The Pros & Cons of Book Touring

I’ve been on tour since May 10, and away from home (meaning, not going back home after an appearance but instead living out of a hotel) for two straight weeks. I will continue to be doing so until Sunday — assuming I’m able to get home without delay by taking a Memorial Day Weekend flight, which to my knowledge I have never once been able to do. When everything wraps up I will have been on tour for three weeks, which for a normal human is a long time to be away from home, and this particular instance if nowhere else, I happen to be a fairly normal human.

While I have been about on tour, folks have asked if I like touring, or if I’m having fun, or if I miss being home — or more generally, what it’s like to be on a book tour for an extended period of time. So to answer these questions, I’ve made a little list of the pluses and minuses of being on a long book tour.

To begin, let’s start with the pluses:

1. An opportunity to promote your book. This is of course the whole point of the tour, and it’s not an insignificant point. Lots of books get released every week, even in just science fiction and fantasy, and you have to work hard to differentiate yours from every other book and get people excited about it. Showing up in physical form in a place your readers can find you is one of the ways to do that.

In my case at least there’s some evidence that touring helped punt the book up and through that ineffable goalpost known as the New York Times Bestseller List — not wholly through the number of people showing up to the events but also through the second-order stuff like media covering the event and people talking about the tour and so on. It’s that second-order awareness raising that makes a difference in the long run and justifies a tour, even if the numbers of readers showing up at any particular spot varies significantly.

2. A chance to meet fans. I’m under the impression that it’s exciting for fans to meet authors, but it works the other way, too — it’s very neat indeed to show up at a bookstore and see dozens of people (or more!) waiting to see you and meet you and being excited about your work. Writing is a process usually done alone and staring into a computer, and most writers are not so well known that they are stopped on the street by the adoring masses. A tour is a nice way to be assured that indeed, all of our hard work and hair-pulling angst in writing a novel does not result in the book falling down a dark hole; people really do read it, and like it, and show up to let us know about it. I assume other writers are grateful about that; I know I am.

3. An opportunity to road-test material. In my case, when I’m on the road, I try not to read from the book I’m touring, since presumably people either have already read it, or will be reading it once I sign their book. Instead, I present material from upcoming works, and that serves two purposes: One, it gives me an idea of how that particular piece is working with people who are core fans of my writing; two, it both rewards people for showing up to my reading (they get an exclusive sneak peak!) and if they like it, at least, gives them something to be excited about for the future.

4. See friends and other places. I live in rural Ohio and most of my friends live a significant distance away, so a book tour gives me a chance to get out of my little hometown for a bit and at most stops to spend some time with friends who I would not otherwise easily see. At nearly every stop on the tour there were at least a couple of friends I had not seen in a while and was happy to be able to spend at least a little time with. Also, occasionally on tour you have an opportunity to meet with people you have always wanted to meet, but managed not to up until that point. That’s fun too.

5. Most everything is paid for by someone else. Hotels, airfare, dinners? Paid for by the publisher or expensible. That’s fairly awesome.

So those are upside happy things. Now here are the disadvantages:

1. Discombobulation. What day is it? Where am I? What’s on my schedule that I have to do this time? There’s an actual rest of the world outside my tour? After a couple of days it really does become a blur, because usually at each stop one is heavily scheduled. It’s not just the event — there’s meeting with booksellers, signing stock, being driven about, doing interviews and other work on the road, and so on… and doing that all while constantly moving.

When I did my first tour for a novel, I was told I’d have a media escort at each stop, and I thought, why on earth would I need one of those? By the second stop I knew: Because you’re doing so much, and usually in a place where you don’t know where anything is, that you really do need someone to guide you around and sometimes do the simple things, like, you know, make sure you eat and make it to the airport for your next flight.

2. Performance mode. This isn’t an actual minus, but it’s taxing, which is why I put it in this category. When I do an event, I am essentially doing a live and generally high-energy performance: I do a significant chunk of reading, which I try to deliver in something other than a pedantic monotone, because that would suck; then I do a fairly extensive Q&A session, which obliges me both to think on my feet and to be entertaining while doing so, and then I do a signing session, which is an hour or more of making sure that everyone who gets a book signed feels they get at least a moment where it’s just them and me talking. When all is said and done it’s two or three hours of being on.

As fun as that is for me — and it is fun, a lot of fun — it’s also very tiring. When I’m done with what I call my “Performing Monkey Mode” at the end of every tour event, I’m usually wiped out. Friends with whom I go to dinner after an event usually notice it — I am quiet(er) and appear a little withdrawn and tired, and slightly dazed. And you do that every day for a couple of weeks.

3. Time pressure. So, the good thing about touring is that you get to see friends. The bad thing about touring is that you often don’t get to see them as much as you like, and the fact is, you’re working, and you have to fit your friends around that work. So often that means that someone you’d really like to spend an hour or two with you end up being able to spend maybe fifteen minutes with, or even just a couple of minutes in the signing line. And while I expect most of those folks know you’re busy and working and don’t hold it against you, it’s still not the best circumstance. And of course sometimes there are people you want to see, but then your schedules just don’t match up. So you’re in a town of one of your friends and what you end up doing is waving at their house as you fly out.

4. Isolation. You see friends, you see fans, you meet people on your tour. But you’re still out of your usual circumstances and you are usually flying solo and you are generally only in any one place for a short period of time, and you travel around a whole lot. So you end up spending a lot of time alone, and not just alone but alone away from familiar places and people. Which leads to being (for me) a little isolated and out of sorts. I tell people that my usual limit for being away from my wife, child and pets is about three days, and after that I start being cranky and moody. So now I’m on day fourteen of that, with a few more days to go. I’m pretty sure I’m not letting my existential yearning for home show much — and to be clear I’m still enjoying myself quite a bit and am looking forward to the last few days on the road — but it’s there. I am very much ready to be home and not having to go anywhere or do anything other than be with my family.

So there are the ups and downs of the life of the touring author, at least when the touring author is named John Scalzi. Other authors may tell slightly different tales. But I think in general we’d all say: these tours are a lot of fun, we have a wonderful time when we’re one them, and when they’re done, it’s nice to be home.

34 Comments on “The Pros & Cons of Book Touring”

  1. That sounds like quite a vacation – too fast, too far, too many places, too much fun. I’ve always believed that the purpose of a vacation was to make you appreciate being home. Thank you for adding to the body of evidence to support that.

    More seriously, thank you for being accessible to your fans.

    I’m curious: have you ever been recognized and approached by a fan when you weren’t someplace where fans gather?

  2. Applause is a wonderful drug, it’s different than ticket sales, book sales, ratings … makes you feel all warm inside. Don’t get too addicted to it.

  3. Dave H:

    I have been recognized a couple of times outside of conventions/tour events but it really doesn’t happen that often. Fame accrues to the books, not to my face.

  4. You left out the hookers and blow. Those are standard issue for any kind of promotional tour, right?

  5. Great insight into personal style differences! I think you have to be some kind of introvert to write fiction — although I’d love some feedback on this — but to sit down day after day just talking to your computer requires a personality comfortable with yourself as sole companion.

    However, you have to be an extrovert to mingle with your fans and sell the book. Solution: have an inner extrovert you can bring out at parties (the performance monkey). Very consumptive of energy. True extroverts draw energy from the audience and end up feeling exhilarated after such sessions. I’ll bet they’d much rather talk than write.

  6. The good news is when you do get home or very soon thereafter you should have a fulltime kid. They’re always a good reason to do a little goofing off. Plus you’ve got to enjoy it while you can; especially with girls because once they hit a certain age Dad becomes much less interesting. Luckily for me by the time my youngest gets to that age my oldest should be about ready to start providing grandchildren.

  7. Longest road trip I did was 10 days and I was a smoking wreck by the end. Too introverted. You’ve got the right stuff for it — lucky guy. BTW, any run-ins with unwanted vermin in your hotels ( such as bed bugs )?

  8. John: I realize this isn’t your first book tour, not by a long shot, but I’m curious about something. Do brand-new authors go on book tours? Are book tours reserved solely for the “established” authors who can draw a crowd? Have you had stops where you expected to draw a crowd, and nobody (or just a handful) showed up, or vice versa?

    You also mention missing your family. I understand Krissy needs to hold down the fort while you’re gone, but have you ever thought about bringing Athena along to a summer book tour, when she’s out of school? Would/could you trust her to handle herself while you’re out stumping for your book?

  9. Nice to hear an author say a book tour is still worthwhile. I get a feed from the e-book gurus at “Who Dares Wins” publishing (which sounds quite sci-fi in itself…) and they’re much more about social media driving the author/reader relationship and build the buzz for the book…wait, I’m boring myself here. I think you’re amazing for devoting so much time to your books and fans, especially as it goes so far beyond your usual absence from family time.

  10. MVS:

    No bedbugs to date.

    Jennifer R. Ewing:

    Sometimes new authors go on book tours. It depends on the project and the publisher. And no, I don’t think Athena’s ready to do a book tour. It’s not a question of trust, it’s a question of attention span.

  11. @PoppaJ: especially with girls because once they hit a certain age Dad becomes much less interesting

    –>I’m afraid I really must object to this. My dad was an awesome guy through all 36 of the years I had him, and he became significantly more interesting over time. (Round about age 23 I started to have the first of many “Crap, my father was right” moments.)

    Given how John speaks (writes) about Athena, and the kind of person she seems to be, I think they have an excellent chance of maintaining a happy, close relationship.

  12. In my twenty plus years of writing and publishing, only *once* did I ever make it to L.A. for one of those famed Hollywood meetings (which lasted about 30 minutes). Got a hotel room discount. One of my brothers asked me if I got any “extras” while I was there. I said, you’ve heard about movie stars being wooed with high-priced call girls? Enthusiastically, he said yes. I replied, I’m the writer. You get a copy of Hustler magazine and some hand lotion.

  13. Re: Con #2. From this side of the podium, the effort you put in is much appreciated. I saw you at the NYPL on Monday. You, sir, killed it.

  14. I can certainly see performance mode being tiring. You came into the Seattle stop at 7:30 and were on for 2 hours plus at least another 60-90 minutes in a silly long signing line. That’s a heck of a long time, well above anything I could have expected. Thanks once more for coming out and enjoy it when you get home and collapse for a bit.

  15. Dear Mr. Scalzi, this is almost completely off topic (it IS about Fuzzy Nation) but I just wanted to say I am liking your latest (audio)book very much, but riding my bicycle home from work today I had to stop ’cause I was crying and couldn’t see where I was going. To the nice guy who asked if everything was ok, I told him it was allergies (I wasn’t bawling, just sniffling), but I think you and I both know exactly what was going on. Argh!
    Love your work,

  16. I have trouble sleeping more than a few hours in any bed not my own, so I can only imagine what it must be like to be out on tour. I hope the rest of it goes well for you, and that Fuzzy Nation climbs even higher on the NYT Bestsellers list.

  17. I just want to throw it out there: For what it’s worth — I was at your LA appearance — you did make me feel like there was just a few moments when it was just you and me talking. Well, I mean, there was just you and me talking, but you made it feel like nothing else was going on just for those few minutes. That’s a rare gift from anyone, much less someone who is moderately famous and clearly crazy-busy (AND I was the last person in the line!).

    That’s very appreciated.

  18. #14 : NY public LIbrary on Tuesday, but no matter. I enthusiastically second that notion. You were great! Worse Shatner imitation… Ever! but soooo funny

    Thanks for signing my copy of Fussy Nation

  19. I saw you in Portland (I asked the question about swearing in your work- though i’m sure it *is* all a blur:-) and I’d like to ffer a couple thoughts to you about the tour. If it had not been for the tour, I would not have bought the hardback of Fuzzy Nation. $25 is a lot for a book for me right now, but it is not as much when you think of it as $25 for a book and an event. Your “Performing Monkey Mode” made the evening special. My wife is not a SciFi fan at all, so I went solo. The first thing i told her when i got home was that I wish I had brought her, simply because of how entertaining your words were. I will make it an absolute point to attend any future book signing of yours in Portland and, perhaps more importantly, I will bring friends next time!

    So, in an utshell, Thanks!

  20. You neglected to mention among the downsides the lack of new cat pictures. I’m sure that a certain person, who is not a certain person, would like you to remember the importance of this unfortunate consequence of your travel schedule.

  21. Fame accrues to the books, not to my face.

    That sounds like it could be a two-edged sword. On the plus side, people will leave you alone. On the minus side, you can be replaced quietly.

    For that matter, how do we know John Scalzi is even real? You could be a clever marketing construct like Betty Crocker, or simply Kenneth Robeson writing under a pseudonym.

  22. A couple years ago I saw Patrick Rothfuss walking down the street, and I was all, “Oh, hey, it’s Patrick Rothfuss!” I shook his hand, and as I was walking off, I heard his friend ask him if he got recognized on the street that often, and Pat laughed and said, “Sometimes, but there’s a lot more famous people in the world.”

  23. Thank you for spending the time away from your family to do this book tour! I thoroughly enjoyed your readings and Q&A and meeting you in SF (as did my friend who couldn’t care less about sci-fi). I was so touched and pleased and chuffed to feel as if you were really focusing your attention on just me during the signing (even though I knew you must’ve been exhausted). I just wanted you to know that I felt very special and couldn’t stop talking about it to my husband for days. Thanks so much!

  24. Ha! Con #2 finally put a name to the reason why I’m so exhausted every Friday after a week of teaching. Performance mode, indeed. Everything you wrote could apply to me if I’m dragged out on a Friday night!

  25. You aren’t coming to Austin, so are DEAD TO ME.

    Fortunately, I have Simon Pegg coming next month to salve my grief . . . which sounds like the worst pr0n euphemism ever.

  26. #27 Well he was in Austin in April. Though yeah, can’t have too much Scalzi

  27. Just finished reading Fuzzy Nation and it was excellent, The book deserves a great tour!

  28. This brings back memories of when I first took a job that required a lot of travel. At first it was very cool seeing new cities new places, being on my own and such. Then after a year or so, it was actually tiring and not exciting and I found myself trying hard to avoid long travel as much as possible. Enjoy your return home.

  29. Thanks for the answers, John. I hope to someday be in a similar situation, and I greatly appreciate the insight. While I appreciate your writing, I have to say I am far more in awe of your self-marketing. I can’t think off the top of my head of another author who considers their book signings a performance. I hope you don’t mind because I am sooo going to steal this idea.

    Congratulations on your success with Fuzzy Nation. It is well earned.

  30. 1. Discombobulation.

    Heh… down here in New Zealand, we tend to get authors who’ve been asked the same six questions — and flawlessly delivered the same charming anecdotes and gags — for months on end. I suspect most authors would put that in the “Oh, I wish my bad days were that good” file, but I can empathise with authors who quite obviously would like to be back in their own beds. :)

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