The bipolar weather of spring mirrors the mood swings of a book tour. Spring welcomes you with a day of warmth and gentle breezes, refreshing the soul and inspiring optimism, then the winds turn to the north and bitter and embittering winds bitch slap you back to reality.
Book tours work the same way. One day you feel on top of the world, basking in the affections of an enthusiastic audience ready to drop some cash on books, then the next day you pull into Ottumwa, Iowa and your audience is Sarah—and only Sarah—who was nevertheless sweet enough to sit patiently through a very private showing of the Great River Road slideshow and still buy a book at the end.
Ottumwa is an appropriate place for a book tour bitch slap. The city has good bones, but many of them are broken. Downtown is a wretched scene of rotting storefronts mixed with taverns, AA meeting halls, and evangelical churches—havens for the falling and the fallen. I can usually count on a coffeeshop or brewpub to pick up my spirits, but even those were pitiful in Ottumwa. The city’s one brewpub only had one beer (of their own brewing) on tap, a forgettable raspberry wheat that was not worth the walk from my hotel. The house brew at the local coffeeshop didn’t rise to the quality of the sludge that sits on a hot burner all day at small-town gas stations.
For unknown authors, a book tour is a full frontal assault on one’s dignity, unless you’ve already sacrificed yours with a comb-over, by buying any Rolling Stones album made after 1972, or believing that tax cuts for the rich somehow make your life better. Whether in Ottumwa or Davenport or Chicago or any other place where folks are inclined to ignore authors, my routine is the same. I set up my equipment and find a place to sit where I can pretend I’m indifferent to the number of people arriving. If my host is around, I’ll make nervous small talk, while I try not to watch the door.
The ten minutes before the talk is about to begin are the most anxiety-producing. Rarely does anyone show up that early, so I’m usually staring at rows of empty seats, questioning the sanity of the whole enterprise. It’s small comfort to know that I’ve never had an event that failed to attract anyone. Ottumwa was very close to a shutout, and my first event in La Crosse failed to draw anyone except the three friends I invited. For the 19 events where I have put on my slideshow, the average attendance has been 11. (I’m a geek; I keep a record of attendance and book sales for each event.) I’m never going to get on The Daily Show at this pace.
As folks trickle in, my nerves calm, and I feel a serenity that I imagine one feels after surrendering to death. The show begins; I run through my talk, get some laughs, and people seem to be enjoying themselves. For a few moments, I feel confident and believe in what I’m doing, and I let myself feel the love. Then folks leave, I pack my equipment, and I drive back to wherever I’m staying for the night and let the doubts creep back in as I get ready to do it all over again the next day.
Bad Decision of the Day: Putting my cash into a separate container for safe keeping. I lost it, and one-quarter of my sales from this week’s book tour, probably in Ottumwa. On second thought, the bad decision should be “going to Ottumwa.”
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011