The Social Darwinism of Book Tours

A Jessa Crispin article now making the rounds and riffing on a David Milofsky piece kvetches about “the traditional book tour,” which is presumably defined as an author giving a series of readings across the nation in front of a crowd. But while I certainly advocate any literary event that involves liquor or strange poets braying into a mike, I think Jessa misconstrues Milofsky’s larger point, which is that the languor one associates with an author appearance might be better dispensed with by literary enthusiasts frequenting their local bookstore readings or paying attention to the listings in the newspapers.

However appealing a reading series might be, it still involves a certain social Darwinism: the reading series organizer invites writers who are hip or in or otherwise down with it. But what of the authors who don’t fit into a “Progressive Reading” agenda? Or who aren’t telegenic or charismatic enough to appeal to an 18-34 demographic? Does this not cheapen or detract from the books that the authors have written?


  1. …Can’t think of anything more embarrassing than reading my own writing out loud. I did one Borders booksigning (that I set up myself) and I spoke with people in detail, smiled a lot, etc., but never read from my novel. I sold three copies, which wasn’t that bad for a nobody, and which was more than I’d thought I would sell, which was zero.

    I think the book tour thingie’s too hard on many writers–at least I hear many writers complaining that they’re often not worth the trouble. I could never do an extensive tour because I’m just not up to it. But if publishers or whoever are gonna arrange them, they should do so in places where the particular writer’s audience likely resides. Around here a lot more older people read than younger people, so setting up booksignings for young-adult books probably wouldn’t be very successful.

    Book tours seem to be one of those things often done “by rote” in publishing; by rote is something that always irritates me no matter where it’s being practiced and no matter who’s doing that practicising. I prefer things done in a more individualized thoughtful way.

  2. Not to diminish the hip factor, not the telegenic/charismatic appeal of the five folks who Graywolf Press sent out to the Gist Street Reading Series some ten days ago, but I don’t think the majority would fit into what you are aiming at Ed. Yet, there were over 150 people in attendance. This was an event, a BBQ/Reading/Prize Awardings/etc.

    Looking over Gist Street’s list of readers for the calendar year, not all of them do fall into line with those that you are describing, and in fact know of two who have read there in the past year that absolutely hate giving readings, but if you don’t show up early to get in every month, you don’t get in – they have a capacity of 80 people and fill it month after month and sell the author’s books.

    They’ve developed a reputation amongst the literary and artistic in Pittsburgh for having great events, great authors and people want to have that good time.

    Even bookstore tours can do something to stand out. In Ann Arbor, I will NOT go to a reading at Borders unless I’m a personal friend of the author – the last two times I’ve been there, the reading was set up just outside the bathroom and the P.A. had announcements going over it every five minutes.

    Meanwhile, at Shaman Drum, Ray McDaniel gives an introductio to each reader that is worth my driving the half hour to Ann Arbor to see. Oddly, they tend to pack in listeners/buyers while Borders is lucky to pull in a baker’s dozen.

  3. Thanks, Ed. I don’t mind Jessa ripping on me, if that’s what she’s dong; she’s entitled. But I actually intended the piece to be humorous and don’t at all lament either book tours or their ending (if they ever do). What I do regret is the fact that because publishers are dominating whatever local audience there is for readings, many colleges and universities have given up their reading series for lack of attendance–with a resultant loss of audience for poets and serious fiction writers, who used to make a meagre living off these gigs. And then I did hope to encourage some readers to come out to readings in the area. From my unscientific sampling thus far this hasn’t worked.

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