Publishing budgets aren’t what they used to be. One author’s tale of what it took to get on the road and promote a book in 2018.
If you want to have a little devious fun with an author whose book is about to debut, ask them if they’re being sent on tour.
Unless they’re a brand name, television personality, or established bestseller, the question will likely cause an involuntary progression of emotions, not unlike Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, to dance across their face.
The publisher-supported book tour is largely a thing of the past, where it resides with such fondly remembered, ink-stained antiquities as that bar cart that fueled magazine writers as they raced toward’s each week’s closing, the three-martini lunch, and the open-ended expense account.
Of course, it’s a free country, and an author can still go on tour, if they want to badly enough. Doing so requires swallowing one’s pride, shelving any fantasies of a gift-wrapped victory lap, getting over some version of the self-pitying thought, “Didn’t I already do my job when I wrote the book?” and bracing yourself for what amounts to an all-consuming, short-term second job. But, as they say of aging, it’s better than the alternative.
This isn’t the dream. No author grows up fantasizing about being their own publicist, travel coordinator, social media expert, and assistant. But as publishing budgets strain to the breaking point, and in-house publicists drown in a sea of titles to hawk, most books receive precious little marketing time and money. (A mere six months after my book came out, I was so far back in the in-house rep’s rearview mirror that I discovered they’d left for a new gig via an auto-reply email.)
The simple choice is: Accept that your publisher’s promotional push will be–to put it mildly–limited, or take it upon yourself to generate media coverage and events. (The New Yorker offered its take on this emerging reality about a decade ago in a piece many writers will remember titled “Our Marketing Plan.”)
On past projects, I’ve chosen the former path, moving on to the next paid gig and showing up for what few interviews and events a given publisher had arranged. But because I spent more time and effort writing my recent Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll–a history of the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s–than any prior book, this time I was prepared to invest more than I ever had to supplement my publisher’s efforts: They, of course, circulated review copies of the book. They also arranged a speaking gig at the 92nd Street Y in New York City (Esquire‘s Jeff Gordinier graciously agreed to interview me) and at Live Talks LA (Ruth Reichl, a “character” in the book and a personal hero, honored me by agreeing to appear “in conversation with” me there). Other than that, and a few targeted ads and social-media posts, I was on my own….