Publishing budgets aren’t what they used to be. One author’s tale of what it took to get on the road and promote a book in 2018.
If you want to have a little devious fun with an author whose book is about to debut, ask them if they’re being sent on tour.
Unless they’re a brand name, television personality, or established bestseller, the question will likely cause an involuntary progression of emotions, not unlike Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, to dance across their face.
The publisher-supported book tour is largely a thing of the past, where it resides with such fondly remembered, ink-stained antiquities as that bar cart that fueled magazine writers as they raced toward’s each week’s closing, the three-martini lunch, and the open-ended expense account.
Of course, it’s a free country, and an author can still go on tour, if they want to badly enough. Doing so requires swallowing one’s pride, shelving any fantasies of a gift-wrapped victory lap, getting over some version of the self-pitying thought, “Didn’t I already do my job when I wrote the book?” and bracing yourself for what amounts to an all-consuming, short-term second job. But, as they say of aging, it’s better than the alternative.
This isn’t the dream. No author grows up fantasizing about being their own publicist, travel coordinator, social media expert, and assistant. But as publishing budgets strain to the breaking point, and in-house publicists drown in a sea of titles to hawk, most books receive precious little marketing time and money. (A mere six months after my book came out, I was so far back in the in-house rep’s rearview mirror that I discovered they’d left for a new gig via an auto-reply email.)
The simple choice is: Accept that your publisher’s promotional push will be–to put it mildly–limited, or take it upon yourself to generate media coverage and events. (The New Yorker offered its take on this emerging reality about a decade ago in a piece many writers will remember titled “Our Marketing Plan.”)
On past projects, I’ve chosen the former path, moving on to the next paid gig and showing up for what few interviews and events a given publisher had arranged. But because I spent more time and effort writing my recent Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll–a history of the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s–than any prior book, this time I was prepared to invest more than I ever had to supplement my publisher’s efforts: They, of course, circulated review copies of the book. They also arranged a speaking gig at the 92nd Street Y in New York City (Esquire‘s Jeff Gordinier graciously agreed to interview me) and at Live Talks LA (Ruth Reichl, a “character” in the book and a personal hero, honored me by agreeing to appear “in conversation with” me there). Other than that, and a few targeted ads and social-media posts, I was on my own.
The first thing I did from my command center in Hastings-on-Hudson was reach out to people I knew could be counted on for help: Podcast hosts Linda Pelaccio, Greg Bresnitz, and Mike Edison were happy to book me, as was buddy Laryl Garcia, who produces my radio role model, Good Food’s Evan Kleiman. As a gift to myself, I reached out to Lisa Mantineo, an old acquaintance who produces Sandra Bernhard’s SiriusXM show Sandyland; I grew up in the 1980s idolizing Sandra and was thrilled that my live appearance with her kicked off my campaign the day before publication.
As the publishing date approached, things unexpectedly kicked into high gear as a flurry of West Coast invitations rolled in: The Culinary Historians of Southern California asked me to speak at their monthly gathering in Los Angeles in mid April; the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books invited me to be part of a panel a week later; Now Serving, a wonderful culinary shop (they mostly sell books) in LA’s Chinatown asked me if I’d like to speak there. Jodi Liano, founder of San Francisco Cooking School, who’d been after me to appear there for years, thought this was finally the time to make it happen; a woman I interviewed for my project connected me with Diesel Books in Brentwood, but we couldn’t find a date that worked, so their event organizer asked if my “book tour” would take me to Northern California and their (since shuttered) Larkspur store. Jim Dodge, former pastry chef of the Stanford Court, also interviewed for the book, offered to coordinate some lunchtime signings in the San Francisco area at the corporate accounts of Bon Appetit Management Company, for which he runs special culinary programs. I also had a standing invitation to speak at Omnivore Books, where I got to know owner Celia Sack a little during research trips to the Bay Area.
There was just one problem: There was no travel budget to send me back to California a month after the Live Talks LA event, not even for airfare, and not even with all those additional opportunities thrown in. And so, I was set to pass on all of that, when salvation appeared to me in the personage of Anne McBride, a relatively new pal and one of the great connectors in the industry. Among many other undertakings, Anne organizes the Worlds of Flavor conference for the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, and invited me to be a moderator and panelist, and to participate in a group book signing. The gig came with airfare and car rental stipends, and an honorarium and–amazingly–took place the week between the Culinary Historians of Southern California date and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
I decided to commit to the conference and flip the honorarium to pay for the additional travel, and book all those other gigs while I was out West. Friends offered me guest rooms, and after some prodding from my agent, the publisher ponied up for car fare and meals during the two “gap” days I couldn’t get financed. I booked my travel in and out of LAX so I could speak to the Culinary Historians my first Saturday on the West Coast, fly to San Francisco for three days of events, drive up to Napa for the conference, and then fly back to LA for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Just to really test my endurance, I booked a redeye home at the end of my last night so my wife Caitlin and I could spend a Sunday together before jumping into the work week.
To make the most of things, I took a gamble and hired a PR company for one month, but not just any month: The four weeks included a visit to my hometown of Miami (chef Norman Van Aken had offered me two days of his time to promote the book and I was able to stay with my brother and sister in-law and borrow one of their cars), New York, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Los Angeles, and Northern California. Armed with all of that, my short-term reps lined up interviews and articles with NPR Miami, NPR Los Angeles, Robb Report, The Village Voice, Food Republic, and others. It was money well spent.
At some point, it occurred to me I was lucky to have the professional experience I did. In my 20s, I was the assistant to a film producer, and even produced a short film of my own. After that I was a publicist, and orchestrated a fair number of events as part of that job. (True story: My wife and I planned our own wedding, in about an hour.)
Two great things came of that experience: The first is that I didn’t become a full-time writer until I was almost 30, so am forever grateful just to be able to make my living this way. The second is that I’m organized and a good communicator, a list-maker and proactive problem solver; for example, I always check a week out to be sure books have been ordered and/or arrived for an event; you would be amazed how often this vital piece falls through the cracks. I can only imagine how tough it must be for writers without similar experience to jump into an undertaking like this.
Daniel Boulud put an incredible wind in the book’s sails when he took it upon himself to throw me a publication party at Bar Pleiades at Cafe Boulud. (Those of you in the industry will not be surprised by this; Daniel’s generosity is legendary.) What made it extra-special was his vision: a late-night chefs’ party with food and drink contributed by colleagues. A quintet of chef-friends came through, as did several wine, liquor, and water sponsors, and Daniel’s friend Dean Stanton, whom I barely know, even created a playlist for the occasion. I’ve always found it menschy when books are given away at book parties, so I took advantage of my substantial author discount and splurged on 150, piling them up near the entrance and signing them all night. (In a pinch-me moment, Gael Greene–whose writing I’ve considered a standard-setter my entire adult life and who has become a friend–wrote-up the party on her website.)
Less than eight hours after hugging Daniel goodnight, I was airborne to Los Angeles and that Live Talks LA appearance. Back in New York City a few days later, things started to move quickly: The 92nd Street Y talk with Jeff; an appearance at the Philly Chef Conference; a book dinner generously thrown by Dan Kluger at Loring Place; a Chanterelle-restaurant-themed dinner at the Deer Mountain Inn upstate, where chef Ryan Tate collaborated with David Waltuck; a Cocktails and Conversation mingle at The Library of Distilled Spirits; a chefs panel discussion at the Institute of Culinary Education; and another at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. (Most Creative Event honors go to Paul Zweben, an old friend and former chef who with wife Carolyn now honchos a team at Douglas Elliman; he proposed a meet-the-author open house at one of his listings–a loft in Tribeca–and enlisted his old boss, chef David Burke, to provide food and make remarks with us.)
(If it sounds like an incredible number of people were incredibly kind to me, they were. Around Thanksgiving I sent a note of gratitude to everybody who helped me promote the book in one way or another; it went to more than 100 people, which still floors me.)
In the midst of all that, I returned to California for a week and a half, with multiple events and/or travel on most days: One particularly crazy Tuesday up North, I did a lunchtime signing at SAP, hopped into a rental car and drove up to Larkspur for a bookstore talk and signing with Manresa’s David Kinch, then continued on to Napa for the Worlds of Flavor conference; no margarita has ever tasted as good as the one I had at The Charter Oak on arrival that evening.
On my second Saturday, I was at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, in the author green room and commissary, when Edward Lee, whose Buttermilk Graffiti released just a few weeks after my book, introduced himself. “Man, your book is everywhere,” he said. I had to laugh. Edward, who’s been featured on Mind of a Chef, was having a much different experience than I was. He was in the midst of a multi-city tour, organized and financed by his publisher, with all the support that implies. Did that upset me? Honestly, it didn’t: I was on the last of ten self-orchestrated days on the road, and it had somehow all gone off without a hitch. Sure, I’d rather everything had been provided for me, but I made a lot of memories, and new friends, and done everything humanly possible to take my book’s fate into my own hands; the feeling of accomplishment was, and remains, immense.
The plan was to wrap it up in the spring, but after a summer off the road, another round of invitations rolled in for the fall: A guest lecture at Boston University; a chefs of the 1980s dinner at the Luxor in Las Vegas; speaking on an author panel at the Miami Book Fair; a talk at Read It and Eat bookstore in Chicago. With the exception of Chicago, all of those events covered all or part of my travel, and I was able to fill in using airline points, AmEx rewards, and the generosity of friends with guest rooms. There are other events in the offing for 2019, and as long as I can get my expenses provided or covered, I’ll continue to gratefully show up.
Writing is commonly understood to be an individual pursuit, but if you scan the acknowledgments in most books, you’ll see a different story. Writers require all kinds of help to get their work done, and–increasingly–to promote that work once published. Personally, I think it’s well worth the effort and enormously satisfying.
Happy New Year, everybody. Thanks for reading, and see you back in this space in 2019.