Author Topic: Article on touring by SFWP winner Ken Cook  (Read 1703 times)

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Article on touring by SFWP winner Ken Cook
« on: October 22, 2005, 02:11:45 PM »
(reprinted without permission!  Ho-ho)

On the Road
The Do-It-Yourself Book Tour
By K.L. Cook


Talking to a group of fifty sixth-graders at a prep school in Mobile, Alabama, during homecoming week was not my idea of big-time book promotion. I was three weeks into a nine-week book tour for my collection of linked stories, Last Call, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004. My wife and I, along with our four kids, were staying at my wife’s uncle’s house, and I had agreed to give a short reading and talk for my young cousin’s class. When I heard it was homecoming week—floats were being constructed in the courtyard below—I winced. And yet, when I read a short passage about a girl falling off a horse (one of the few G-rated passages in my book), the crowded room of eleven-year-olds was absolutely rapt. They were not yet old enough to have forgotten the great pleasure of listening to a story. I asked for questions, fully expecting to carry the Q&A session myself. To my surprise, thirty hands shot up.

“Can you tell us about the publishing process?” asked a serious young girl, her notebook in hand. “And then I have a follow-up question.”

“Do you and your kids fight? Because me and my mom fight all the time,” a boy confessed. I later learned from the teachers that he was the headmaster’s son.

When I asked the kids if they wanted me to read another short passage, they cheered. And I thought, “Every writer deserves this kind of audience.”

That event in Mobile was just one of many surprises of the ten-thousand-mile, sixteen-state, sixty-event tour that I had cobbled together. Reading at a barbecue dinner at the small Tennessee university where my father-in-law teaches, addressing an audience in Amarillo that included the high school English teacher who inspired me to write, visiting Flannery O’Connor’s peacock farm during a gig in Georgia, speaking to inmates at a medium-security prison in West Texas, as well as watching my four kids strong-arm bookstore patrons into buying my book—these were among the most memorable events of what I called, depending on my level of whimsy, “The Great Last Call Book Tour” or “The Great Futon Tour.”

It will come as no surprise to any creative writer that trade publishers no longer routinely send their authors on extensive book tours. That privilege is usually reserved for best-selling celebrity authors; the rest of us are lucky to have a marketing department splurge for print ads or postcard, e-mail, and media campaigns. University and independent presses have even fewer resources to offer their authors, and many writers are left to their own devices or encouraged to spend their small advances to hire private publicists.

Of course, even writers who are sent on reading tours sometimes complain about them, and for good reason. The embarrassing turnouts at bookstores, the hectic traveling schedule, the unexpected expenses, the time away from family and normal writing routines—it’s enough to make you wonder whether it’s all worth it. Yet a book tour is still one of the great mythical perks of literary success, and it remains the best way to build an audience, develop promotional skills, and more importantly, share work directly with readers—no small matter, given how long most of us write in silence.

When I received the news that Last Call had won the Prairie Schooner Prize, I was in residence at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist colony in the Adirondacks. A fellow resident, Hannah Tinti, a fiction writer and the editor of One Story, offered sage advice. She encouraged me to be aggressive with publicity and to remember that the opportunity to promote a book is a privilege, not a burden. I was determined to make the most of the situation. I negotiated an early sabbatical from Prescott College in Arizona, where I teach creative writing and literature, spent several months planning a tour, got in touch with my inner salesman, and then hit the road with my entire family and several boxes of books. My goals were clear: sell books, build an audience, develop contacts, and pave the way for my next book. But I also wanted this tour to be fun—not a lonely, terrifying experience but something I could share with family, friends, students, mentors, and colleagues.

Because I knew I would be on sabbatical from my faculty position—the one that allows me to provide for my four children—I had to begin saving far in advance, and then I had to count pennies throughout the tour. I determined that the cost of lodging could potentially derail the entire endeavor, so I plotted my course not through major literary hubs but to places where we could visit family, friends, and colleagues. I planned an extended stay in Nashville in late October, to coincide with the due date for my sister-in-law’s baby. I arranged trips to off-the-beaten-literary-track cities like Las Cruces, Mobile, Milledgeville, and Childress because we wanted to see friends and relatives—and let them rustle up audiences for me. We researched opportunities and diversions for the kids as well—the Alamo, Helen Keller’s birthplace, Sea World, and space and science centers in various cities. (The Grossology exhibition at the Witte Museum in San Antonio was a favorite.) And I planned a two-week stay in the Texas Panhandle. Not only is that area one of the major settings in my book, I also have family there who would happily feed and house us.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life than I did during the nine weeks I was on the road. A typical day for me would include loading up my minivan (not an easy thing to do with a cargo of six travelers), driving for several hours, visiting two or three classes, shaping a reading for a particular event, eating lunch or having dinner with students, teachers, and event coordinators, driving to a Kinko’s at midnight to check e-mail and set up events two weeks down the road, and then sleeping for a few hours before starting all over again. There was, in fact, a nearly sleepless seventy-two hours when I had gigs in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas. Before I embarked on the tour, I naïvely believed that I would have time to write new fiction while I was on the road, but I soon gave up that romantic notion and realized that, for these two months, I was a salesman, hawking my wares out of the back of my Honda Odyssey.

Before every event, I thought of Bret Lott’s great essay, “Toward Humility.” In it, Lott describes being flown on a Learjet to what everyone expected would be a huge, standing-room-only signing for his novel, Jewel, the latest Oprah pick. He arrived, however, to find only a few of his former students and a woman with a dog in a baby stroller. The woman bought a book and asked him to inscribe it to the dog.

I kept my expectations low. I never expected to sell a book, and so I was always delighted, whether I sold five books or fifty.

Perhaps the single most important thing I did to prepare for my book tour was develop a Web site. I consulted Prescott College’s technology director and hired a work-study student who had his own side business building Web sites as my designer. I purchased my domain name (klcook.net) for a mere fifteen dollars a year from namerocket.com and spent about a hundred dollars on an annual fee for Web hosting services provided by hostingdirect.com—both recommended by Prescott College’s Web site director as cheap and reliable. I researched a wide variety of author Web sites, and then I worked closely with my designer to create the overall look of the site as well as the text and graphics on each page. The whole process took a couple months and cost about five hundred dollars.

While the initial work of designing and writing the Web site copy was exhausting, it paid off later, when I began scheduling events. The Press Kit section—with downloadable author and book-jacket photos, catalogue copy, bio, and blurbs—became particularly useful when I was on the road. I was also able to post the most recent reviews of Last Call, as well as dates for upcoming readings, media interviews, and workshops.

 Setting up events for the tour was a challenge. I didn’t want to preclude an event because it would not pay; however, I gave higher priority to those events that offered at least some remuneration—a small fee, a place to stay, or access to a larger audience of potential readers. Because I’ve been a college teacher for many years and have co-coordinated a regional reading series in Arizona, I felt most comfortable arranging events at colleges and universities. These gigs usually involved a reading and a Q&A session, a short craft talk, or guest visits to creative writing or literature courses. Series coordinators typically generated publicity through student or local newspaper articles, posters, and Web site notices.

The readings often attracted good-size, attentive audiences because faculty members encouraged their classes to attend. I had the opportunity to answer a variety of questions, ranging from the typical, prying autobiographical inquiries (“Did you really drive your car into a lake?”) to complex questions about form, technique, and process. I sold quite a few books, and because academic institutions actually believe that such readings are culturally enriching, I was often given a modest honorarium or funds to help defray travel costs. I found that smaller colleges and universities are more receptive to emerging writers like me visiting campus, especially if the book or author has a regional connection.

I knew from experience that one of the best ways to develop an audience was to offer something beyond my own writing, to become part of an extended community of writers and readers. So I spent the majority of my time on tour not just reading but teaching in many grade school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate classes. Some of my favorite gigs—almost all of which I stumbled upon by accident—took place in public and private middle schools and high schools. I expected these events to be difficult and draining, but the students were generally funny and focused. They didn’t often buy books, but, months later, I continue to get charming e-mails from them. I plan to be writing for a long time, so I figure I’m already building my future audience.

While I read or did signings at numerous independent and chain bookstores, I discovered that most cities also have alternative venues. Among the best of these are literary centers that sponsor readings as well as special workshops that writers can teach. For example, Gemini Ink in San Antonio invited me to give a reading as part of their monthly author series and teach a multiday workshop for community members. Libraries, too, were great resources and particularly receptive to readings and workshops. The librarian in the small town where I was born set up a full day of events at the local high school and then arranged a nice evening reading and reception at the community college extension center. I was also fortunate enough to read at the Texas Book Festival as a featured author. I queried the festival coordinator, stressing my regional connections, and was invited to participate.

Of course, it was crucial to find out what an event coordinator wanted—a reading, a Q&A, an informal talk, a craft discussion—and how much time I would have. By the end of the tour, I had about ten different kinds of presentations I could give—readings of complete stories, readings of excerpts, a discussion of the stories behind the stories, a tour through the book, or more formal analyses of craft, using short excerpts as illustrations. I’ve been to enough readings over the years to know that they can be deadly—actually working against a writer, making an audience not want to buy the book. So I thought of the reading as a kind of performance: an introduction to the book and to me. Above all, I tried to remember that the audience was there to hear a good story, not to watch me fidget self-consciously or read in a monotone. I wanted each event to provide something the audience member couldn’t get from simply buying and reading my book.

While my publisher devoted most of its modest budget to print ads, a postcard campaign, and generating reviews (all great things), they also cosponsored, with Prairie Schooner, a nice event at the University of Nebraska, for which they paid my expenses. And my press was wonderful about providing me with extra books to use for promotional activities. Since practically every event coordinator or media contact needed a copy of the book, this additional support was crucial. When I asked for more postcards and publicity materials, they printed them for me. Perhaps most importantly, my publisher let me sell my books. While my preference at every stage of the process was to have a bookstore purchase books and do the selling for me, that was not always feasible, especially since my itinerary often changed. When I scheduled a new event, I needed quick access to books to sell. Every few weeks, I would have my publisher ship a few more boxes to one of my future destinations.

All of this work ultimately paid off. By the time I arrived in Nebraska, six weeks into the book tour but a mere week and a half after the official publication date of the book, I had already sold approximately half of my print run. The modest honorariums, income from selling books, payment for various teaching gigs, the generosity of family and friends who housed and fed us, and the extra tax deductions transformed the tour from a potentially bankrupting endeavor into a financially successful enterprise. And I’d achieved the intangible goals I’d set for myself of building an audience and sharing the book with hundreds of new readers.

By late November, after eight weeks of touring—traveling a geographical loop that began in the Southwest, dipped down into the Gulf Coast bayou country, and extended as far east as Georgia and as far north as the plains of Kansas and Nebraska—I finally arrived in the Texas Panhandle. A few days before Thanksgiving, my uncle drove me from Amarillo down to Childress, where my grandmother has been a reporter and editor for the local newspaper for about thirty years, and where my mother recently moved. I had asked them to set up any events they wanted me to do in Childress. There was, of course, a big spread in my grandmother’s paper. And three events had been arranged: five classes at the local high school, a visit with the residents of an assisted-living center, and a talk at the medium-security prison. I thought, “Great, three captive audiences, none of which will be able to buy any books.”

By this point in the tour, I was exhausted and ready for it to be over. These would be the final events before heading home to Arizona for a return celebration and reading. Of the three events in Childress, I was most nervous about the prison visit, not only because it was a prison with all kinds of offenders, but also because my mother, grandmother, and uncle would all be attending. Although I have been teaching since I was twenty and giving readings for more than a decade, no one in my family had ever seen me do either.

Inside the prison, as we made our way through each level of security, my bladder grew weaker and weaker. There was a long wait when a security check didn’t clear, resulting in the threat of a lockdown. We passed a small room, and I could see about ten inmates through the thick glass window. I asked if that was the group attending my talk. “No,” the education coordinator calmly said. “That’s the anger-management class.”

Finally, we were led into the prison’s library. Tables had been moved and chairs set up. My mother, uncle, and grandmother sat in a row of chairs to the side, like a jury. I sat on a stool at the front of the room as sixty-five inmates wearing white jumpsuits entered—some very young, some middle-aged, some old and barely able to walk. Suddenly, I felt incredibly relaxed. These were just men, men who had made mistakes, probably terrible mistakes they grieved over—one of the central themes of my book. I told them about myself, and then I read a story about a con man who tries to buy Costa Rica. When I read a passage about the mother in the story, who makes her living selling bras, the men simultaneously swiveled their heads toward my mother, who, at almost sixty, is still a looker.

I told them about my family and the way they had inspired many of these stories, and then I read excerpts from a piece about an oil rigger who longs to reunite with his estranged wife. And then we talked and laughed about stories as gifts—gifts you give yourself and others—and about imagination and about the self-imposed exile of writers, the necessary silence that was, sometimes, not unlike prison.

Though I didn’t sell a single book and couldn’t even leave postcards (which were considered contraband), that was the best event of the entire journey. Without quite knowing how to articulate it, this was what I had wanted when I dreamed of a book tour and had worked so hard to prepare for it: to be in a room with people—myself and my family included—who needed stories to make sense of, and to help transform, their lives.

K.L. Cook is the author of the short story collection Last Call. His novel, The Girl from Charnelle, will be published by William Morrow in April 2006. He teaches creative writing and literature at Prescott College and in Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program.

Tyson

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Article on touring by SFWP winner Ken Cook
« Reply #1 on: October 22, 2005, 03:32:32 PM »
What a cool essay.

Offline jreale

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Article on touring by SFWP winner Ken Cook
« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2005, 07:11:16 PM »
That's one seriously hard-working author. He deserves monumental success.
Insert witty phrase, inspirational quote, or self-promotional blurb here.