Friday, September 29, 2006

Report from the Front Lines

Author, playwright and screenwriter Sally Nemeth took my Book Promotion 101 workshop in Los Angeles, her current hometown, this past January. She just returned from her first book tour, and offered to share her marvelous account of it here.

My Virgin Voyage into Book Tour Land
by Sally Nemeth

My book, The Heights, the Depths and Everything in Between, (Knopf), came out this past July. I had a great local launch party and signing here at Skylight Books in LA, and sold lots of books to my friends. And then what? OF COURSE my friends are going to buy my book. They're my FRIENDS. How do I get perfect strangers to do the same? Well, tour the damn thing, I guess. But where to begin?

Even though the book is set in Delaware, and that great small state will be next on the itinerary, my fabulous publicist, Paula Singer, and I had decided that we'd begin my book tour in Birmingham, Alabama, since it is a) where my family lives, so I can not only visit with them, but I can STAY with them; b) a smallish market, so getting press shouldn't be too difficult; c) a place where I have an existing relationship with schools so I can easily arrange school visits; and d) a destination to which I can use my boyfriend's frequent flier miles. So aside from the petsitter and the airport parking, the trip would be, miraculously, FREE.

I arrived in Birmingham on a Tuesday night after rising at 4AM to catch a 7AM flight. This is the problem with living in Los Angeles: unless you're flying WEST, to say, HAWAII (dream on), you're losing time, so a travel day east is a lost day. Paula had managed to get me an interview with the local NPR affiliate, WBHM, but the only time they could talk to me was at 8:30 AM Wednesday; so, sleep deprived and gravel voiced, I did my interview. I'm not sure what I said, but I'm sure it can be artfully edited. It hasn't aired yet, but will eventually on their arts magazine show, Tapestry. Tune in online, if you so desire. I make no promises as to my coherence.

By the way, the theory that since Birmingham is such a small market that press should be easy to get -- not true. Birmingham, for all its charms, has pretentions of being Atlanta, a cultural bastion and the de facto capital of the Deep South. Not that Birmingham doesn't have culture. It's got a decent symphony, good museums, a nationally recognized high school for the arts (and more on that later). But it ain't Atlanta. Still, the arts reporters couldn't have cared less, even with the home-town-girl-makes-good angle. My mother kept going on and on about how much press John Green -- fellow alum of my high school (though decades after me) and fellow YA writer -- got when HE was in Birmingham flogging his book. I had to point out to her that he SET his book in Birmingham. And then he won every award known to man. Enough said.

Anyway, after my WBHM interview and some down time, it was off to the Alabama School of Fine Arts to talk to the writing students and faculty there, about 100 folks in all. I had gone to ASFA for a blessed year in '74 when I first moved to Alabama, and it is a phenomenal school. Since that time, it has added a math and science wing, and those brainiac students win national awards with alarming regularity. I told the writing students about the old days at ASFA when we went to class in the semi-demolished dorm of a local college campus and were roundly despised by the college students, and the kids pored over my old '74-'75 annual, wisely supplied by my sister Carolyn -- a BIG hit. The clothes, the hair. They couldn't get enough of it.

I talked about my career as a writer, did a seventies trivia quiz (the book is set in the 70's, all trivia questions relate to the book, and I award correct answers with pencils, not found in any store), read from the book, and then opened it up for questions. It was a complete barrage. I hadn't expected it. Not only did they want to know about the writing of the book, and -- yup -- what the school was REALLY like in the 70's (even though they had photographic evidence), they also wanted to know about the writing life, and how I've managed to make a living at it for 15 years. I'm not even sure myself how I've managed, but I faked it good. They were great. Afterward, the owner of the Little Professor Bookstore in Homewood was there to sell books, and sold all of ONE. It seems the ASFA folks didn't tell the kids she'd be there, so none of them had a dime. But a faculty member bailed me out and bought a book so I didn't feel so very lost and lonely.

The next morning was Indian Springs School, my alma mater, and the campus immortalized in John Green's Printz Award-winning novel, Looking for Alaska. There, I spoke to the entire student body -- about 300 high schoolers. After an embarassing intro by my old English and drama teacher, Mr. Ellis, where he READ FROM ONE OF MY OLD PAPERS (God, do teachers save EVERYTHING?), I again talked, did the 70's trivia quiz (it goes over BIG every time), read and answered questions. This time, aside from wanting to know about the book and about my stint writing for "Law & Order," the kids wanted to know about -- yup - ISS back in the 70's. And, again, they were great. And THESE kids had credit cards. The woman from Little Professor was there again, and sold out two cases of books. I felt much better for her, after having schlepped the books to TWO event, that she sold 'em out.

That afternoon was my public signing at a local indie bookstore, Milestone Books, that was lovely, but the owner, Linda, a really wonderful woman, was a tad overworked and scattered. In fact, she had ENTIRELY FORGOTTEN I was doing a reading there until Paula -- who had booked the reading in July -- called her a week before to confirm. Oops. Still, she rallied, and sent out letters and e-mails to her teen reading group. Bless, her, she even got phone orders for the book and ended up having to reorder, since we sold her out of two cases as well. So, aside from family and friends, I did have some complete strangers there -- book lovin' teens -- who not only bought the book, but one of them read it THAT VERY NIGHT. And how do I know this?

Well, the next day, I visited my niece Lily and nephew Carter's middle school, and talked to the 100 or so students in their 7th grade "pod". Which I guess makes them pod people. But that same girl was there, and told me she'd devoured the book overnight -- probably reading under the covers, right? And haven't we all, when riveted to a book? I was totally flattered. The kids were amazing, through the talk, the trivia quiz and the reading. And then they asked incredibly insightful questions -- stunning from 7th graders. And I do know the level of 7th grade discourse. (In fact, Lily & Carter, who are cousins, have a movie posted right now on YouTube called "Things that Hurt Carter." Look it up if you want a good dose of 7th grade humor.) The leader of their pod, Mrs. Montgomery, was even surprised by the depth of their questions. Though there was no bookseller there, I did donate a copy to the school library and hand out book cards, so I'm sure I'll get a reader or two. Eventually.

I had a weekend with family -- nieces, nephews, sisters, parents, dogs, cats -- then on Monday I went to Atlanta to what is probably the best children's bookstore I've ever visited: Little Shop of Stories in Decatur. Amazing store. The manager, Terra McVoy, had her teen reading group read the book, so we sat on a sofa while the kids had some after-school ice cream from the lunch counter in the store, and I finally got to discuss the book with kids who had actually read it. It was wonderful. Prior to this, it had all been about introducing the book and getting people to buy it. Now I was talking with actual readers, and they had some interesting thing to say.

And here's what all kids want to know: Who am I in the book? And I have to tell them the truth: I'm every character. I have to be. If I can't get inside every character and inhabit them, they aren't real for me. So there's something of me in every character.

Before I left Atlanta, I signed some stock for Terra and we talked about the possibility of having me participate in next year's Decatur Book Festival, sponsored by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which would be great if it could happen. I returned to LA the next morning, tired, entirely out of book cards and pencils, and happy for the experience.

And what has it taught me, my Virgin Voyage in Book Tour Land? Next time, more lead time -- Paula and I are now working toward having me tour Delaware and Chicago, but are planning for the spring. It gives bookstores more time to hook into schools, a YA writer's bread and butter.

But the biggest thing it has taught me is that no matter how great the internet is and how many venues and avenues there are for getting yourself and your book out there via the ether, there is nothing like doing it face to face. Not only did I need to get really clear about my book and how to present it to a living, breathing audience of teens and 'tweens, but then their energy and enthusiasm sent me home with more enthusiasm and energy of my own. And that is the greatest gift of the traditional book tour.

There's no substitute for doing it LIVE.

1 comment:

Christine Fletcher said...

Sally's tour is inspiring--thanks for sharing, Bella!