers" are fine, but they will be a carefully packaged image that the publisher wants us to see. Kids and others will never learn that the author has a dog just like theirs, that he/she read comics under the table at school or always wore mismatched socks on Fridays. All the things that make the author human, and therefore accessible to other humans will be stripped away and replaced with a slick marketing persona. Authors will become about as real as the latest presentation of Beowulf. Slightly waxy around the edges, and too perfect to be real.

"The videos have another advantage: They eliminate the humiliation for an author of showing up at a bookstore event only to find the place empty." Sure, I can see that. No one wants to have their ego resized, to be reminded they aren't the most important person in the world. The business wants guarantees, and nothing is as fickle as a book buyer on a sunny day.

Of course, one of the real reasons is contained in the second paragraph of the article. "marketing tools that have made it possible to orchestrate a virtual encounter, without the hassle or expense of travel."

It'll be cheaper.

"These days, a book tour by a well-known author usually travels to just a handful of cities. Chances are, even the most ambitious promotional treks won't reach a small bookstore in, say, Dubuque, Iowa. For that reason, those involved with online marketing suggest that virtual events are actually reaching people who wouldn't otherwise come into contact with big-name authors."

I submit most people wouldn't come in contact with 'big-name authors' anyhow. If their first statement is true, "a book tour by a well-known author usually travels to just a handful of cities", I'm betting it's the same cities year after year. Same fans. Self-fulfilling prophecy.
"It's an interesting paradigm," says Mr. Weich of Powell's Books. "People tend to ask, 'Isn't this just going to replace the author tour?' But most places in America don't get author tours, at least of [McEwan and Halberstam's] caliber."

Since most places don't get them anyways, we should do away with them. Hmm. Interesting logic. Weich goes on to say, "In a way, the author tour has suffered from its monopolist role in book promotion," says Weich. "It's a really tired format." and "He believes competition from other types of marketing may encourage the book tour to be more imaginative, to reinvent itself."

Hey, I'm all for reinvention, and new ideas. Just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

"Already, publishers are thinking more strategically. Morgan Entrekin… arranged for the authors of "Halsey's Typhoon," a nonfiction account of a treacherous World War II Navy mission, to visit naval bases and shipmate reunions. It was an author tour, but aimed at a niche audience." Who were probably aware of the book already. I thought the idea was to garner new readers and increase readership and the fan base for an author? 'Who is your target group?' takes on a different connotation. We wouldn't want people to step outside their comfy zone and try something different. Publishers want a sure thing, so why wouldn't readers?

They do, but luckily, people also retain the desire to be surprised, to be intrigued, to want something new and different, or else we wouldn't need new authors - the same 10 would suffice. Readers outgrow an author, reading tastes mature, and interests change. I don't want a slick video presentation of my favorite authors; I want to see him/her, warts and all. How can I connect with the wax effigies on the screen? We're bombarded with advertising 24/7; I'd hate to see writers blend into the cataphony. I think the reader-writer relationship is a symbiotic one, and altering the balance means a loss of that all important human connection.

Of course, your mileage may vary. My experience is limited to poetry readings, which still retain magic moments of reading a line, a stanza, and looking up to see heads nodding in agreement, or the look on the face of an audience member, the smile that says "I'm with you in the moment, we are two of a kind. We have a connection."

So, authors out there, clue me in. Book tours, yea or nay? Multimedia, the wave of the future, or one piece of a broad marketing spectrum? Author, real, or industry imagined?

8 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

Well, considering the fact I'm socially dysfunctional, that is, I can't read body language and subtle hints; and hate people closing in on me with a passion (and that would happen at a signing), I'm glad to have the internet as marketing tool. Belive me, I would not come across as nice persion when doing book tours. ;)

Anonymous said...

I don't like people.
If I was an author....all I'd want is their money.

Constance said...

Ah, Gabriele, you must learn the fine art of table arrangement. :) Instead of feng shui, for authors there is "Stay The F*** Away, Shui".

Oh, and come in costume, preferably with armor, people stay far away then...

Constance said...

Anonymous, I don't like people either, think it's a genetic thing?

If you want money, do NOT become a poet, then...

Carla said...

I can see your point about losing the immediacy of meeting a real person face to face. As with everything else, I think it depends on individuals. I'd never dare approach an author at a reading or a signing - I'm much more comfortable with email and message boards.

Constance said...

I've lurked at book signings also. All depends on the mood I'm in whether I 'storm the gates' or just watch. Either way, it's fun. :)

David Anthony Durham said...

Constance,

All authors who've had tours will appreciate readers/writers/fans like yourself. Most of us would want to meet you, and be damn happy to go on a tour if they'll be room even a quarter filled (considering differing crowd expectations) with readers as engaged as you are. Do you sense a "but" coming?...

Well, that would all be great, but tours can be a drain, a waste of money, a blow to creative time, bad for your health and down right depressing. I've been on three national book tours. The first two novels were mid-list literary novels, but they were getting great reviews in the national media all throughout the tour. The third was for Pride of Carthage, which was selling strongly enough to make brief appearances on some extended bestseller lists. None of that meant a thing, though, in terms of guaranteeing an audience. I've read to audiences of two on several occasions. I've sat down for coffee instead of reading when only one person showed up. I've had larger crowds too, of course, but it seemed that neither I or my publicists or the bookstores in question could gauge who would show up. I've walked passed brilliant window displays of my books, through the crowded store, only to arrive in the reading area to find a completely empty space. (Or, even worse, there have been people sitting there that get up and leave when the realized a reading in about to happen.)

And I'm talking about national tours in addition to local ones. I've been flown from Bostong to LA to San Francisco to Portland, staying in nice hotels the whole time, to actually read to maybe ten or fifteen people. When this happens it's not just a matter of ego deflation. Not at all, really, cause it happens even when the books are selling nicely. But spending three weeks navigating delayed flights, nursing colds and coughs, eating airport food, missing your family, having your life otherwise on hold, prepping yourself again and again for readings, interviews, interactions... while all the time knowing that you're as likely to face an empty room that night as not... Well, it does make one wonder why it's worth it for anyone involved.

I think the answer used to be threefold. One, a big author could connect with a big audience and have a big success. Two, more modest authors could at least connect with store staff, sign stock, shake a few hands and maybe have a bit more of a presence in a store. Three, you likely also do radio/print/television interviews in the various cities you arrive in because you're there. That, obviously, can have a last effect.

All that's fine, but I think some things have changed even in the six or so years that I've been doing the tour thing. The famous authors don't need to tour because if they're that famous they have branded names that are going to sell regardless. As far as meeting the store staff... That's great when you're dealing with an independent store and with people that love books. But those stores have increasingly been replaced by the two big chains. At those stores the staff are often not readers and they're often not working in the store long enough for their personal endorsement of an author to mean anything. Also, all of those featured tables, windows, displays in the big stores are paid for through deals with the publishers. Doing a reading at a B&N may mean they have your books on display that night; it doesn't mean they'll still be in the store a week later. And the problem with investing travel and lodging expenses to secure an interview or two is that those media sources are increasingly less important, compared to the much cheaper online avenues. In business terms I've never really understood why tours we worth it.

I didn't tour at all for the hardback of Acacia. Instead, we put money into online promotion/interviews/giveaways etc. From my side of things it was a pleasant change. I feel like I've connected with more readers than ever before, and I've done most of it without the miseries of travel. Also, I didn't really feel like a missed out on interaction, but instead of a promotional tour I've enjoyed going to several genre-based events. I shook a lot of hands at Comic-Con, meet tons of authors and readers at World Fantasy, and did the same at Fantasy Matters. Those events are much more likely to be successes because you have so many people gathering in the same place at the same time. It's good for the authors; good for the fans. I'll definitely be doing more events like these.

Having said all that, I stand by what I said at the start. I'd happily tour every state in the country if I could read to fifteen (ten... eight?..) interested people each time. Nothing is better than face to face proof that the magic of writing stories works. Nothing can replace readers telling me things about my characters that they - in their wisdom - understand even better than I do. (I mean that; I'm not being sarcastic.) Anchor has said they may tour me for the paperback of Acacia next summer or fall, and if they do I'll pack my bags with as much hope as I can fit in them. And then I'll pray my luggage doesn't get lost somewhere between Newark and Cleveland...

Constance said...

David,

Thank you for lending the author's perspective on this. Being in a small town, we tend to treat our visiting authors like gold when they do come. The last mystery writer who visited, we had a packed meeting room and people standing in the back. Luckily, we have an outstanding Arts Council in the state that puts money towards bringing in authors and artists for us culturally deprived tiny towns.

I can see where touring would be a strain on the author. I hate traveling on a good day, let alone New York in December. My only fear is the more we keep removing the face to face contact, the more we lose connections as human beings. Grandiose, but that's my feeling. J

Genre-based events are cool, and hopefully I'll get to go to 2008 WorldCon in Denver next year- but that would be my only interaction with meeting like minded people, the expenses are prohibitive for the average person. If I go, that will be my vacation for the year. Would I regret it? Not on your life, but I am willing to fork over the money and give up my vacation time because writing and hanging around writers and the industry is important to me.

On the other hand (equivalent to your 'but') I think things like blogs and forums are great because of the interaction and the relationship building that goes on. Just because I like seeing and meeting with authors doesn't mean it's the best scenario for everyone involved. As a reader, I'm selfish. As a writer, hopefully I'll be more practical. It doesn't seem very cost effective after reading about book tours on different author blogs and websites.

All that being said - I don't like to travel on a deadline, I'm sometimes antisocial, and I'd have to don my 'extrovert' persona to make it through any type of social function. so I can see where the alternatives would be great for people like me. So why am I arguing against it? Dunno, just struck me as a good topic for discussion at the time, and my initial reaction was to rail against the penchant for society to distance itself in the attempt to prove every (wo)man can be an island, given the right circumstances.

(An aside on the 2008 WorldCon in Denver. Found at the bottom of the information page was this note "We will, however, be sharing facilities with the John Deere convention and the American Statistical Association."
Wow. Can't get more surreal than that! :)