What Do We Lose—and Gain—As Book Tours Move Online?
Guy Gavriel Kay on the Horrors and Possibilities of the In-Person Tour
When I was young, in a distant century, there was an odd feature of the literary community: celebrated authors writing essays for magazines or newspaper book sections chronicling the horrors of their tours. Usually amusingly, sometimes just trying to be. Laments about arriving at a bookstore to find many people waiting, but no copies of the book. Or many books but no people, because someone had forgotten to promote the event (or there was a playoff game in any relevant sport that night). A reading for five people, two of whom were the mother and father of the bookstore manager, under orders to look attentive and enthused. Or, airline chaos with a luggage follies subplot. Hotel booking failures, weather events. Interviewers confusing the author for someone entirely else. (This is real, by the way, happened to someone I knew well.)
The lede buried in all of this, for today’s writers (and readers) is, of course, that there were book tours once. All over. For so many authors. There used to be a joke that in October you couldn’t go through an airport without colliding with a writer on tour. I went cross-Canada from the start of my career, and down into the United States, at a time when I was barely known. And in most cases there were actual people gathered for a reading and signing, besides the manager’s parents. An author coming into town could be an event of sorts, back when.
Sometimes a colossal one. One older friend had a launch in Toronto one night. I went with a third, mutual friend. The bookstore was… flat-out mobbed. Buzzing. Hundreds of the city’s best and brightest had gathered. The author was well known and well liked in the legal community and word had definitely gotten out. No slackness on the part of publicists or bookstore at all. People were lined up holding three, four, five copies of the new book to be signed.
I got in line with two copies (the mutual friend elected to mingle and chat). When I finally arrived at the signing table the author leaped up and we embraced. I said, “X, this is amazing!”(His name isn’t really X, by the way.)
X said, “Guy, you understand nothing!”
I said, “Always a possibility. Why, in this case?”
“Because tonight, tonight, I will sell three quarters of all the books I am ever going to sell of this title!”
But he did sell them. (And the book is still in print, decades after. Just checked.)
For my own second book, as a callow thirty-one year old, I remember arriving in a city for two days allocated to media and a signing. The local publicist met me and handed me a printout of my schedule. I looked at it and blinked. There were ten events. Five radio gigs, two television, one magazine interview, one newspaper interview, and the bookstore signing that night. Plus what I always call “drive-by signings,” when you drop into a store to sign their stock and head off into the midday sun, or whatever, tipping your hat.
This memory still amazes me, looking back. In good part because it just doesn’t happen that way any more. With the disappearance of most book-related media—certainly on the local radio level, and television shows who recklessly wanted to book novelists, it hardly pays publishers, it is hardly worth writers’ time and travel, to do a tour unless someone is very well established.
Even then, it needs calibrating these days. Is a tour really the best way to allocate budget and time? Will it be a painful experience? Awkward for everyone? Might email or telephone interviews with whatever media exists in a given city not be smarter? While aggressively going the online route: magazines, blogs, social media? Or, more recently, Zoom conversations with an audience logging in and asking questions? One rarely loses luggage en route to one’s computer, after all.
What’s been lost in the transition is the personal. The direct connection with readers. If you’ve spent, as I do, years writing a book at your desk, brooding and swearing, but then find yourself in a library’s reading room, church hall, bookstore, literary festival, to encounter those who have come out to express their affection for your work… that’s profoundly rewarding.
I’ve had readers show up as a family wherein three generations have read my books (yes, that means I’m old). I’ve had readers who know (somehow!) that I love whisky, arrive with a gift bottle or, once, kneeling by the table with a backpack containing three single malts and a glass, for me to surreptitiously choose a dram from as I signed. (Thanks again, kind Vancouver person of long ago!)
From the readers’ side, of course, a signing means a personalized book, a memory, and, today, often a selfie to post as proof of “being there.” (I learned, a few years ago, it is now really important to try to have my hair galloping off in a limited number of directions when I do an event. There will be images.) And there is also a chance, albeit in a brief, very public setting, that a reader can speak to a writer who has meant something to them, and say that this is the case. A connection affirmed.
Given that art is, among many other things, an effort at this connection, at communication, sharing, bridging the gap between people, saying such words, and hearing them, can be deeply meaningful.
It isn’t the same (however nice it is) when the words are typed to the author on social media.
And yes, over two years of Covid lie behind these current thoughts. Isolation, uncertainty about travel, about small groups, let alone crowds. The loss of the personal in so many ways these past years has also meant a loss of this element of it—authors and readers meeting.
The decline of book tours has been happening for some time, and for many reasons, but undeniably an online element has been added. And it is not, I need to stress, formally bad. It is a shift, a change. Changes happen. The online world, the newer sorts of connections it allows, has upsides too. Remember, even in their heyday, book tours usually took an author only to larger markets. Readers in smaller cities and towns were almost never part of this sharing.
Now, as the landscape becomes a virtual one, they can be. People can still get signed books, even personalized ones. Many authors (I know I do) make arrangements with a local independents to take orders for signed books. We drop in when alerted, personalize books, chat with the booksellers, buy books for ourselves (support your local indie, please!) and, well, head off into the midday sun, tipping our hat.
Landscapes do change, and in so many ways as time passes. There are losses, felt especially by those who remember the past, but there are also gains. In the end, really, the truest connection for a reader with a writer isn’t on social media, or at a signing, it is with the words, the books.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s All the Seas of the World is available now via Berkley.