The beloved author promoted my book on his tour. It was amazing for my career -- and horrible for my finances
It’s 6:15 in Asheville, N.C., a soupy April evening in the palm of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I am by-God sweating. There’s a single pane of unbudging glass in the room and an a/c unit that roars like a Peterbilt and fails to cool the air by even one degree, so I stand at the sink station applying a damp washcloth to my skin, keeping an eye on the clock and attempting to round up certain qualities of mind and body — calmness, confidence, modesty, dryness — until there’s nothing else to do: I’ve got to get dressed and go meet David Sedaris.
The mega-selling author is on his spring 2010 U.S. book tour, hitting 34 cities in about as many days, and it’s almost impossible to imagine him having the time along the way — never mind taking it — to meet me, an unknown author of a slender new volume of stories published by a slender university press, yet that is exactly what he is scheduled to do, in exactly 15 minutes, at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, a pastoral stone monster located a mere 7.5 miles, as the GPS device flies, from my Motel 6.
I am meeting David Sedaris in Asheville, N.C., because he is, it turns out, a fan.
A really big fan.
I know how this looks. We’ve seen this scenario before and some of us have even dreamed of it: Obscure and Struggling Author Plucked from Obscurity by Famous and Influential Personage …
I am surely obscure and I surely struggle (when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them I am a carpenter; then I squirm a bit, curse myself for my squirming and admit that I’m a writer, too), and Sedaris is surely a famous and influential personage — but is that what this is? One of those crazy, struggling artist’s dreams come true?
Just a few months ago, I was minding my own business in the Rocky Mountains, pounding nails and trying to write my novel, when a friend called to ask if I’d caught the mention in the New Yorker.
Sorry, the what in the what — ?
Two clicks of the laptop and there it was, just under the magazine’s iconic masthead, in a section called the Book Bench:
This year, Sedaris wrote, I came across several short-story collections I exceptionally love … My four favorite collections, arranged alphabetically were,
“Irish Girl,” by Tim Johnston
“Too Much Happiness,” by Alice Munro
“Do not Deny Me” by Jean Thompson
“Everything Ravaged Everything Burned,” by Wells Tower
That was in December. My collection, “Irish Girl,” which had won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, had been published the month before by the University of North Texas Press and was flying well under the radar of significant notice. To see it mentioned now in these pages, in such company, by David Sedaris, was like getting struck by a sledgehammer of disbelief. Short of the magic wand of Oprah, or one of the major literary awards, or a kindly Times Book Review front-pager, it was hard to imagine a larger blow of good luck for the struggling unknown writer.
A few weeks later, the larger blow landed: “Incredibly good news!” wrote my editor in Texas. For each of his tours, it turns out, Sedaris selects one new book of fiction to hold up to his audiences, telling them: “This is a terrific book, you should buy this book, and you should buy it out in the lobby where piles of it will be waiting.” And now he’d picked “Irish Girl.”
My editor was ecstatic, my agent was thrilled, and I began to believe in guardian angels. None of us could have guessed at that point that, when the dust would settle, when the year would come more or less to rest, this incredible good fortune would end up being the worst thing that ever happened to me, financially.
In the moment, the Sedaris news was a call to arms. For if someone like David Sedaris was going to go to such extraordinary lengths to help “Irish Girl,” the least I could do was do everything I could to help it, too. Which meant it was time to take a breath, shake off the heebie-jeebies and throw myself into the waters of self-promotion.
Luckily, “Irish Girl” came out at a time when authors were expected to do nothing less — a new, check-me-out era in which self-promotion had become far easier, and far more easily countenanced, than ever before, so that I had no trouble devoting most of my non-hammer-swinging hours to setting up Facebook pages, building Web and blog sites, and learning Photoshop. With the help of my wonderful and surely underpaid publicist at the press, I had managed to book two author’s events on my native soil of Iowa, yet other booksellers across the land remained chilly, not only about hosting me for events, but also about stocking “Irish Girl.” And one thing every unknown author knows, or quickly learns, these one-click-acquiring, gadget-happy times notwithstanding, is that bookstores — the actual brick and mortar kind — still fuel the lives of books, through the community of book lovers who run them, browse their aisles and participate in the word-of-mouth campaigns that can make all the difference.
As one after another of America’s bookstores failed to host me, I began to resign myself once more to the fact that, after all, my little book’s moment in the sun would be just what I’d always expected it to be: quiet, orderly and brief.
And then the New Yorker mention came. And everything changed.
Several days after receiving the news that Sedaris would be recommending my book on his spring U.S. book tour, I came out of a trance of mindless grinning into the fateful brainstorm for which all my dabbling in the dark arts of self-promotion had prepared me: that I must drop my hammer, hop in my truck, and follow this man around America.
(Actually, slowing down the film, I see now how this realization was preceded by the realization that Sedaris, who spends most of his time in London and Paris, would soon be in the United States, in 34 designated cities on 34 designated dates, and here was my best chance to thank the man in person. Which led to the realization that if I was going to travel to some distant city to introduce myself to Sedaris, perhaps it would take some of the sting out of the cost of doing so if I could arrange a book event of my own in that same city. [Would booksellers formerly immune to my advances change their tunes, now that Sedaris would be in town singing my book's praises?] And then, hold on a second — if one bookseller said yes, why not two booksellers? Thus went my unstoppable mind, steamrolling right over the entire canon of book tour horror stories, wherein bright-eyed authors tote trunk loads of books cross-country only to give readings to the bookstore cat. Until you have done one, the allure of the book tour is powerful, and this was my chance to have mine.)
I located the Sedaris schedule online and fired off emails to a dozen independent bookstores along the route, and, to my amazement, a few quickly replied, “Yes, of course! We’re handling the books for his event, so we’d love to have you!” In a matter of days, I managed to cobble together a home-styled tour that would land me in 20 American cities, lagging progressively behind Sedaris like a lengthening shadow because, after all, he was in jets and I was in a Chevy. (Privately, I would call it the Shadow Tour, but when Team Sedaris got wind of it they were understandably concerned about a Stalker Tour, imagining the wild-eyed unknown writer crashing their author’s events, shouldering his way onto the podium, drinking from Sedaris’ water bottle. No, no, we assured them, the wild-eyed unknown writer would be arriving after Sedaris had come and gone, holding his bookstore events in the author’s wake. Sedaris would be safe at all times!)
I learned many things on the Shadow Tour that spring. For one thing, you should not schedule events in cities undergoing disasters (biblical flooding in Nashville; a gushing oil pipe off the coast of New Orleans). For another, there is no pleasure like the pleasure of checking into your Motel 6 after a hard day’s book touring, opening your laptop, and clicking on the Sedaris Effect icon you’ve created, which takes you directly to your book’s page on Amazon.com, where the effect of the Sedaris recommendation is entirely trackable: On April 5, the day before he began his 34-city tour, the Amazon.com sales rank for “Irish Girl” was No. 600,542. This means that, on that day — or rather, at that hour of that day, for the numbers adjust hourly — 600, 541 Amazon titles were selling at a brisker rate than “Irish Girl.” The night of Sedaris’ first tour date in Wilmington, Del., “Irish Girl” dropped (meaning soared) to No. 61, 382 — many in the audience choosing not to buy their copies at the event, apparently, but waiting for the comfort of home and Amazon. By the next morning, “Irish Girl” had drop-soared to No. 20, 459, and by the time I arrive in Asheville on April 16, it is holding steady below No. 4,000, where it will remain for the duration of Sedaris’ tour, reaching its lowest (meaning highest) sales rank of No. 1,467 on May 1, 2010. It’s a wonderful time to be a neurotic author.
Sedaris’ effect on my own tour is no less obvious. In Asheville, the day after he recommends my book to thousands, I will stand before the crowd at Malaprop’s Bookstore and ask, “How many of you saw Sedaris last night?” Nearly all 20 will raise a hand. Well, wonderful. Never mind dark thoughts of how few would have come otherwise — the Shadow Tour works!
Sort of. In other bookstores across the land, one or two people will show, 10 people will show, but as I fall increasingly behind Sedaris, fewer of those who do come will have come because of his recommendation. By the time I reach Seattle, my final venue, it will have been two weeks since Sedaris was in town, yet the basement of Eliott Bay Books will be packed, and when I ask how many of them saw Sedaris, only a few hands will rise. And my heart will soar like a plunging Amazon.com ranking.
A year later, it’s best not to reckon the Shadow Tour according to book sales nor any other economic yardstick. Sedaris and I did all we could to entice the book-buying public, yet, as of this sentence, “Irish Girl’s” Amazon ranking is almost exactly where it was before he began his tour, while, over at the University press, where “Irish Girl” is the No. 1 bestseller, my one-year royalties check will not put a dent in the thousands of dollars in gasoline, motel rooms, Subway sandwiches, credit card debt, Starbucks and lost income my book tour has cost me. Nor repair the dents I put in the Chevy when, somewhere in Kansas, deciding at the last second that I must have an Arby’s Jamocha shake, I took an off-ramp in the rain and found my truck beheading a traffic sign of some kind (Slow for ramp?) while I fought to keep it from rolling and spewing copies of “Irish Girl” all over the road.
The true numbers, the numbers that return to me every month in the form of bank statements, are empirical and ridiculous. So I think instead of the people I met in the bookstores of America — not networkers, not tweeters, not the friended, but live human beings, book lovers, honest-to-God readers, a living audience.
After his readings, Sedaris will sit for hours, as long as his fans want to wait in line, to meet them, chat with them, sign their books (actually, he’s more likely to draw a funny little picture), and they are thrilled. But he sits there for so long, and so happily, I think, because these people remind him of something that all the sales ranks and royalties do not: that he writes for readers, and he has written for these ones well.
At dinner, at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, after signing a shameless number of books for me, and after taking the “Irish Girl” bookmark I’ve brought him, which is also a quick-glance guide to my tour dates (“Can I have one of these?” he asks, then takes them all), Sedaris leans in and asks, in all seriousness, “How should we do this tonight at the auditorium? Do you want to come up on stage and read from your book?”
When he asks this I’ve got a cold shrimp in my teeth, trying to extract the last, tiny, why-bother bite from the damn shell. I think of everything I’ve put into this tour, everything I’ve done in the last few months to make the most of this man’s incredible generosity, and I know that this is one offer I cannot accept — not only because I think he’s just being polite, but also because the scene looks too much like the worst nightmares of Team Sedaris. This is the Shadow Tour, I remind myself, not the Stalker Tour! and I give a final tug on the shrimp, and my fingers slip from the tail fin, and a droplet of shrimp juice goes flying.
I watch it go, sailing Sedaris-ward in slow motion, thinking: Wait, are you kidding me? Don’t be ridiculous, somebody stop it, wow, look at it go, oh, boy.
Sedaris blinks. He rubs at his eye and says, “So, that’s a no, then?”
He is a funny, funny man. Also warm, and genuine, and humble, and gracious, and endlessly surprising. Two hours later, sitting a few rows from the stage next to his sister Lisa, I watch in a state of gleeful horror as he holds up a copy of “Irish Girl” to the packed auditorium and not only recommends it for a full five minutes, but opens it up (there’s my bookmark!) and reads from it. (Yes, I secretly capture this. Yes, it’s on YouTube. And yes, sometimes, after a day of hitting things with a hammer, I will watch it myself — reminding myself that I really did go on the Shadow Tour, that I met David Sedaris, met all those great booksellers and their staffs, met all those great readers. That I looked up from my story in city after city and saw human faces looking worried, or sad, or happy for my character. I watch the Sedaris clip and I thank any number of guardian angels for putting me on the road, for keeping me on it when my truck wanted to roll off into God knows where, and for the chance I will one day have, I hope, to help some struggling writer as Sedaris has helped me.)
Once in a lifetime sounds dramatic, but it’s accurate. This spring, when Sedaris goes on tour again, he will be taking someone else’s book with him, holding it up to his audiences and telling them, “This is a terrific book, you should buy this book, and you should buy it out in the lobby where piles of it will be waiting.”
If it happens to be your book, don’t even try to put a price on that.
And don’t order the shrimp.
A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Tim Johnston is the author of the story collection "Irish Girl" and the novel "Never So Green." He is the recipient of the 2011-2012 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. More Tim Johnston.
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