Book tours

The Tour de Farce. (David Cowles, For The Baltimore Sun / May 10, 2014)

When Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez was driving around the country peddling his books, he sold a collection of his newspaper articles and short stories to a drunken farmer in a men's room outside Memphis, Tenn. He's spent countless nights sleeping in his truck. He's traded a book for a meal.

A good day is when he ekes out just enough money to buy enough gas to get him to the next town — and that's assuming he doesn't run into an ice storm.

So what would Alvarez consider to be a not-so-good day on the road?

"I knew I was a real writer, doing the work, being out there and taking my shots, the day I read to 30 empty chairs in Nashville," recalls Alvarez, an author, screenwriter and journalist who still does some freelance reporting for The Baltimore Sun.

"There was just me, 30 empty chairs, and a bookstore clerk holding a plate of cookies. The clerk felt so bad for me she said, "Pick out any five books from the store that you want, and thanks for coming.' "

Behold the book tour, which is an ordeal for many writers. They stand alone on a stage quaking and exposed, prepared to offer the world the results of years of hard labor, perhaps only to find that their audience consists entirely of family members.

"It's essentially the nightmare of coming to school naked when everyone else is wearing clothes," says children's author Adam Gidwitz, who grew up in Baltimore and has written three books inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales. "But it's really happening, and you do it over and over again, supposedly voluntarily."

No wonder the experience has scarred some sensitive scribes for life. Almost every author of short stories or essays works out his or her demons by writing about a book tour gone bad.

Not even a writer as popular as David Sedaris, who has sold out the 2,400-seat Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on a Tuesday night, is exempt.

In the March 30, 2009, issue of The New Yorker magazine, Sedaris describes being escorted to an event at a Toronto Costco store to meet his readers.

"My appearance had been advertised by way of flier and was to last no longer than an hour," Sedaris writes.

He spent a lonely 60 minutes being gawked at by curious children sitting in shopping carts as they were swiftly wheeled past Sedaris' folding table by their mothers, who avoided eye contact with the author.

"Making it just that much more pathetic," Sedaris writes, "was the sign next to me, the big one reading, 'No Photos, Please.' "

Sedaris is one of the lucky ones. Unlike the vast majority of authors, he's backed by a major publishing house that pays traveling expenses and promotes appearances.

In 2012, the last year for which data has been tallied, there were 301,642 new books released by U.S. publishing houses — and an additional 391,768 original books that were self-published. Those data come courtesy of Bowker, a New Jersey-based company that issues ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) for each new title printed in this country.

Laura Dawson, Bowker's product manager for identifier services, thinks the explosion in self-published books, which in 2012 amounted to 56.5 percent of all books released, stems partly from the turmoil in the publishing industry and partly from the do-it-yourself ethic of self-sufficiency that's transforming arts genres from music to filmmaking.

"Self-publishing is very hard work, but it's also incredibly rewarding because it's all yours," Dawson says.

"You have made all the decisions about your book. It will sink or swim on its own merits. You don't have any excuses. You can't say, 'The publisher isn't supporting my book,' because the publisher is you."

Just a tiny fraction of authors are sent on national book tours each year, and that number seems to be shrinking. Dawson estimates that the total is less than 500.

In Baltimore, the Enoch Pratt Free Library sponsored 74 author readings in 2013. The Ivy Bookshop said it had hosted 75 authors with national followings in the store since February of last year.