Discover more from All Rise with Sally Helgesen
The Limelight Evolution
When you publish a new book, as I did two weeks ago, people routinely ask, “Will you be going on a book tour?”
They picture an 8, 15, or 26-city whirlwind where, accompanied by a handler, an author does a series of back-to-back publicity events: university club talks, local media interviews, and the all-essential bookstore signings. I did my fair share of these tours for many years. They were both grueling and fun, exhausting but also glamorous, a relief from the drudgery and loneliness of writing. A chance to feel like a rock star, even if only in one’s own mind.
This model began shifting in the late 1990s, as attendance at bookstore events declined. The national chains had so many of them, and did so little publicity in the community, that they lost any sense of occasion and people for the most part stopped coming. At the same time, local news outlets began to disappear, so no more confabs with reporters from The Milwaukee Journal or the San Jose Mercury-News in local newsrooms or cafes.
Then by the mid-2000s, internet journalism and especially social media created channels for visibility that relied on a mix of phone interviews and postings. This proved a far cheaper and more effective way to get the word out. It was also more sustainable. Whereas under the old system, your book had only a few weeks to make its mark, the author now had the ability to keep exploring new content areas that related to his or her book, which meant that books could catch fire months or even a year after publication.
Of course, the pandemic has made all of this obsolete, and though many of us have resumed our normal lives, platforms like Zoom, Streamyard and Riverside and forums such as LinkedIn Live have enabled authors to become media personalities- or get lost in the shuffle- without leaving our desks. Which is precisely where we’ve been chained while writing and editing.
So yes, I’m on a tour, but for the most part I haven’t gone anywhere. And except for some big conferences and client events, I have no plans to do so because that’s not how things work anymore. Only poets who give readings, and David Sedaris, whose storytelling and chatting-with-fans model is as distinctive as his sense of humor (I adore him) do the non-virtual tour thing anymore.
I do miss it, inefficient and hit-and-miss though it often was. At the same time, I believe the new system is much better for authors. Before, if an in-person event coincided with a major storm, you rarely got a do-over. And if your publication intersected with an all-consuming news story, you got buried.
On a snowy Sunday night in January 1998, I checked into the old Ambassador East in Chicago. My book tour for Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life, was scheduled to start that Monday morning. The phone in my room was blinking, so I pressed the message button and was told that I had 17 messages waiting. I feared some personal disaster, but no, it was simply that 17 of the 19 interviews I had scheduled for that week in Chicago had been canceled.
The name Monica Lewinsky had just surfaced, and no news outlet wanted to talk about anything else. Everyday Revolutionaries never recovered, as the scandal continued to unspool over the coming years.
I make this point only to show how much better things have become. As an author, you don’t have one chance to get out there, you have many. You have more control, more involvement, more possibilities to engage and amplify, more opportunities to stir up a conversation. You may not feel like a rockstar anymore but what’s not to like?
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