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Dumps and Death Threats, Hecklers and Vindication: True Tales from Today’s DIY Book Tour

Sure, going on a book tour sounds glamorous. But not if, like many writers, you’re paying for it yourself, running the gauntlet of grotty hotel rooms and angry—or even worse—non-existent readers.

We writers love to complain. If we’re not complaining about rejections or small advances, we’re probably complaining about bad reviews, poor sales, a sloppy editor, a worthless agent, writer’s block, impotence, hair loss, hangover, Amazon and/or a partner who has grown tired of our complaining. But few things inspire more howling from writers than that post-publication Bataan death march known as the book tour.

Of course there are book tours and then there are book tours. For the brand-name author Jodi Picoult, Random House and Good Housekeeping will be hosting an event that, according to The Washington Post, will feature “a buffet with dinner and wine, a chocolate tasting, live music and dancing, manicures, a fashion preview curated by Talbots, a tote bag and a very early copy—signed, of course—of Picoult’s upcoming novel, Leaving Time.” The price: $95 per person.

And then there is my current book tour to promote my third novel, Motor City Burning. Seventeen years have passed since my second novel appeared—an eternity in the publishing world—and everything about the game has changed, especially the book tour. Few publishers pay for book tours today, let alone for lavish events like that one for Picoult’s new novel. Now, for the most part, it’s strictly DIY and PFIY. That is, do it yourself and pay for it yourself.

And so one recent evening I pulled into Athens, Ga., the 10th stop on my 15-city, self-engineered, all-drive, no-fly book tour. (Hey, I’m from Detroit.) Intent on saving money even though my generous publisher is helping defray costs, I checked into a motel with the promising name Budget Host, which would soon add new meaning to the word dump. The toilet in my room didn’t flush. The room smelled like a five-story whorehouse. The “free” WiFi had gone AWOL.

Obeying the large stenciled warning on the door of my nicotine-scented room—NON-SMOKING ROOM—I sat in my car to smoke a cigar and drink a few beers. As I sat there, a parade of scuzzy customers came and went from the room below mine—obviously a drug dealer’s base of operations.

As I surveyed the scene—the furtive junkies, the filthy carpets, the battered cars, the cracked pavements—I kept thinking of Martha’s opening line in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “What…a dump.”

The night before, during my reading at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, the audience included one of my literary heroes, Charles McNair. After the reading, McNair told me that he, too, had mounted a DIY book tour for his second novel, Pickett’s Charge, which was published in 2013, a whopping 19 years after his debut, Land O’ Goshen.

He regaled me with stories of driving all night with Cheetos littering his car’s floorboards, of sleeping on friends’ sofas, of bouncing to some 50 bookstores, book clubs, universities, libraries, foundations, museums, barrooms, and radio and TV studios. At a bookstore in Nashville, a customer who belonged to a local militia expressed his loud displeasure with McNair’s portrayal of a militia in his first novel.

When McNair asked mildly if the man wanted to defend his right to bear arms, the offended militiaman brandished a copy of McNair’s book and roared, “I don’t need a gun! I could kill you with this book!”

So in addition to being able to demoralize and exhaust you, the book tour can kill you. It nearly got Charles McNair, and a brutal schedule of public readings is said to have contributed to Charles Dickens’ death at the age of 58.

Yet there wasn’t a hint of self-pity in any of McNair’s tales. “Being able to sit on a stage and talk about your book—instead of sitting in an audience listening to somebody else talk about his book—it’s so profoundly different,” he said. “It’s exhilarating to have a book out and go places where you can wave it in the air, meet readers and other writers, spread the word. After almost 20 years, it was a thrill to have a book in print. At one reading I looked up and saw 200 people clapping. It’s an unbelievable dose of vindication after all those years.”

He likened today’s writer to an indie rock band—out there one the road, on your own, grinding away, trying to connect with an audience.

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“And it’s still going on,” he added. “I’m going to do a reading at the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton, the hometown of Alice Walker, in a few weeks. I’m never going to stop. What’s my option? I don’t have the luxury of stopping.”

The book tour of debut novelist Edan Lepucki, a colleague of mine at The Millions, falls somewhere between Picoult’s princess treatment on the one hand and my night at the Budget Host and McNair’s all-night drives on the other. Lepucki struck gold with her first book, California, when TV host Stephen Colbert vowed to turn it into a New York Times best-seller without the help of Amazon, which was having a well-publicized feud with the Hachette group, which publishes Lepucki and Colbert.

By the time California hit #3 on the Times list, Lepucki found herself in the middle of a grueling coast-to-coast, 32-city tour, arranged and paid for by her publisher.

“It’s been kind of glamorous, but also kind of disgusting and horrible,” Lepucki said from Washington, D.C., her 10th city in 11 days, where she ran out of clean underwear and had to make an awkward call to the hotel laundry.

As her flight from Milwaukee had descended toward the Washington airport that morning, Lepucki experienced a flash of panic: “I really didn’t know where I was going.”

She added, “It’s so different from the writing life and the parenting life. On the one hand it’s great—few authors get to go on a tour like this. It’s a great trip and a great way to see cities I’d never visited, like Nashville, Milwaukee, Athens, Austin. And it’s a nice antidote to reviews, a chance to meet readers and talk about the book. Plus I get to visit bookstores and restaurants, two of my favorite things to do.”

The turnouts have been largely enthusiastic, though she did get heckled in Milwaukee. “Some guy complained that I didn’t tell him anything about the book,” she said. And she got a valuable piece of wisdom from her escort in Chicago: “He told me the only thing worse than going on a book tour is not going on a book tour.”

As the Eastern phase of her tour drew to a close, Lepucki, like McNair, was tired but grateful. “As much as I want to complain, I have to pinch myself that this is happening,” she said. “The way my book exploded is kind of a miracle. I think it’s healthy to think this won’t happen again. I haven’t gone to any bookstores where nobody showed up. That’ll probably happen with my second book.”

As she got ready to fly home to California, Lepucki had just two things on her mind: “I miss my family and I keep fantasizing about my pillow.”

She’s been lucky. Not even literary giants are immune to the touring author’s worst nightmare: the sparse turnout. In 2004, 38 years after publishing her first novel, the great Cynthia Ozick went on tour for the first time to promote Heir to the Glimmering World. She was 76 years old.

Here’s how she explained her motivation for finally surrendering her book-tour virginity: “Enough of silence and exile! What, after all, have silence and exile ever done for Author but get her scorned as midlist, damned as a writer’s writer, omitted between ‘Oates’ and ‘Paley’ on Barnes & Noble’s shelves?…Does Author, with all her white hairs, mean to kowtow forever before the footstool of Art? Or languish eternally as No. 543,972 on Amazon?”

Ozick got a rude introduction to the modern world, including the moment she found herself sitting next to Ann Patchett on a TV set in a bath of hot white light. “Soon host materializes,” Ozick wrote, “perfect teeth, hair, skin, jawline, resembling movie star, or flight attendants when they were called stewardesses and were forbidden to reach middle age. Host explains she was too busy all weekend to get through more than 10 pages of Author’s book.”

And then there was the night Ozick battled a traffic jam and a downpour to reach the site of a reading: “Haggard, stressed, sorry, soaked, Author finally reaches destination: cozy Brooklyn bookstore. Preternaturally patient audience has not abandoned ship! Faithful readers waiting! Grateful author covertly counts house: one sleeping child, eight umbrellas, eight lone literati.”

Which is way better than zero literati.