Publishing PR: New rules of the road for author book tours - The age of the blockbuster book tour is over. These days, publicists have to do more with less. Jonathan Bing gets a read on new, creative tactics

When Linda Greenlaw arrived at the Los Angeles independent bookstore Book Soup on May 18, only two customers showed up to hear her read from her new book, The Hungry Ocean, a memoir of her career as the only female swordfish boat captain ever to ply the waters of the Grand Banks. It was the nadir of a six-city, national publicity tour orchestrated months in advance by Hyperion, her New York publishing house.

When Linda Greenlaw arrived at the Los Angeles independent bookstore Book Soup on May 18, only two customers showed up to hear her read from her new book, The Hungry Ocean, a memoir of her career as the only female swordfish boat captain ever to ply the waters of the Grand Banks. It was the nadir of a six-city, national publicity tour orchestrated months in advance by Hyperion, her New York publishing house.

When Linda Greenlaw arrived at the Los Angeles independent

bookstore Book Soup on May 18, only two customers showed up to hear her

read from her new book, The Hungry Ocean, a memoir of her career as the

only female swordfish boat captain ever to ply the waters of the Grand

Banks. It was the nadir of a six-city, national publicity tour

orchestrated months in advance by Hyperion, her New York publishing

house.



As sales of the novel gained steam, however, Hyperion decided to send

Greenlaw out on the road again, this time trying a grass-roots approach

much closer to home. Driving her battered 1986 Buick across New England,

staying with siblings in Boston and Brunswick, Greenlaw lectured at

local libraries and museums, traveled from a Connecticut yacht club to a

fishing competition in Delaware and read at independent bookstores up

and down the coast. She even did an AM radio interview with someone

named Captain Lou on the tailgate of a pick-up truck in downtown

Boston



’I have not said ’no’ to anything that my publicist has called me with,’

says Greenlaw. ’I’m a good crewman.’ She’s also proven a good catch. At

press time, The Hungry Ocean was number six on The New York Times

bestsellers list.



But few authors have the resources - or the stamina - to follow in

Greenlaw’s footsteps, building a mass audience regionally, signing books

at one local reading after another. And her travels are a far cry from

the traditional book tour - a blockbuster, coast-to-coast junket

popularized by authors like Jacqueline Susann, who in 1969 flew from

city to city in a jet painted with the title of her new novel, The Love

Machine.



But Greenlaw’s success offers a telling example of the changes sweeping

book promotions. Faced with a rapidly shifting, intensely competitive

market, publicists are under pressure to plan their campaigns with

surgical precision and with minimal perks.



Pricey tours, tough competition



The price of a national tour, complete with plane fare, hotel bills and

local escort, is now dollars 1,500 to dollars 2,000 per city. At the

same time, the number of competing authors on the road has multiplied

(Barnes & Noble alone will host approximately 24,000 author events this

year in its various outlets), and authors on a reading tour may find

that the venues that have booked them have also booked another author on

the same night. ’Customers are jaded,’ says Barb Burg, VP and director

of publicity for the Bantam Dell Publishing Group. ’It used to be that

the red carpet was rolled out when an author came to town.’



When Burg came to book publicity 15 years ago, she recalls, ’We spent a

lot more time being travel agents than publicists. I used to know

American Airlines’ schedules out of every market by heart. We now spend

a lot more time being publicists, which forces you to be more

creative.’



For a major commercial house like Bantam or Hyperion, creativity has

meant either reinventing the traditional book tour or focusing instead

on a vast new spectrum of syndicated TV and radio programs. ’It’s a

completely different playing field,’ says Hyperion publicity director

Jennifer Landers. ’You can hit 20 markets in one morning from New York

by satellite. What used to take a month now takes four hours.’



To navigate the media landscape, some publicists have turned to Ruder

Finn subsidiary Planned Television Arts (PTA) of New York City. Staffed

by 45 publicists, PTA has patented a PR deal that it calls the

’20/20/20’ package. For dollars 20,000, PTA will line up 20 major radio

interviews, 20 satellite TV interviews and a ’teleprint’ phone

conference featuring 20 journalists from newspapers and magazines as

diverse as Salon and TV Guide. It’s a package that works especially well

for celebrity authors, says PTA SVP David Thalberg. ’It’s a timesaver -

in one morning, it’s all done. It allows them to hit the markets they

wouldn’t get otherwise.’



Dangers of restriction



But there are perils in restricting author appearances to a limited

number of widely syndicated broadcasts. If reporters only have access to

the same sound bites, their coverage runs the risk of becoming

one-dimensional.



Wary of ’flash-in-the-pan’ media exposure, Walker Books publicity

director Judy Kloos hopes to turn her small press’ limited media budget

to its own advantage, booking its star author, Dava Sobel, into venues

conducive to serious two-way conversations about her work. Sobel, who

scored a surprise hit for Walker with 1995’s Longitude, will discuss

Galileo’s Daughter, her forthcoming biography of the Renaissance

astronomer, in large lecture halls like the Smithsonian Institution in

Washington and the Hayden Planitarium in New York.



Kloos’s itinerary for Sobel may be highly selective, but it also

includes some traditional stumping at bookstores: ’If we sell 100 books,

that pays for the visit to that city. But the long-term effects are so

much greater than immediate revenues.’ Kloos isn’t alone in stressing

the intangible value of bookstore appearances that, at their most

effective, propel the word-of-mouth sales that drive the success of all

but the most formulaic books.



’I always think of book tours as an acceleration of someone leaning over

the back fence, talking to someone else about a great book,’ says Kelsey

Ramage, events coordinator at Bookshop Santa Cruz. The independent shop

recently hosted a reading by Camryn Manheim, the Emmy-award winning

actress and author of Wake Up, I’m Fat! Five hundred customers came to

the store to hear Manheim read from her book.



Manheim’s publisher, Broadway Books, was relatively new to the field

when it toured Manheim. That tour, according to Broadway publicity

director Debbie Steir, helped make Broadway a brand name. ’Camryn was

like John Lennon in the Bay Area,’ says Steir, who is planning to send

her summer 2000 authors Mary Lou Retton and Bill Bryson on 15 to 20 city

tours.



But Manheim was already a celebrity before her book tour, and therefore

an exception to the trend. Like the culinary mystery writer Diane Mott

Davidson, who finally hit the bestsellers list after years of touring,

or E. Lynn Harris, who sold his self-published first novel out of the

trunk of his car at Southern beauty salons, unknown authors in the

future may have to depend less on their publisher’s largesse and more on

their own ingenuity.



’I think that the bookstore-visiting route builds the support that makes

a book stay alive for a long time,’ says Ramage. ’If it’s a book of

merit, that’s worth keeping in print for more than six months, that

one-on-one contact is what builds it.’ In a culture where many books

have a far shorter shelf life, that’s a luxury many readers will do

without.



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