As I was winding down my book tour to southern California recently, I stopped at a cafe with new friends I'd made in a high desert town called Ridgecrest. The four of them had gathered to see me off after I'd done a book signing at the China Lake Navy Base nearby, followed by a discussion with local writers at Red Rock Books, a terrific independent bookstore.
My friends were clearly amused by my observations of desert life. They all ride motorcycles and routinely train their dogs to avoid rattlesnakes on the hiking paths. I'd come from New England and might as well have been dropped on the moon, that's how alien the landscape was: pale brown earth streaked red, abandoned mines, roads with improbable names like Twenty Mule Team Parkway, and even a Silver Dollar Saloon. Not a pine tree or maple sugar house in sight.
How did I get from a small coastal town in New England to the California desert to sign copies of my new paperback? It all started with an email from Vicki Rizzardini. She lives in Ridgecrest and started Red Rock Books; her stepdaughter runs the store now. Vicki had read my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, and liked it, so she emailed me through my web site. I was ecstatic! After all, writers put words on the page to reach someone, and it's tough to know if you've done that. Sending your book out into the world is like having a kid go off to college and never bothering to call.
Vicki gave the book to her friend, Betty, an admiral's wife. Which, in turn, led me to screw up my courage and telephone the Navy Exchange at China Lake to see if I could do a book signing there. When they agreed, I thought what the heck, and called the Navy Base at Coronado, too.
"It's great that you're here, but do you actually make any money doing these book tours?" asked one man during my tour. "Was it worth coming?"
He had logically assumed, as most people do, that publishers send authors on book tours, and was perplexed when I admitted that I'd bought my own plane ticket.
Alas, the age of book tours is over. Every writer I know, with a few best-selling exceptions, has been told by their publicists and editors to just forget those bookstore appearances. "Nobody comes anymore," they explain.
Sometimes they're right. At my best book signings, I've had a pretty good turnout -- maybe 50 to 75 people. At my worst, I've had only one person show up, and that was an ex-lover I would have dearly loved to impress. Most of the time there are only a handful of people.
So why do a book tour, especially if you have to pay for it yourself? The reason bears repeating: we writers put our words on the page to reach someone.
Yes, I ponied up the money to go to California myself. Not a lot of money, since I could stay with friends in the three different locations I made appearances, but still, a plane ticket equals a lot of groceries. I paid out of pocket because I wanted to meet readers. I was especially interested in reaching out to Navy families, because my memoir centers around my father, a Navy Commander who became so obsessed by gerbils that we ended up on a farm with 9,000 of these pocket kangaroos.
Was it worth it? I mulled this over as I left Ridgecrest and drove through Red Rock Canyon, stunned by the beauty of the purple and red light in the sky over the stark hills. At the Navy base in Coronado, I had met a family with three girls; the oldest, a teenager, bought my book because she wants to be a veterinarian. I also chatted with a Navy nurse who bought the book for herself, because it was her birthday.
At China Lake, I talked with a Navy pilot who has a collection of over 300 books; he dreams of being a writer one day. There was a woman who bought four of my books as gifts for her sisters. At Red Rock Books, I talked with other writers about the future of publishing. We concluded that, no matter what form stories take, there will always be people who want to hear them.
Is a book tour worth it, if you pay for it yourself? Probably not, if you're just thinking about money. (Admittedly, it's hard not to.) I probably signed a total of 125 books that week in California. The royalties wouldn't even add up to a new pair of shoes.
But who knows? For every book I signed for someone, that someone might decide she likes it well enough to suggest it to her book club, or buy it for her mom. Word-of-mouth has always been one of the most powerful marketing strategies around.
Meanwhile, I got to see the splendor of the desert sky, to visit with old friends and make new ones, and to be inspired by readers eager to connect. What better reasons are there to keep writing?