Back in the day, guys like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger could write a book and sell a million copies without ever leaving their basement. But these days, it isn’t enough to write a brilliant book—one must also go out into public and promote it. This means traveling around the country doing readings, lectures, magazine interviews, television talk shows, radio call-in programs, podcasts, commencement addresses, pancake breakfasts, bar mitzvahs, and a host of other demeaning things in order to sell something that should, frankly, sell itself.
There are several reasons why books don’t sell themselves. In my case, for instance, the public is not properly educated about the importance of my work; bookstores do not display large enough mountains of my books; teachers do not require their students to read enough of my work in their classes; libraries do not stock enough copies to meet public demand; the government does not store enough copies in secure underground bunkers so that future civilizations might learn from it after we have annihilated ourselves; and NASA has not launched enough copies of my book into space as a means of informing other intelligent life in the universe about our planet and why they would be wise to avoid it.
Rather than make efforts to fix what is so obviously wrong with the world, most publishers would instead prefer that their authors go on a book tour. For those young writers who have yet to participate in this bizarre ritual of contemporary capitalism, I feel compelled to offer some helpful hints about how to conduct a successful book tour.
A typical book tour includes fifteen to twenty major metropolitan areas and a smattering of smaller markets where readers congregate—usually college towns like Madison, Wisconsin, or Iowa City. It doesn’t matter what city you’re in, though—the approach is the same:
In the weeks before your arrival, you’ll to want to promote your appearance on billboards entering the city from all directions, and on the side of the city’s buses. Radio and television spots should be aired regionally during prime time, and a large feature story on you should appear in the city’s largest newspaper on the day before your arrival. Have your PR team contact the mayor of the city to declare the day of your appearance “Name of Author Day,” and to arrange for a presentation on the steps of the town hall. It’s usually no problem to convince the local high-school marching band to lead a small parade in your honor, and the local Veterans Administration can organize a volunteer rifle brigade to give you a proper 21-gun salute.
On the night of your reading, do not leaving anyone guessing about where it is. Rent at least four searchlights with a minimum of 14-million lumens of candlepower to rake the skies with light beams visible for a two-mile radius, and make sure the location is pinned to the phone of every Uber driver in town. In order to accommodate the crowds, it’s often necessary to forego the traditional bookstore and rent one of the local performance halls or a large sports arena. At the entrance, I like to give the first thousand or so people a Tad Simons bobble-head doll as a souvenir, and I hand out colored glow sticks to everyone, with instructions about when to wave them.
Many writers insist on a punctual start to their readings, but I think it’s important to gauge the energy of the crowd and make your entrance when it’s going to make the biggest impact. I prefer to wait about an hour-and-a-half, sometimes two, before taking the stage. I know the time is right when the people up front are crushing each other to get closer to the stage, the screaming and yelling is at a fever pitch, and I can hear the familiar crackle of gunfire. That’s when I cue the singing of the national anthem by a local celebrity. After the final note of that blessed song rings out—“braaaaaaaave”—I give people a few moments to wipe the tears from their cheeks and compose themselves.
Then I make my entrance. I allow about five minutes for the pandemonium to subside, then I begin.
During the reading itself, it’s important to synchronize the light show to emphasize the different moods of the passages you are reading, and to time the flash bombs to let people know when something important in the story has happened. Flame pots should be used sparingly, because people get bored of them after a while. And if one of the passages you are reading involves rain, I recommend aiming several water hoses out over the crowd to help them feel what the characters in your story are feeling.
At the end of the reading, fire the confetti cannons and thank the crowd. As the confetti is falling, release the ceiling full of colored balloons with your face printed on them, then instruct your team to load the Barnes & Noble book guns and start launching paperback versions of your tome into the upper decks. Let the crowd know that your books are on sale in the lobby, and that you will be available afterwards for book signing, baby-naming advice, and selective sperm donations.
As your audience is leaving the arena, it’s always nice to send them off with a modest display of fireworks as well, and to have a blimp hover over the parking lot flashing a heartfelt “thank you” to the folks as they head home.
Follow the above procedures and I guarantee you’ll sell at least twenty or thirty copies of your book in each city. By the end of the tour you’ll have sold several hundred copies, virtually assuring you a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and nominations for the National Book Award and Pulitzer. That unfamiliar odor in your nostrils will be the sweet smell of success, tainted somewhat by the overdue load of laundry in your suitcase.
Savor it while you can, though, because it doesn’t last long. Soon you’ll need to return to your basement and write another book, then prepare for another tour. None of us are Thomas Pynchon, after all—except for the guy who really is Thomas Pynchon, in which case he has the luxury of ignoring all my advice and doing things the old-fashioned way.
The rest of us are not so lucky.