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.
Add to that total the readings and book-signings at other library systems, colleges, and booksellers, and the number of visits to the area in a given year by authors who are known outside Maryland probably doesn't exceed 250.
That means that if the remaining 692,910 authors of new titles in 2012 want to sell any books at all, they have to take matters into their own hands.
That's just what Alvarez did this winter while he was promoting his newest offering, "Tales from the Holy Land." His journey through the South was just the most recent of the estimated dozen cross-country tours he's taken since the late 1990s.
"I had slept in my truck in the parking lot of an IHOP outside of Memphis," Alvarez recalls. "I got up at 5:30 to use the men's room. There's one other guy in there, and he says, 'How are you, man?' This is very strange, because men do not talk to one another in the men's room."
The inebriated young man told Alvarez he was a Mississippi farmer who'd come to Memphis to party for the weekend. When he learned that Alvarez was on tour, he insisted on coming out to his truck to see the book.
"In the parking lot, there was a taxi waiting for him and his other drunken friends," Alvarez says. "The kid gave me $10 for a book. That was my lunch money for the day."
And that's just fine by Alvarez, who loves what he describes as his "back-of-the-truck tours" because they allow him to see new places, meet new people, get his books into the hands of readers — and gather fodder for a future essay or story.
He scoffs at the notion that declaiming to an empty room can be hard on his ego.
"Anybody who knows Rafael Alvarez knows that I cannot be humiliated," he says. "That's because I'm especially fond of myself."
More seriously, he adds: "This is my shot. I didn't come out of the box and become an overnight sensation. Every success that I've had has been incremental."
Gidwitz also says he enjoys book tours, even when appearances occasionally take on a surreal quality — whether they have been organized by him or his publisher. For instance, he did a publisher-sponsored event at the Brooklyn Public Library for a fourth-grade class.
"One boy sitting in the second row looked so mean and angry," Gidwitz recalls. "He was glaring at me as though I had done something unforgivable."
The author was unnerved but began his presentation.
"Halfway through, this kid leaned forward and vomited over the shoulder of the girl sitting in front of him," Gidwitz says. "I leapt out of the way as it flew all over the stage. My shoes were barely spared."
"I'm standing on a stage covered with vomit," Gidwitz says, "and the teachers and the librarian are saying, 'Don't stop. Just keep going.'
"So I start talking. While I'm doing my presentation, a janitor pulls over a giant trash can and starts mopping up the stage."
Later, Gidwitz learned the boy was his biggest fan in the entire fourth grade. His parents had wanted him to stay home from school that day, but the boy was determined to meet his hero.
"What I thought was him scowling at me was him just trying not to throw up all over me," Gidwitz says. "I gave him a fist bump and told him he was a brave kid."
He's not the only author to discover that book tours offer a plethora of opportunities for behaving with grace under pressure — whether or not the writer had hoped to acquire that particular virtue.
The Baltimore writer and former Sun reporter Sujata Massey was in Honolulu in 2008 promoting "Shimura Trouble," from her mystery series starring the Japanese-American sleuth Rei Shimura. But the promoter mixed up Massey's schedule and told the author to show up at the bookstore 30 minutes after the advertised start time.
"When I arrived, nobody was there," Massey recalls. She waited around, shrinking internally for each minute that passed without a reader.
"Nobody on the staff ever told me, 'Oh, we think you're half an hour late.' "
Massey reminded herself that there are plenty of things to do in Hawaii on a beautiful afternoon. Eventually, she shook off her disappointment and left the bookstore to do some of them.
When Massey returned to her hotel room that night, she found an irate email from a reader named Liz Tajima, who had come to the bookstore at the correct time and assumed that Massey was a no-show.
"Liz told me how upset my readers were that I wasn't there," Massey says. "As an apology, I took her out to lunch at a great restaurant in Honolulu. It turned out to be a location in the book I was working on at the time.
"That lunch also began what turned out to be a lasting friendship. Liz and I stay in touch to this day."
If you go
Rafael Alvarez will read from his newest book, "Tales from the Holy Land," at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Germano's Piattini, 300 S. High St. He will be accompanied by guitarist Michael Joseph Harris. Tickets cost $11.40. Call 410-752-4515 or go to germanospiattini.com