Book Tourist

When you take part in the archaic but still kicking enterprise of making and selling the original laptops (by which I mean books), you hear certain questions again and again. What about blurbs, folks ask — are they paid for? No, never. And what’s the deal with royalties? What’s that? I ask back, since for most authors significant royalties are a thing of the past. But what a surprising number of readers want to know about is that mysterious phenomenon known as the book tour. As I set off on another of these odd peregrinations, the subject is much on my mind too.

Authors commonly grouse about the ordeal of the book tour — as if hanging out in treasure-houses, having folks you don’t even know make a fuss over you, and sharing your own stories with willing listeners who actually pay good money for your books and want you to sign them were somehow worse than wrangling a mouse all day in some bleak cubicle or fighting in some dope’s war. Methinks such scribblers doth protest too much.

Okay, maybe nobody throws their panties onstage, and any publicity trek is admittedly fatiguing and economically barren, except for the hypothetical casting of bread upon the waters. But in my experience book tours aren’t that bad, and can even be fun — at least the kind I do. Mind, as a solidly “mid-range author,” I have never been called on to make the twenty cities in twenty days, sandwiched between Charlie Rose and Oprah, kind of glitz-blitz. Maybe those marathons really are as awful as the gripers make out. Yet taking a new book out into the world is not only a rare chance to air and share that which you’ve worked damned hard to create, but also to interact as a social creature in the complex ecology of bookselling after many months of solitary labor. At a long-ago awards banquet, Barry Lopez spoke of “the community of readers and writers.” I’ve never forgotten that lovely term, and I would add librarians and booksellers to this charmed assemblage. The book tour is the ecotone where all these mutually dependent organisms commingle: the magic terrain where the habitats of scribbler, peddler, and reader meet.

It helps that I eschew the big chains. While few besides Idaho congressmen any longer characterize predators as evil, the tactics of the books-by-the-gross folks have truly been predatory in the old Red Riding Hood sense. Like introduced brown snakes on Guam or marine toads in Florida, these voracious gobblers have critically unbalanced the economics of bookselling. Diversity and stability are fostered by a plurality of publishers and shops, not by the monoculture of corporate mergers and empires. A friend who is not a mid-range author — a perennial bestseller, in fact — objected fiercely when her publisher’s sales contract obligated the house to “deliver” her for one signing with a certain big-box outlet. Only a spontaneous bout of “food poisoning” saved my friend’s no-chain principles. By sticking with the indies, writers get to call on shops that care about their books, not just the fees for displaying them that the chains demand.

One of my earliest tours was allotted a budget of $400. The publicist had in mind roughly three big-city bookstores and hotels. I asked if I could manage the money and the itinerary, and visited thirty-five independent Northwest bookshops between the Canadian and California borders. Many of these, at least those that have survived the onslaught of the chains, have become friendly habitats where I am always welcome and my books are kept in stock and hand-sold by merchants who know their customers’ tastes — a highly desirable and truly coadaptive state of affairs for any writer. For my current book, I will be calling on booksellers from the Skagit Flats to Sisters, from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to Ilwaco at the mouth of the Columbia River. It will be fun, like showing a new grandchild around the ‘hood. It will also be full of encounters with remarkable people who persist in the economically unrewarding yet deeply nourishing traffic of ideas, images, stories, and experience, printed on the transformed pulp of trees, bound between hard or soft covers for hungry readers — literary ecology at work. Literal ecology too, as it turns out, because the smaller shops tend to survive, even thrive, in rural locales beyond the market grasp of the biggies. I reach them on country roads, over passes and across prairies, via ferries and high bridges. One such constellation clusters around the shores of Puget Sound and hems of the Olympics, in view of scoters and orcas, madronas glowing red at sunrise against high firs, fog-swept headlands and sun-struck strands. I call this leg my Highlands and Islands Tourlet.

As for the carbon debt that touring entails, I travel by Amtrak whenever possible. I conducted my Chasing Monarchs tour almost entirely by rail, and shall never forget monarchs nectaring trackside on yellow tarweed as the Coast Starlight swept northward from Santa Barbara. Beyond the reach of rail, I drive my small, gas-sipping car from town to town. I like to think that the energy I use is somewhat offset by placing books directly in people’s hands. When readers come out and buy a book at a reading, that’s one less plastic-wrapped parcel ordered on the Internet and shipped long distances at the expense of the courageous shop struggling to serve its community.

Not that it’s all a blast. Each of us has our own Worst Tour Story, often involving mixed-up dates and empty halls. One rainy night in Salem, my audience consisted of two faithful friends, one casual patron, and a street person who came in to get warm and a free glass of wine. At any given time during the reading, at least one of them was sound asleep. Another time in Grants Pass a single person came, but she, the amiable bookseller, and I spent a memorable eve discussing my book and others. In the community of readers and writers, “wherever two or more are gathered” truly applies.

The book tour is also a Cinderella story: a brief ball before being cast back into the word scullery. On publication day for Where Bigfoot Walks, I even had a “handler” to usher me around Seattle to several interviews and the launch at the Elliott Bay Book Company. My literary escort entertained me with stories of which famous authors were nice and which ones were just pricks, as opposed to those who couldn’t keep their pricks in their pants. When I got to Denver, my thoughtful publicist, Mab, kindly put me in the Brown Palace — a grand, triangular sandstone hotel that as a child I’d dreamt of someday waking within. But when Avis wouldn’t accept my maxed-out Visa, I had to hire an ’82 Mercury lowrider with a sprung hood from Rent-a-Wreck on Colfax Avenue. When I rolled up beneath the canopy at the Brown Palace, the doorman said “Don’t even worry about a tip, Bud.” I had a full house at the Tattered Cover, readers as well as ringers — all my high school friends in town for our thirtieth reunion. Then Mab called to say I’d need to stay an extra night for a mandatory radio interview. “There will be three to four million listeners in thirty-six states,” she said.

“What’s the program?” I asked.

Mab paused for a moment, then said, “It’s called The Weirdo Hour. You’re on between two alien abductees.” When I asked if at least I could stay on at the Palace, she said, “Nope. Budget’s all gone. Pick any cut-rate motel on Colfax.” Since the interview was scheduled for three a.m., I skipped the motel and just napped in my pumpkin in a Safeway parking lot.

Yet here I go again, back out on the road, keeping the faith with all those who believe that books still matter, doing my bit to keep the culture alive in this anti-intellectual dark age. I’m looking forward to it: rambling springtime roads in the company of jackrabbits, readers, and quixotic booksellers; rolling through landscapes that my singer/songwriter friends Steve and Kristi Nebel refer to as the “backwoods of bohemia.” I’ve always loved the nickname for the publishing companies’ peripatetic reps: book traveler. As a scribbler, not a peddler, “book tourist” suits me just fine.

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat, the setting of his novel Magdalena Mountain. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, and worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, England. His twenty-five books include Chasing Monarchs, Wintergreen (which received a John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks, Sky Time in Gray’s River and The Tangled Bank, a collection of his columns from Orion. A Yale-trained ecologist and a Guggenheim Fellow, he still studies butterflies, is a full-time writer living in southwest Washington, and is one of Orion’s most frequent contributors.